If you’ve been itching to add a new pan to your cast iron collection or simply to find a project to distract you from the sweltering summer heat, it’s time to embark on a Southern cast iron road trip. We hit Interstate 59 to explore the towns of southern Mississippi and found that, oftentimes, it’s the off-the-beaten-path wonders that turn out to be the true treasure troves.
Home to antiques shops and flea markets by the dozen, small Southern towns are fertile grounds for cast iron finds. These pans are what many of our parents and grandparents cooked in, and thankfully, many of those pieces (like the footed kettle your grandmother simmered beans in or the thick-walled 10-inch skillet that produced the crispiest fried chicken) can often be found hanging from walls or piled on tables at secondhand stores. It may not be the exact skillet of your childhood, but filled with the same recipes, it’s sure to provoke those heartwarming memories.
Ready to begin your cast iron road trip? Take some tips from us on how to make this your most successful cast iron hunt yet.
The beauty of a road trip is the leisure and spontaneity. Although you may have a final destination in mind, the middle ground is a blissful mystery. This means lots of opportunity for stops and exploration. But rather than relying solely on the suggestions of a convenience store cashier, it’s best to map out a few must-stop spots before officially hitting the road. First, pull out a true map and find the towns along your route; then look online for antiques shops and markets in the area.
If you’re an avid cast iron cook or collector, you’ve probably realized by now that your fellow comrades are passionate about the product. If you’re a member of Facebook, reach out to cast iron interest groups and ask for local suggestions. You’re likely to find someone who lives in the area and has the scoop (or at least someone who has also been on a similar hunt and can offer advice). Aim for one to two places per town, and always allow ample time to browse. Odds are, a casual over-the-counter chat will lead you to a dozen more local gems nearby.
Speaking of people, you’re likely to find fellow cast iron fanatics roaming around many of these stores. Ask any collector, and they’ll probably tell you that they found most of their prized possessions at thrift stores on the side of the road. You never know what, or whom, you will encounter. On our hunt, we met a woman who invited us to visit her home and peruse her large assemblage of collectibles, cast iron and otherwise. These people often have fascinating stories of makers and other collectors, and they know the best places to continue the search.
While the fun is in the hunt, it’s important to have an idea of what you’re looking for before you while the day away browsing. Whether you’re searching for a specific, sought-after antique piece or an old rusty relic to refinish, having some kind of picture in your head will help you thumb through piles of cast iron more easily. Some shops you encounter will have stacks of gunky skillets, while others will have freshly restored and well-polished pieces. There’s no sense in picking through the crusty pans if you have no interest in refinishing it yourself.
The roughest, rust-ridden pots are often found in massive jumbles, and while you may be curious to find out what’s beneath the wear, you should be mindful of the pan’s condition. What could seem like a great project could turn out to be an irreparable piece. If the pan has cracks, it’s generally a no-go, and while the cheap price tag on a seemingly destroyed pan may seem enticing, you’re better of searching elsewhere for the cast-iron piece that’s really on your mind. You never want to rush through these shops, but make sure not to dawdle on places that don’t have what you’re looking for. Your prized pan may be just a few miles away at another shop.
In addition to knowing the kind of collectible you’re searching for, it’s also wise to be mindful of its price range. Some shop owners have little knowledge of antique cast iron, and while this could work in your favor with a shockingly low label, it could also cause you to overpay for your finds. If you happen upon the cast-iron pan of your dreams but think the price is too high, try negotiating with the owner. Never of er an insulting amount, but practice your bargaining and see if you can get $10 knocked of the price to spend on your future cast-iron collectibles. Or, if you’re interested in multiple pieces, see if you can strike a deal for the bundle, reducing the price of each pan. Oftentimes, a shop owner will immediately offer 10 percent of an item if you ask a question, just because you showed interest.
Small-town vintage and antiques shops are generally the best places to find pieces from foundries that are no longer in operation. You don’t find antique Wagner lidded Dutch ovens or Birmingham Stove & Range skillets in just any everyday shop, but you do find them in secondhand stores just around the corner. Plus, in many shops, you’ll find unique items specific to that region. For example, if you’re traveling through Florence, Alabama, you may find a pan with the Martin Stove & Range Co. logo emblazoned on the bottom. This forgotten foundry was once a major part of the community, and a limited number of highly collectible pots remain on the loose today.
Whether you’re just beginning your collection of cast iron or you have a heavy stock of antique finds, a shopping road trip is the ultimate way to pass a long summer day. So grab a friend and hit the road—your new favorite piece may be sitting on a dusty antiques store shelf in an old, small Southern town right now.
Map out your initial stops, but be flexible if you happen upon an intriguing shop.
KNOW WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR.
Have a general idea of the piece you’re searching for—and its reasonable price—so that you don’t waste time browsing through pieces you’re not interested in and don’t overpay.
You never know what you’ll find in an antiques shop. Take time to browse each booth, but know when to leave if you don’t find what you came for.
CHAT IT UP.
Aside from the treasure you’ll find, the people are the next best thing on any cast iron road trip. Use these shop visits as meet and greets and you’ll likely make many friends with similar interests.