Respectable Collectibles

Ordinary people, extraordinary collections


Go ahead. Think of some object. Any object. The only qualification is that it must actually exist. And don't be afraid to use your imagination.

Done? So what did you come up with? Gum wrappers? Celebrity dandruff? Those tags on mattresses that warn, "Do not remove under penalty of law"?

No matter what item came to mind, and no matter how weird it might be, you can bet good money that somebody, somewhere collects it.

And that somebody might even live in Payson, in the house right next to yours.

Like Freda Lee, who collects pigs both real and fake, porcelain and porcine.

Or Ken Gouker, who collects antique fishing lures.

Or his wife, Jean, who possesses the most impressive eggbeater collection in the Western hemisphere.

Or the anonymity-seeking local with two collections: Civil War memorabilia and those telephone and telegraph insulators made of blue and green glass.

It should be pointed out that all of the above people are perfectly normal, sane folks who just happen to possess a certain passion for certain material items.

But that has not always been the case among "collectors." In fact, there was a time not so long ago when anybody who collected anything was thought to be a flaming oddball ... and, frankly, they often were.

Think back for a moment to all those stories you've heard about neighborhood eccentrics who passed away, and when relatives showed up to sort through the deceased's material possessions, they'd find 100 million milk caps. Or 2 billion rubber-band balls. Or every newspaper ever printed since Gutenburg invented his press. Or all of the above, plus 200 cats and not a single litter box.

I think we can all agree; those people were odd.

But the collectors of the new millennium? They've got respectability ... only partly because everybody on the planet now collects one thing or another.

But they don't collect "stuff" or "junk." They collect "collectibles."

Hog wild

Freda Lee, for example, has been collecting pigs of all sorts for about 10 years now. She now owns about 1,000 pig replicas, and one very large actual potbellied pig named Precious.

What made Lee go hog wild?

"It started as kind of an inside joke between my husband and I," she explains. "One Christmas I bought him a set of five pigs, and then I thought, 'Gee, it would be fun to collect these.' At the time I started, it was not real easy to find pig things. But now they're very popular."

Had Lee always held a special affection for oinkers?

"Oh, you know, I liked them, but I had no special attachment to them," she says. "It's just, well, you reach a point in your life when you want to have a hobby, and collecting pigs became mine.

"I have two collections that are pretty valuable from the Danbury Mint. There are 25 pigs in each of those. The most unusual, I'd say, are two from the Acoma Indian Pueblo, painted in pottery-fashion, that were a gift from my sister.

"Since my husband, Ray, passed away last year, I've tapered off on pigs a bit. It's not quite as much fun as it used to be. But I still pick one up once in a while."

Gone (on) fishin'

Ken Gouker had never been a collector of anything until, he says, "My wife made me go to a yard sale 16 years ago." Today he is the proud owner of an ever-growing trove of more than 1,000 antique fishing lures that are hanging on his walls, stored in cabinets, and boxed up all over his garage. And he's an active member of (we kid you not) the National Fish Lure Collector's Club.

"Some of these lures, you wonder how they ever thought they'd catch anything," Gouker says, pointing to boxes of lures that look more like dog toys."

Gouker still feeds his habit at yard sales, but also supplements it through the Internet and by swapping with others who can't pass up the allure of a lure.

Meanwhile, Jean Gouker collects, well, anything you can find in a kitchen: egg beaters, rolling pins, cookie cutters ...

"I'm not even sure how it started," she says. "But once I did, I couldn't stop, as you can tell."

The spoils of war

The collector of Civil War items prefers to remain anonymous, so let's call him ... what the heck. Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant also has been a collector for about a decade, during which time he's picked up a couple of dozen prized pieces.

"My first was a bayonet, of all things," Grant says. "I found it back East, but didn't buy it right away. I went home and thought about it first. Sometimes you need that sort of 'cool-down' period. It can get dangerous when you just say, on the spur of the moment, 'I gotta have that!'"

Not much later, Grant found what remains the gem of his display cabinet: "A musket, which I needed to go with the bayonet."

Asked what Civil War item he would rush out and buy if he won the lottery, Grant's speedy answer tells you he's already considered the possibility.

"Probably a model 1855 musket in really nice condition," he says. "Or maybe more than that, a Spencer repeating rife. Or a Colt revolving rifle, which has like a six-shooter mechanism, but on steroids. Yeah, if I won the lottery, my Civil War collection would really flesh out!"

But not his collection of telephone and telegraph insulators.

"Those are the kind of thing where you get one and you think, 'Oh, this is a funky, weird thing I could use for a paperweight,' and then everybody else who's got one and wants to get rid of it brings theirs to you," he says. "I started with one sitting on a shelf, and now I've got three dozen of them. Everybody's unloaded theirs on me. I've got window sills filled with them.

"I can't imagine they're actually worth anything. But you see them in every antique store, so they're proof that everything everything is collectible."

While on that topic, Grant remembers an episode of one of those TV antique shows that really proves his point.

"They had on a guy who collects old condom packages," Grant says. "He was proudly showing them off: 'These are from the 1920s, and these are from the 1930s ...' It was really scary. I mean, where does he get them ... and do we really want to know?"

Obviously, that fellow was a collector from the old millennium.

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