Every month since 1893 Ripley has held its First Monday Sale and Trade Day. The town’s merchants originally designated the first Monday of every month a “Grand Bargain Day” in hopes of attracting rural trade to town by allowing cash-poor farmers to gather on the courthouse square to trade produce, livestock, tools, and labor among themselves. The Tippah County government helped promote the event by holding sheriff’s office auctions of stray livestock and other unclaimed property from the courthouse steps on the same day. First Monday quickly became very popular, with rural people from throughout the area traveling to Ripley every month. Early twentieth-century photographs show the town’s courthouse square packed full of people, mules, and horse-drawn wagons.
Because of congestion on the courthouse square, First Monday moved to another part of Ripley’s business district in the 1910s. In the early 1940s it moved again, this time because of sanitation and noise issues, to the intersection of Highways 15 and 4, about a quarter mile from downtown. A decade or so later, First Monday relocated to the Tippah County Fairgrounds, a mile to the south on Highway 15. It settled in its present location, on the east side of Highway 15 about two miles south of downtown Ripley at what was once a drive-in movie theater, in 1978.
The event now takes place on the weekend before the first Monday of every month. Hundreds of vendors rent booths on the fifty-acre grounds, offering a wide variety of merchandise, both new and used. Some of the vendors are professionals who come to First Monday as a regular part of their travels on the southern flea market circuit. Others are locals who come more for fun than profit and who generally sell only at First Monday. The town normally has a population of about five thousand, but thousands more flock to Ripley on First Monday weekends, eager to trade, buy, talk, and gawk. They come from throughout the South and often from much farther away. In July 1999 cars from Texas, Missouri, Ohio, Arizona, Indiana, and New York were noted in the parking lot along with vehicles from Mississippi and other southern states.
Items available for sale or trade include sunglasses, guinea fowl, videos, baby strollers, sweet potatoes, bumper stickers, shotguns, porch swings, farm implements, dolls, microwave ovens, dogs, T-shirts, artificial floral arrangements, homemade music CDs, and just about anything else. There are also many refreshment booths offering such American standards as hamburgers, corn dogs, sausage on a stick, French fries, popcorn, ice cream, and soft drinks—but no alcoholic beverages. Foods with a more southern flavor include pork rinds, boiled peanuts, fried pies, sweet tea, and fresh-squeezed lemonade.
As with any long-standing tradition, First Monday has changed over the years. At first, virtually all transactions were trades—“an old hound dog for an old single barrel shotgun or plow tools for a mule,” as one lifelong resident of Ripley put it—with little or no cash changing hands. Such trading now seems a thing of the past, though as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, some old-timers disdained cash sales for the more subtle art of barter. One Ripley native recalls trying to buy a shotgun at First Monday from a man who was willing to trade but would not consider taking cash. Another remembers an elderly farmer wandering the grounds, holding a large pipe wrench over his head, and shouting, “Who will trade me a billy goat for this pipe wrench? I need a good billy goat, who needs a good pipe wrench?” Today, even though price is sometimes open to negotiation, nearly all First Monday business is transacted in cash. Some people mourn this change, believing it has turned First Monday into just another flea market that has lost its connections to its rural past.
- David Wharton, Mississippi Folklife (Fall 1999)