A large oak tree marked the spot as between half a dozen to a dozen vendors set up their wares on a Sunday morning in 1970. Admission was a quarter. For dealers, it cost $2.50 to sell.
Customers slowly made their way into the Shawano Fairgrounds in Shawano, a small town of a little more than 9,000 people in northeastern Wisconsin, about forty miles northwest of Green Bay. And there, in the middle of all its humble glory, stood Bob Zurko, overseeing what would be the first Shawano Flea Market.
Now, 52 years later, Zurko has logged thousands of events in Wisconsin and throughout the greater Chicagoland area, his old stomping grounds. It took about five years before Zurko’s Shawano Flea Market took off, but when it did the sky was the limit.
“There were no flea markets per se in the upper Midwest, and the people didn’t even know what a flea market was when we got here,” Zurko said. “I’d seen them in the Chicago area, so we tried one up here and it worked.”
The man who forged a summer tradition in Shawano makes it sound easy. It wasn’t. Those first few years were difficult because flea markets were the great unknown for most Wisconsin residents. Zurko remained persistent and kept hosting and promoting his event year after year. Being stubborn has its rewards.
“They were challenging and rewarding at the same time,” Zurko said. “I could see the potential, but it took more challenges before I got to the rewards. People just didn’t know it and I didn’t have a lot to advertise, I was just starting out. The key was just hanging in there until it worked, and it did. I had a vision that this is the perfect location.”
While Shawano itself is relatively small, it sits on Highway 29 which cuts across the northern third of Wisconsin, providing easy access to the flea market. People have driven far and wide – from Wausau and Appleton and Green Bay – to the fairgrounds for more than a half century.
Finding his calling
Growing up in the Burnside community on the south side of Chicago, Zurko started his career as a seventh and eighth grade science teacher. But a few years in, Zurko realized the classroom wasn’t for him. He started promoting flea markets and antique shows in shopping malls. His first gig was at the Chicago Ridge VFW. He loved it.
Zurko’s parents took him to “the north woods” of Wisconsin when he was a kid. The Shawano area always felt comfortable and friendly, and he grew up with great memories of the region. Why not raise his own family there? And besides, he figured Shawano could use a flea market even if the good folks of the Badger state didn’t know it yet.
Soon he was juggled a family, teaching in Chicago during the week and running a new flea market business 250 miles north in Shawano. It was, to say the least, a challenge. “It was quite an arduous journey every week, but the potential was there,” Zurko said.
He balanced two professions for three years before hanging up teaching in 1973. He moved his family at the time – wife Irene and son Tim – to Shawano to pursue his dream. Today, Zurko Promotions is a family owned and operated enterprise with Bob and Irene – they’ll be married 55 years next January – and their boys, Tim, Adam and Andy, who Bob refers to as the “next generation of fleas.” Add Bob’s sister Eileen to the crew for good measure.
In the 1990s, Zurko Promotions hit its peak period. According to Zurko, there really hasn’t been a downside since. The flea market biz has grown exponentially.
“It really got hot in the ’90s,” Zurko said. “It was just an overabundance of people who wanted to get out and have fun and hunt for treasures. It’s been going well ever since. It was a little challenging during the pandemic, but now that’s over. We’re back at it.”
These days, Zurko is seeing a resurgence of young collectors come out to shows. With the typical flea market crowd getting up there in age, it’s a breath of fresh air for Zurko that younger folks are getting involved in the hobby. “It’s giving it a whole new revival,” he said.
During a normal year — with COVID years excluded — Zurko Promotions averages a show running almost every weekend. That’s fifty shows a year, for roughly fifty years.
The Shawano Flea Market is the company’s bread-and-butter event, running this year on Sundays from April 10 to October 16 at the same fairgrounds where it all began. Between 50-150 dealers, weather dependent, normally fill the fairgrounds. Holiday weekends are a big hit. In the 1990s, Zurko expanded the flea market from summer to spring and fall.
Zurko Promotions also runs the Chicagoland Grayslake Flea Market, Chicagoland’s National Civil War Show & Sale in Wheaton, Illinois, for the last forty years as well as the Wheaton Antique Market and Wheaton Halloween Flea Market.
The company’s biggest show annually is the Wheaton All-Night Flea Market at the DuPage County Fairgrounds each August. Last year, the event drew 13,000 people just at night. “That’s a totally different experience,” Zurko said. “People come out and they tailgate and they get dressed up in costumes and they bring flashlights. It’s just a real hoot.”
This year’s Wheaton All-Night Flea Market is scheduled for Saturday, August 20, from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Zurko Promotions also runs the Belvidere Late Night Flea Market in Belvidere, Illinois. It has Wisconsin shows in Antigo, another small town not too far from Shawano, and the monthly Union Grove Flea Market at the Racine County Fairgrounds in southern Wisconsin.
For about 15 years, back in the 1980s and ’90s, Zurko Promotions offered a travel tour package to Europe, inviting groups of between 15-50 people to visit such flea market havens as Poland, Holland, France, Germany, Ireland and England. Zurko always had a blast on those one- to two-week trips.
Building a successful business
What’s it take to produce a highly successful business for more than five decades? The key is about as down-to-earth as Zurko: Vision and persistence. That’s it, says the man who knows better than anyone. “You just never quit. I’m going to be 77 and I still don’t want to quit,” Zurko said. “When you enjoy your work, it’s not really work.”
When he started Zurko Promotions over a half century ago, Zurko was confident in his vision. But to still be going strong after all these years? He didn’t see that.
“I had no idea I’d be living this long and doing this, but it’s been a great run,” Zurko said. “I knew there was a demand for it — people love to go and shop for bargains. Today with inflation, there is little to no inflation at a flea market. You get bargains every time you go.”
“He loves it and just enjoys the people,” Tim Zurko said. “He himself is a collector, so when he’s out at events he’s doing more shopping than working.”
Maybe so, but don’t let Tim kid you; he remains impressed by his father and what he’s accomplished, especially staying up to date with the latest trends.
“It’s evolved from just antiques to now we do events like pop culture, comics,” said Tim Zurko, who is the vice president of Zurko Promotions. “We brought back some of our craft shows that he used to do in the ’90s, which has been successful. We add a little more to it — we have some celebrities we bring to events and we do Halloween costume contests. The Halloween flea market is fun because people can come dressed in costume while they shop at the flea market.”
From “The Incredible Hulk” (Lou Ferrigno) to “The Brady Bunch” (Mike “Bobby Brady” Lookinland and Susan “Cindy Brady” Olsen), celebrities liven up Zurko events. Sure, the Beaver (Jerry Mathers) and Wally Cleaver (Tony Dow) from “Leave It to Beaver” fame draw fans, but they don’t guarantee success.
For that, Bob Zurko relies on one simple business philosophy: treat people with respect.
“We look out for our customers, whether it’s the dealers or collectors that are just coming out to have a good day,” Zurko said. “We’re family-orientated and we want to keep it that way.”
Dealers just keep coming back weekend after weekend and year after year. That’s not a coincidence.
“They know they get a fair shake from us,” Zurko said. “We don’t play games. We treat everybody like we want to be treated. That’s part of the success of our business.”
Zurko enjoys being a hands-on promoter who is willing to do whatever it takes to make an event run smoothly. An event is successful if everyone who attends enjoys themselves.
“The best part is taking care of peoples’ needs and giving them opportunities to make some money or make a living,” Zurko said. “If they’re successful, then we become successful. It’s a two-way street.”
Keeping the family business alive
Even though he’s turning 77 in November, Zurko is extremely active in his company. His main day-to-day responsibilities include overseeing advertising, coordinating events, and making sure the shows go off flawlessly.
Zurko, who utilizes a scooter to get around at shows these days, strives to attend all the events he promotes. If there are multiple shows on a weekend, he’ll make sure he’s at one of them. For events, it’s a family affair. Generally, four to five relatives help out on any given weekend.
“We’ve had a lot of memories,” Tim Zurko said. “I think the fun part is just working with family. Our whole family gets involved and helps. They all have full-time careers, but they help out on the weekends.”
Tim Zurko got into assisting his dad around 2014. He enjoys the work, but he certainly felt like he needed to carry on the family business.
“I grew up around it,” he said. “I was a package engineer until about eight years ago. My dad did pressure me a little bit. He’s like, ‘Quit your day job and come work for the family business,’ which I did. Then, eventually, I started my own little printing and website promotion business along with Dad.”
Tim Zurko runs Print Plus Web, which does commercial printing and website design. He takes care of Zurko Promotions’ printing and publishing. It was important for Bob Zurko to get his son involved in the business and one day have him run it on his own.
“That’s my goal, but he also has his choices,” Zurko said. “If he wants to do it, fine; if he doesn’t, I don’t tell him he has to do anything. But he’s enjoying it and he does a great job, too.”
Zurko isn’t planning on retiring anytime soon, though. He has expressed the desire to work into his 90s.
“It keeps him going,” Tim Zurko said. “Most people when they retire, two-three years in they’re so bored it just doesn’t go well for them. It’s good to be active rather than sitting in the house.”
Make no mistake about it, Bob Zurko won’t be sitting around the house anytime soon.
“I’m not quitting,” Zurko clearly stated. “I’m having too much fun.”