Whenever I return from a show, folks want to know, “How was it?” To answer it accurately, so many factors must be considered: Sale opportunities, prices, variety of products, attendance, parking and even food. Rather than running down that list, I avoid the conversation by simply replying, “Great!” I am relieved when that person goes on to tell me about their weekend—they never really wanted to know how the show was, they just needed a segue to their stories! But, when someone in the hobby asks, “How was the Show of Shows,” I know they want a full status report.
“Bigger than Ever”
Every show promoter promises, “Bigger than ever!” This year, the Ohio Valley Military Society (OVMS)—the folks who organize the Show of Shows (SOS)—delivered on the promise. For many years, the SOS took place in a single, large room of the Kentucky Exposition Center. After years of negotiating and even pleading, the OVMS Board of Directors were able to obtain an extended hall. Why is that important?
Unlike any other militaria or historic military vehicle show in the United States, the Show of Shows simply didn’t have enough tables available for all the dealers who wanted to display. There has been a long waiting list for tables. To Wisconsinites waiting for Packer tickets, this is a very familiar scenario: Not enough seats in Lambeau—every game is sold out.
Well, it is good to be popular! The OVMS Board, however, realized a larger venue would be good for the hobby as well as the health of the Show. Many meetings occurred over a number of years before the Kentucky Expo Center finally agreed to the expanded venue. This year, 1,965 tables were all occupied, even with a few last-minute cancellations. By having a waiting list of vendors who want tables, the OVMS is able to guarantee a full show.
Invigoration and Enthusiasm
This change wasn’t made without trepidation, though. You know how rigid military collectors can be. If they have had the same spot for the past 10 years, they were not going to accept relocation for the betterment of the hobby or the OVMS.
Ingeniously, the OVMS didn’t attempt to simply jam more tables into a side hall. They knew that would appear as an afterthought to the original layout. Rather, they redesigned the layout of the entire hall, actually running tables perpendicular to the way they had in the past. No one had their same spot! Every vendor location was new.
Not only did this eliminate any grousing from dissatisfied dealers (you know the ones… they wear the same clothes to the show and display the same overpriced relics, year after year), it provided a sense of discovery for everyone. Best of all, there appeared to be no bad spot in the show. Sure, some tables were farther from the front door requiring dealers to lug their coolers a bit longer than others, but there was not a spot in the show the customers overlooked. All corners had quality dealers and full tables. To the newcomer, it was not obvious what area was filled with “the old guard” and what area was just the latecomers. The OVMS did a great job reorganizing the table locations to give the impression that quality was to found throughout the entire show… not just the “front room.”
One of my collecting buddies asked me, “How were prices? High or were they low?” “Yes,” I replied, ”They were high, and they were low.” After I got that bit of unnecessary sarcasm out of my system, I was able to address his question with a bit more thought. “It all depends what it was! Great stuff had high prices. Low-end stuff—if the dealer had a grasp of common business practices—was priced low.” As we all know, many weekend dealers (and even some of full-timers who depend on militaria for a livelihood) are usually the last people to admit that militaria prices can rise and fall with the economy. Despite those folks, I saw a lot of price tags with lines drawn through price with a steeply reduced price written below it.
The larger venue opened the possibility to a great variety of material, but the SOS has had a reputation of being primarily a “20th Century militaria” show and nothing occurred in 2013 that would alter that perception. Even though some of my acquisitions were some nice Civil War pieces, I had to claw through a lot of M35 helmets and Doughboy uniforms to find them. This should not be seen as a criticism.
All facets of the militaria hobby overlap. It is difficult to attract distinctly different audiences to an established venue. And yet, with all that “20th Century Military Show” talk stated, I will admit, a couple of the coolest items I saw purchased at the show included a War of 1812 canteen in original paint and a ca. 1820 U.S. infantry soldier’s silver accouterment breastplate! That is the beauty of the SOS: Come expecting to find one thing, and you discover 20 things you never even imagined!
Whereas I don’t expect the SOS to gain the reputation as a premier Civil War or Roman Antiquities show any time in the near future, the venue does accept the wide range of militaria—one of the aspects that makes the SOS a unique and purely joyful show to attend. I don’t think there is another show that creates the hopeful sense of discovery for me.
The SOS does attempt to appeal to a wider audience by inviting veterans to sign autographs and share their experiences. This, coupled with a smattering of historic military vehicles (about half original and half “look-alikes”) is an attempt to draw in the public. A step outside of the hall, though, and one will see the long lines (estimated at 20,000 visitors!) waiting to get into the simultaneously occurring National Gun Day Show. Vast numbers, though, do not necessarily translate into sales.
Overall, my observation of the average attendee to the SOS is this: If someone paid to come into the SOS, the likelihood that they would spend money in the show was extremely high. There were very few “casual” visitors. The SOS remains one of the most concentrated venues of militaria dealers and buyers. To set up or attend the SOS, means you will have hobby interaction—the kind that keeps dealers ferreting out quality items and collectors returning with cash in hand.
In fact, the SOS is more of a “convention” than a “show.” It promises—and delivers—a very high concentration of dedicated collectors and dealers. The OVMS could add more to their coffers by opening the show up to a wider range of clientele, but they are more interested in delivering a bigger service to the hobby by concentrating active collectors and dealers at the SOS. To that end, they have done a great service to our hobby.
The SOS is held in a consistent location. Louisville is in the center of the United States. Even for those on the either coast, knowing that the show will occur in Louisville allows them to budget accordingly. The Kentucky Expo Center is next to the airport and surrounded by hotels and restaurants. It is, in my opinion, the perfect venue (and I drove 12 hours to get there!)
Now, for what is always the most popular section of the SOS After Action Report: The food. I can’t begin without tipping my hat to the Kentucky Pork Producers who have had a booth outside the show entrance for as many years as I can remember. Their boneless pork chop sandwiches and pulled pork platters have sustained me through the show days. Inside the show, there were several food vendors located on the perimeter, so no one had to go hungry or thirsty.
But what about after hours? I still mourn the passing of my favorite little Louisville BBQ shop: The Hickory House. Last year, I showed up ready to fill my cooler with pork filets only to discover the Hickory House’s windows covered in brown paper—it had closed its doors for good. I floundered around last year, eating a mix of Famous Dave’s and Baconaters from Wendy’s—a menu I could duplicate almost anywhere in my travels. It wasn’t Louisville-eating.
Let me say, I believe it takes a Minnesotan to ferret out the best BBQ. Without any culinary plan for my stay in Louisville, I had resigned to eating the Colonel’s southern-fried chicken to represent Louisville experience, when, just as I was leaving the show on Friday, I heard a familiar, “Hey John!” The two words had that familiar Fargo-like twang to it. As I turned to the source, I recognized my buddy (and darn-near neighbor) from up north, Austin Osman. After a few words, he revealed that he and his dad, Steven, had discovered a new barbecue place. “Oh yeah?” I asked with just a bit of guarded skepticism. “Better than the Hickory House?”
Austin explained, “It is 10 times better than the Hickory House!” He went on to tell how he, too, was disappointed last year to find our favorite BBQ shack closed. But he and his Dad did not succumb to fast food replacement. No, not at all. Instead, they had found a walk-up stand with a smoker right beside for their BBQ sustenance. But, it was not a permanent solution. When they returned to the spot this year, no walk-up stand, no smoker. The hunt was back on.
Then he described a small restaurant with old kitchen tables and vinyl-covered chairs that stood adjacent to railroad tracks in a rather threatening-looking neighborhood. It sounded like the perfect setting! But what about the Q? Did it stand up to the setting?
Austin described racks of rubbed ribs with glazed sauce, pulled pork sandwiches dripping with Kentucky’s finest hog meat sauce, baked beans that tasted of hickory smoke and vinegar-based “cabbage salad” (coleslaw to us Northerners). Neither our advertising man-on-point, Nick Ockwig, nor I needed any more convincing. Austin gave us directions that we thought we could follow. Nick and I were off to for some serious pork.
The name of the place you ask? Well, get ready to copy and save. But first, allow me to report: If the Hickory House is gone, the BBQ spirit of it is infused in Smokehouse USA. Locally owned and promoted, Smokehouse USA has my Military Trader nod and “pork grease thumbs up” for outstanding BBQ at affordable prices. The restaurant is no frills, so come in your show clothes and slide into a booth or behind one of the kitchen tables. The owner (who describes himself as a Jewish Hillbilly) will take your order and prepare your feast while you relax with a glass of ice tea. They even had a local guy strumming a guitar to provide not-so-bad music while we ate! When we pulled out of Louisville on Saturday evening, Nick and I called in an order for two racks of ribs. You can follow our trail of bones through most of Indiana from our “feast-and-drive.”
The Show of Shows remains the “super bowl” of the hobby. Central location, large facility, easy access and concentration of dealers and hobbyists—along with good local cuisine—guarantees this is an event that caters to our passions. Long live the SOS!
Keep finding the good stuff,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine