Texas Travel

City Spotlight: Canton

By Peter Simek 8.12.19

Heading east on highway 80 from Dallas-Fort Worth, the softly undulating prairie gives way to the East Texas forests. Rich with lumber, water, minerals — and eventually oil — the northeast corner of the state gave birth to dozens of small towns in the mid-19th century. Canton was like many of them. With a population of close to 4,000, the town owes its success to its role as county seat of Van Zandt. But what’s made the town a destination for thousands of Texans are Canton’s famous First Monday Trade Days, a tradition that dates back to the town’s very founding.

Photo by Natalie Goff

The Free State

Van Zandt County has been known as the “Free State” for so long, historians aren’t entirely sure how the area received the name. Some believe it relates to the county’s founding: When adjacent Henderson County was saddled in debt in the 1840s, the state split into two new counties, creating Van Zandt and freeing its residents from debt. Other historians believe the moniker comes from the pro-Union area’s attempt to secede from the Confederate States of America at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Although Canton was named the county seat when Van Zandt County was formed, it almost lost the title in 1872, when the newly constructed Texas and Pacific Railway bypassed it. County residents took the case all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, which defended Canton’s right to remain the head of the county government.

Photo by Natalie Goff

Trade Days

The town’s real economic engine is its First Monday Trade Days. Dating back to the mid-19th century, the trade days began when area farmers and craftsmen came together to barter and trade. During the Civil War, when cash was scant, these trade days sustained the local economy.

Today, a 100-acre fairground becomes the largest flea market in the world during every weekend (Thursday through Sunday) before the first Monday of the month. Vendors selling everything from junk to animals and tools to electronics crowd into the little town. Up to 100,000 shoppers search for found and forgotten treasures and barter for items just as they have done in Canton for more than 150 years.

Photo by Natalie Goff

County Fair

Canton is home to another longstanding East Texas tradition: the Van Zandt County Fair. Featuring pageants, a rodeo, and other events, the Van Zandt County Fair offers a perfect excuse to visit Canton each spring. While you are there, check out its historic courthouse, unique for its Art Moderne design, and experience true East Texas charm.

For more East Texas charm, travel the East Texas music highway or learn about singer Don Henley’s efforts to save Caddo Lake.

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