Tuesday, July 6, 2010

More Hoarders & Collectors

A number of years ago, I got a call to come and buy stuff from an estate a couple had inherited.

Seems to me the fellow had been their distant uncle, a friend of the family, or something...or maybe they had bought the place, I am not sure anymore.

Regardless, the estate had been in limbo for awhile, and it was a rural property.

The fellow had most certainly been a collector turned hoarder.

You see, there was mostly vintage items...sheds and sheds of them.

But, he had started to save things like the ashes from his wood stove, which he stacked around his house in a boxes. He also had jars of mercury from thermometers, mercury switches, thermostats, etc.

Now, normally this would be a wonderful find, sheds and sheds of vintage items....

But, there were 2 little snags....

Seeing as the estate was in limbo for so long, the property vacant and unguarded, the fellow's neighbors took/stole a fair bit from the buildings, which were anywhere from waist high with stuff, to 6 & 7 feet high stacked with stuff.

Normally, that doesn't really mean the place has nothing of value left, but, this place was pretty tough to find much of value. Some of the buildings were open to the weather some, and there was this one other little issue....

The fellow was a tad paranoid about his stuff getting stolen.

So, his solution was to take items apart, and put the parts in different buildings!

A lightning rod's copper tube in one building, the tip in another, the stand in another and the ball in another....

A radio's case in one building, the chassis in another, and the knobs in another....

You get the picture?

So, with items being stolen over the years, who knows if the parts you were missing from that lightning rod where even still there....and which of the many sheds would the parts be in?

I had brought a fellow dealer friend with me, but, he found little, as he isn't into really "digging." He has a real good eye for the weird & wonderful, and is quite knowledgeable in a number of areas. He scans the top of piles, looks in drawers, that sort of thing, but that is pretty much it. I, on the other hand am a real digger....

I burrow.

In my search for worthwhile items to buy, I happened to be digging in one particular shed....moving from front to back...taking an item out from in front of me, and putting it behind me....and repeating that process....

I heard him calling my name, wanting to find out how close I was to being done searching.

I peered over the pile, which was about 6 feet high....

He was standing in front of the shed.

I called out to him, to let him know I was there.

I watched, amused, as he looked around, dumbfounded & confused. It was not a look I had ever seen on his face before that.

It was actually darn entertaining....!

All he could see was a pile of stuff....took him a few minutes to figure out that the voice WAS actually coming from the pile...the back of the pile, against the wall.

He was, well, quite surprised....

Anyway, that is how I tend to pick those sorts of places....really dig. Just because the top has been picked over doesn't mean there is not treasure beneath that top layer or two, you know? I did dig up a few neat things at that place, but most of them were, of course, PARTS of things...

I used to do (set up at) antique shows "out west"...in Alberta & British Columbia. I tended to leave a week before most of the dealers I knew....you see, I have a little problem...it takes me forever to go somewhere like that...I like to stop and smell the roses...

Or, I guess more accurately, the dust of attics, and the damp of basements.

A little town on the map, or a sign pointing to a town NOT shown on the map intrigues me.

Side roads beckon, grain elevators in the distance call to me.

On one trip out to Alberta to do some antique shows, I hit a side road, just on a gut feeling...turned off #1 Highway, Canada's main highway, with thousands of cars passing this particular road, daily.

One thing you should know about Alberta is that it is an oil rich province. They have a pretty healthy economy, generally, as a result of the oil beneath their soil...and the provincial government owns it all. So, there are far fewer gravel roads in Alberta than in places like Saskatchewan, Manitoba, BC, and many US states. Most of the roads that they have are paved with asphalt.

So, I headed down this road for a ways...not really knowing where or why I was headed down it, I just figured I'd drive, and see where it took me. I had time to kill, and three quarters of a tank of gas.

I kept driving, and to my surprise, the road turned to gravel...which means it was a real back road by Alberta standards. It continued as gravel for a bit...and then it turned to pretty much dirt...and I could see an old farm site with stuff scattered about...and fresh tire tracks into the property, but not out.

Cool...unless the tracks didn't belong to the owner....Oh, wait, there was a tractor tooling around the yard.

So, I drove in, got the fellow's attention, and told him what kind of stuff I was after.

As it turned out, he was the 3rd owner of the property, and the 2nd owner of it that year.

The previous fellow who owned it, had bought it for the scrap that remained on the property. He had hauled off so much scrap metal that he had made quite a bit of money, and eventually tired of hauling metal, and sold it to the fellow I was talking to.

There was enough metal left on the property that he was going to easily double his money as well. It was an estate, and one that had been tied up in the courts with all sorts of legal issues for many years.

The owner had been an eccentric inventor, who was into all sorts of things, including wind-power, as he had some home made turbines at one point, and had an old city bus full of 12Volt batteries all wired together.

The house had all sorts of military surplus electronic equipment, of which I knew little about at the time, and I passed on it. I did buy a box full of interesting items, but nothing that sticks out in my mind. What does stick out, however, is one of the things that this fellow told me had apparently been in the property when the eccentric inventor had passed away.

Three, still in the crates, WW2, army surplus Harley Davidson motorcycles.

The inventor had been buying WW2 surplus items when they were plentiful, in the late 40s and 50s...which admittedly does go well with that sort of inventor personality.

Unfortunately, they had been stolen, one by one, over a few years. Who knows where they went.

Anyway, in this case, was this fellow a hoarder, or simply eccentric? He accumulated stuff, but much of it seemed to be for use in his inventions...his "raw material," or his "palette", if you think in artist's terms.

I got their too late, and really don't have enough details to determine if he was a true hoarder or not.

So, if we "hoard" items, like antiques or collectibles, are we really "hoarders"? In the broadest term, maybe. But, we all have an innate, built in urge to "save" things...stands to reason, if we are "animals, per say. I don't wish to get into a debate on religion with this, of course, but if we have evolved from a 'lower life form", it is possible there are left-over "hoarding" instincts in us all.

For animals, it is part of survival. Squirrels need to hoard food for winter, as do mice, and other animals.

Maybe collectors are simply satisfying this natural urge.

Perhaps this instinct is some how triggered to drop into extreme overdrive in hoarders who have saved things we deem as trash, waste, excrement, etc....

Something to think about, I suppose.

Hoarding has saved many items from being lost forever, preserving history, and entertains folks like me.

I got a call from a friend one day, who was working for an auction house. He had to clean out an estate, and his regular worker was unavailable. With nothing to do that day, I said I could give him a hand. It also gave me a chance to see the items that were going into the auction, first.

We ended up in the basement, and I spotted an old narrow door, so, of course I had to check it out. Turned out it was the "cold room", where preserves and such are usually kept, essentially store room.

On the shelves were boxes measuring roughly 8" x 6", and were as high as a book of matches is wide...and that is exactly what they were...boxes of book matches....and plastic bags of book matches...thousands of them.

That is a little strange in itself, I suppose. But hang on, it gets stranger.

Each and every matchbook was individually wrapped in aluminum foil!

It was a little obsession this particular lady had, I guess.

It was weird, but I thought that it was also great...as the foil would have preserved them extra well....if they were collectible ones, this would be a cool find!

Sadly, they were all generic ones, boring, and essentially worth only what any usable book of matches is worth.

Oh well. Gave me another weird story to relate, and made life a little more puzzling, but interesting. Made me think, wonder about the person who wrapped all those matchbooks, so painstakingly, so carefully. What triggered the obsession? Experiencing a house fire, perhaps? Or was it something out of left field, an obsession even the person themselves did not understand?

I have run across (and still run across), weird, wonderful and bizarre things, places, people, events, and situations. Perhaps these stories are more valuable than the items I have bought and sold along the way. It is those experiences that have molded me into who I am. They have made me think, contemplate, consider, be aware. These random occurrences have opened my eyes; caused me to deal with my own life differently, adjust my own habits, made me aware of "obsessions" of my own, seeing what the future could hold if things were to get out of control, or if I were to follow a certain path. I have learned much in this business. Not just about "stuff"...but about "life" and its many facets. It is something you can't really say about many jobs.

I guess it is a good thing.

I have had some experiences in this business that, at the time, were not pleasant, but they certainly were experiences....Yes, I will be blogging about most of them!

Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes, laugh at the follies, and get inspired by the finds.


  1. As always, enjoying your writing. Your stories of hoarders, match-box-wrappers, etc, remind me that if one lives long-enough, one is likely to be thought "eccentric".

    The first house my wife-and-I purchased was a traditional wood-frame, built in 1939. The previous owner had been placed in an "old-folks home" (yes, I know it is politically incorrect, but that's what they said).

    Anyway, the woman had been very concerned about safety. Each of the double-hung, sash windows had been nailed-shut with 20d and 30d nails. 4 to 4.5 inches long, and thick enough to permanently distort the wooden window frame. Also, she had covered every electrical outlet in the house with masking-tape (apparently, to keep the electricity from leaking-out). Lastly, she had a large collection of broken natural-gas-burning heaters...but just the cast-iron parts.

    I can't help wondering what I will leave the next generation wondering-about.

  2. Thanks! Truth is stranger than fiction...and human kind tends to create the most bizarre situations that even our imaginations can't create!

  3. I think the matches was interesting...growing up with parents that started heating the house with an old coal furnace in the basement..my parents saved matches to use..the basement would get damp...so they kept the matches in a sealed jar to keep them dry and easy to use. I wonder if the lady was trying to keep her matches dry from basement dampness? My folds lived in an old historic house In Lee Center Illinois..and the coal room once was also a place that offered sanctury for slaved escaping north...if walls could only talk!

  4. There is more interesting history out there than we can imagine....