Princeton is a paradoxical destination. It’s a place where hip, farm-to-table eateries coexist with hometown bars serving up deep-fried fare. Fine artists share space with farmers (sometimes they are even one in the same) and trendy boutiques thrive alongside one of the state’s largest Amish communities. Meat raffles and art show openings occur simultaneously. Princeton’s juxtaposition between rural and ritzy is undeniable and irresistible.
“That tension is huge,” says local business owner Matt Trotter. “People respond to it and don’t even realize it. The grit is what makes it so cool.”
Located in central Wisconsin, the city of 1,200 residents is split in half by the Fox River and sits near the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area. Recreational opportunities are diverse. Here, residents and visitors can fish the county’s 36 lakes by day and sip wine while listening to a jazz trio by night.
In Princeton, a simple life isn’t void of the finer things. Within this bucolic setting exists cutting-edge cuisine, world renowned artists and a flea market that draws upwards of 10,000 weekly visitors. So whether you’re craving an escape to the countryside or a little bit of culture, Princeton offers both.
Weird and Wonderful: The Famous Princeton Flea Market
Held every Saturday late-April to mid-October from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Princeton’s shade-filled City Park, the flea market is the largest weekly outdoor flea market in central Wisconsin.
The market is now in its 47th season and Mike Jacobi has been running it for 40 of them. He took over when vendors were allowed to show up at random and camp out on Friday night in spaces of their choosing.
“In the early days of the flea market, it was small and not very organized,” Jacobi says. “My first year was rather hectic. I was trying to make a map of the park and have assigned spaces for vendors. Back then there were maybe 30 to 35 sellers and from there we grew.”
The famous Princeton flea market grew tremendously, catching the attention of national media outlets for it’s weird and wonderful array of goods in a picturesque, small town setting. That setting, Jacobi says, is part of the flea market’s unique appeal.
“People like the idea of coming to the country for a day,” he says. “We get quite a few people coming from Madison, Milwaukee and the Fox Cities.”
Today, City Park can accommodate up to 175 vendors, but this year some spaces will be left empty to encourage social distancing. Even still, the market’s 5,000 to 10,000 weekly attendees can expect to find an assortment of goods, including new, used and antique items.
Visitors like to grab a cup of coffee and a bag of mini doughnuts fried to order and meander the paths lined with tables piled with oddities and antiques. A box of doll heads sits on one table, a stack of WWII memorabilia on another. Books, fresh produce, handmade furniture, live plants and toys are popular items.
“We always try to make it eclectic with lots of different kinds of merchandise,” Jacobi says. “We have a lot of older merchandise that’s considered antique or collectible mixed in with new and handcrafted items. It’s hard not to find something that interests you.”
Jacobi’s best piece of advice for flea market shopping? Arrive early.
“Definitely come in the morning,” he says. “The pickers come every week at 6 a.m. They are there right away to see what the new people bring in. By noon it’s really slowing down, especially on warmer days.”
Whatever brings you to the market – whether it’s the thrill of the hunt, bartering for a bargain or just good old fashioned people watching – spending a flea market morning at City Park is a Princeton rite of passage.
An eclectic mix of retailers makes Princeton a shopping destination
For the fashionista:
Fast fashion has had its day. Today it’s all about “slow fashion” – apparel that is made sustainably, with respect for its creators and the environment. Luckily, downtown Princeton has many places for you to shop and feel good about your purchases. In addition to earth-friendly home decor, toys and bath products, Daiseye on Water Street offers a collection of organic and economically responsible clothing for men, women and children. The store specializes in women-made, fair trade products as well as products made by local artisans. The best part? Daiseye’s clothing is cute and on trend, from leggings and tops to dresses and accessories.
Daiseye’s sister store, green 3 apparel, is located right next door. Oshkosh-based green 3 designs, sources and markets organic clothing crafted in the United States. With A-line skirts, t-shirts, hoodies and everything in between, the Princeton store is a must-stop for fashionistas with heart for their local and global communities.
For the art lover:
Princeton has been on the map as a haven for artists and makers since the ‘90s when former resident Tracy Porter found national fame in her hand painted furniture and home decor business. Today the city and surrounding area fosters an impressive amount of creative individuals, not least of these being the father-son team behind Hunting Studio Glass. Wes Hunting and his son, Wesley, work together creating conceptual glass art for collectors around the country. While they don’t operate a public storefront, you can schedule a private showing and glass blowing demo by calling 920-229-4041. However, RossHaven Gallery Art on Water Street often has Hunting Studio Glass pieces on display, in addition to works by a variety of artists both near and far. From blown glass vases and bowls to sculptures, paintings and jewelry, RossHaven Gallery Art offers both fine and functional art. Another art hot spot is Levee Contemporary, which was founded in 2019. Levee Contemporary is a sleek commercial gallery and art space located in one of Water Street’s historic buildings. The gallery hosts shows from artists around the country and, after an extended pause due to the pandemic, has reopened for the 2021 season. Check out the current exhibition, “MakeBelieve,” through August 27. The show features works by gallery co-founder Andrew Blanchard and William Goodman.
For the interior decorator:
For one of the best curated collections of vintage home decor you will find anywhere, (hands down, period), check out Dover Street Collected Home on Water Street. Eclectic and unexpected finds await in this shop oozing with inspiration. Vignettes of furniture groupings staged to perfection with vintage finds will inspire even the home designer who thinks they’ve seen it all. Just down the street is Twister, a lifestyle emporium. Some describe it as a mini department store – it has clothing, toys, gifts, kitchen and home products as well as an interesting collection of wine and an espresso bar. The funky assortment of kitchen gadgets will delight any cook. Short Street Market is another fun stop, with handmade decor from local artists. Their collection of upcycled vintage furniture puts a personal touch on any living space.
For the antiquarian:
Princeton is an antique and vintage shopping mecca. In addition to its famous weekly flea market, the city is home to a variety of antique shops selling everything from rare books to glassware. Princeton’s two largest antique malls are located near City Park and the flea market so it’s easy to extend your Saturday shopping trip after the flea market ends. First, explore 4,000 square feet filled with antiques at MnM Antique Mall, right next to the Princeton flea market. From furniture and primitives to farm toys and coins, every antiquarian will find something they need to take home. From there, visit Woolbright’s River City Antique Mall. This local favorite is open seven days a week with inventory from more than 40 dealers. Located kitty corner from City Park on Fulton Street, it’s a fun stop before or after you check out the Saturday flea market. After exploring the flea market area, move downtown to Pastimes Books & Antiques for a mix of new and used books, vintage linens and rustic antiques for your home and garden. Next, head over to Princeton Garage to dig through a strange collection of ‘70s collectibles, religious artifacts, antiques and art. Make sure to leave your mark on the store’s outdoor tag wall. They provide the spray paint, you provide the creativity. With an interesting mix of vintage, new and used items, Fox River Mercantile on Water Street is full of surprises. Maybe you’ll discover a turn of the century wooden ice box or vintage water skis. Vendors are constantly adding merchandise to their spaces so the inventory is always changing.
For the eclectic taste:
When you’re looking for a giant dinosaur statue (because, when aren’t you?), head to Chief’s Trading Post. Located on Highway 73, this gift store features zany lawn decor, a massive selection of discount fireworks, concrete statues and merchandise both new and used. They also have a small petting zoo that will entertain your kids. Twigs Fine Goods on Water Street has the cutest collection of gifts, if you can bring yourself to actually give away the treasures you find. The store has jewelry, children’s clothing and toys, a rad assortment of locally made bath bombs – basically everything you could ever want. RiverBank Dry Goods is another multifaceted store on Water Street with an emphasis on handmade home and garden decor. From decorative wreaths to hand painted glass, the store has a diverse mix of merchandise that will keep shoppers coming back to discover what’s new. Just across the street is Candi’s Corner, an eclectic shop offering resale, collectables and apparel. Wicker furniture, vintage lamps, old trunks and suitcases will ignite your imagination. But no shopping trip is complete without a visit to Jillian’s Corner Cottage on Fulton Street. This gift store offers cute items for home and garden – a must stop for seasonal and holiday decorations.
Many Princeton retailers operate seasonally with hours primarily on the weekends. Check in with individual businesses for their current hours.