I wasn’t raised around antiques, at least not in the way of old furniture. Mom was extremely proud when she bought something new (of value) like her dining room set. Sprague & Carlton. Early American style, hard rock maple table, 4 chairs, nice buffet, then adding a grandmother’s clock a few years later. She and Dad worked hard for their money but it was up to Mom to pick out new furniture. Dad really didn’t care and left the household furnishings up to her tastes.
My grandpa Lakey passed away when I was 10 and Mom acquired a few older things at his auction. One item she bought was a hand gun which I thought was odd. The trigger was inoperable so it posed no threat. Mom plopped it in a paper mache bowl (his), on top of a plant stand (also his) in the spare bedroom. Most of the glassware from Lakey and Coba’s short 2 year marriage, Mom and her brother Floyd had already divided up. (Coba died 10 days after Mom and Floyd were born). I remember Grandpa had a beautiful antique oak telephone hanging on the wall in his living room. Lakey might have owned the first tiny house in Sioux Center, or maybe all of Iowa. The house had 3 rooms, small kitchen, living room and a combination bedroom/bathroom. No the bathroom was not partitioned off. I doubt it was more than 500 square feet which didn’t leave much room for a lot of extras. (Mom didn’t buy the phone, something I’ve regretted since I reached adulthood).
I wasn’t so much wooed into appreciating the beauty and craftsmanship of furniture built in the early 1900’s as we were simply too destitute to buy anything new after we got married. It all started with my first pregnancy. We didn’t have 2 nickels to rub together when setting up the nursery, so how were we gonna be ready for this birth? (We had no clue if we were having a boy or girl so all sleepers/nightgowns with a drawstring on the bottom. The baby always managed to stick out one skinny bare foot, rendering that limb 10 degrees cooler) were pastels, mostly mint green or pale yellow. You didn’t get gender appropriate clothes until after the baby was born. Who can live like that? A newborn’s nursery looking all helter-skelter without a real boy/girl theme. It was barbaric. Or possibly, the way nature intended.
When we started shopping Hubs and I were in for sticker shock. A small dresser at Sears, made primarily from particle board was priced about 40 bucks. No way we could afford that, plus a crib. We found a used crib, (with the side slats about a foot apart. How did our kids not die in infancy)? We painted it bright yellow and bought a new mattress. Hubs stopped at a garage sale on his way to work because he caught a fleeting glance of a dresser. It had been stripped, wasn’t very fancy, didn’t have a mirror but was oak. It had no drawer pulls and was priced 5 bucks. Now we’re in business folks! (Neatest part-the handles were in one of the drawers, hahaha). We were fast discovering a love for antique furniture that would last our entire marriage.
Two people were instrumental in nurturing my antique obsession during the early years. The first one was John’s sister, Elly. We moved to the same town they lived in 1977, after 8 years of marriage and 2 kids. Elly had been hooked on antiques for ages (she was 18 years older than her baby brother, the Hubs). She was knowledgeable about wood types, different furniture styles but her real field of expertise was glassware. Although our funds for antiques was still very limited, we went antiquing with Elly and Dewey often, learning what our preferences were along the way. Usually day trips within a 100 miles. We had more fun meandering through Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota with them. Elly was usually on the hunt for glassware, some to keep, other pieces to resell. We were looking for the next affordable furniture project for the house for us to work on.
One weekend Elly and Dewey went to an auction, then stopped by our house on their way home. She handed me a shoe box filled with miscellaneous glassware, explaining she got the box for a buck and kept the piece she needed for her collection. Sneaky Elly, very sneaky. Carefully laying the groundwork to lure me in. The box contained a rectangular shaped, green glass, one pound butter dish. It was perfect, no chips (which wouldn’t last long with 2 kids under 8). Also in the box was a small green cup and saucer. Elly explained this pattern was depression glass called Cameo. An all over pattern of tiny ballerinas. Well shoot, I was hooked. The other noteworthy piece John found intriguing. A small black, hard as a brick tire (about the size of an Apple fritter (can you tell I’ve not eaten yet) with a yellow/gold depression glass insert, advertising a tire company. He scrubbed away 40 years of cigarette ash and his tire ashtray collection was born. Ha! Elly got us both with a one dollar box she had since discarded. She was a pro.
The other lady was a farmer’s wife named Bertha. She lived west of Canton, South Dakota which is about 30 miles from our hometown of Rock Valley, Iowa. Bertha ran a used furniture business (mostly antique) in her farmhouse, down her basement. Other larger, more primitive pieces were in an outside building. For a period of about 5 years, the majority of our antique pieces were acquired from Bertha. A duck planter, a lamp for the TV that looked like a train was moving on the railway when lit. She knew her furniture, was friendly, yet quite stubborn/set in her ways of pricing. Dicker and dealing on pieces was tricky. Hubs found this out the hard way.
I spotted an oak, curved glass china closet in Bertha’s basement in 1979 when I was pregnant with our youngest kid, Adam. Petite, claw footed (china closet, not Adam) with 3 beautiful shelves, it was exquisite. I HAD TO HAVE IT. SERIOUSLY. HAD TO HAVE IT. It did have one issue. One of the panes of curved glass was broke, leaving a chunk of glass missing from the bottom. I believe she was asking about $290. Hubs offered her $200. She actually sputtered for a minute. She was too ticked to answer. This was an outrageous insult. She priced pieces fairly and was not about to be bullied by a young punk. We left Bertha’s farm without the china closet so guess who was sputtering in the car. “How could you offer such a shitty low price? You blew this deal for me. I WANT THAT CHINA CLOSET.” I might have zhanicked and been aggawase (Dutch slang for being a pain in the ass) all the way back to Spencer.
I fumed/cooled off, waited a couple days before calling and groveling my way back into Bertha’s good graces. Offered her close to her asking price (might have fudged the numbers to Hubs on this one 41 years ago). She accepted. I mailed her some money and we picked up the china closet before Adam’s delivery date in mid September. Shannon was almost 10, Joshua was 4-1/2 so I wasn’t worried about one of them getting hurt on the broken glass, but we had to order a new glass panel ($69.00) when Adam started crawling in the summer of 1980.
Looking back, much of the furniture I bought from Bertha were like stepping stones. Pieces we could afford at the time, with John doing any and all repair work, then we refinished them. We had a great time, sometimes working for weeks on a piece together. But years later I’d spot a nicer, fancier piece, some already refinished or not needing a lick of work and wanted to upgrade my furniture. Oftentimes I didn’t get rid of the piece my tastes had outgrown but gave it to one of the kids. Walking into their house looked like mine 20 years before. And now some of their tastes have changed too.
In 1982 we moved 350 miles east to Davenport, so our favorite shopping days antiquing at Bertha’s farm came to an abrupt halt. But through the years I’ve often thought (with fondness) about wheeling and dealing with Bertha. She was a charming character who taught me a lot about my infatuation with antique oak furniture and how to finesse a deal. And learning the art of compromise…