SPARKS, Kan. - The Sparks Antiques and Collectibles Flea Market, in a town with a population of seven, intrigued me. Each of its twice-a-year, four-day events turns this blip on the map into a hustling, bustling center of 500 dealers and more than 75,000 customers.

You can't help but appreciate those uplifting big numbers in such a small place during these downtrodden times.

Kansas City-area employees from Hallmark and scrapbook supply company K & Company talked up the heaps of rusty, crusty stuff as inspirational. Interior designers, too, sang Sparks' praises, saying it's a primo source for the interesting and unexpected.

"It's definitely worth the day trip," says decorator Sara Noble of Noble Designs in Olathe, who searches for treasures for clients and her own home. Among Noble's best finds was a wooden bed frame with a headboard and footboard for $50.

Five times over the past decade, Noble has journeyed to Sparks, 24 miles north of Atchison, Kan., and 23 miles west of St. Joseph, Mo. The drive is a pastoral one of green and brown fields and valleys that even during achingly dry, hot days feels like an ocean of possibilities.

So this year the pirate in my soul decided it was high time to set sail in a sport-utility vehicle. Would Sparks mark the spot for buried treasure? I was willing to dig.

Brothers Gary and Tom Winters created the flea market in Sparks 30 years ago because the town was on the route to other antiques shows during the spring and on Labor Day weekend. It's 11 miles south of White Cloud, Kan., where native "Wolf River Bob" Breeze, who acted in Hollywood

Westerns, helped found a flea market.

The Winterses borrowed the idea of street performers from Silver Dollar City, the Branson amusement park, to turn the Sparks flea market into an attraction. Slowly, word got out. Sparks grew into the dominant flea market in the area because it lasts longer and is on the beaten path.

Clowning and other street performances have gone away, but bits of Branson flavor linger, including folksy "no parkin" signs and hand-painted vacant houses converted into vendor storefronts, most noticeably the "Sparks Hotel. Full Up."

Photographer Tammy Ljungblad and I went there in May, arriving on a Thursday, a day that would be less crowded than weekends. Most important, good stuff just might still be around.

Prepping for "picking" - the act ofsearching through shelves, boxes, rows and mountains of stuff to find gems - is crucial. Besides toting a bottle of water and a large market bag or cart, one should wear comfy shoes, sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat. And, of course, carry cash.

Hand sanitizer is also a good idea.

"You're gonna get dirty," says Fancy Smith, owner of Cactus Creek home decor store in Weston and a Sparks shopping veteran. Smith also is co-host of the radio show "Junk in My Trunk" and was recently a contestant on the History Channel's new reality show "Picked Off." One of Smith's favorite Sparks/ White Cloud finds - one of only a handful of things she won't sell - is a heart-shaped piece of wood decorated with daisies and three steer horns.

Smith likes to take her three sons picking with her, including trips to Sparks. They have fun. Her 9-year-old, Wyatt, collects vintage license plates.

"Not only is it a cheap, enjoyable family activity, kids can be awesome help," Smith says. Wyatt found a cowhide purse when he was 3. His mom loved it.

"Being low to the ground has its definite benefits," she says.

Smith also sells her picks at Restoration Emporium in Kansas City's West Bottoms. Owner Chrysalyn Huff describes the vibe of the Sparks flea market as "vintage heaven-y." She takes a trailer up to Sparks because it's one of the three largest shopping trips of the year for her store. She likes the upcoming Labor Day weekend market best because vendors have had all summer to round up stufffrom attics, basements and barns.

"Keep in mind Sparks is a true old-school flea market," Huff says. "This is where prices are much lower than other shows and where you find a lot of pre-project items that can be repurposed with paint and some imagination."