ANOTHER "GREAT FEATURE ARTICLE" FROM THE PAGES OF
ANTIQUE BOTTLE AND GLASS COLLECTOR MAGAZINE
THE MAGAZINE OF THE ANTIQUE BOTTLE COLLECTING HOBBY
With The Sarsaparilla King
A cross-country journey warms New England collectors heart
(And it was more than just a house filled with bottles that drove him cuckoo)
by John DeGrafft
Did you ever say to someone, "We should get together one of these days"? Or, "I'd love to see your collection sometime!" However, it seems,"'one of these days" and "sometime"' never arrives. I had been promising myself and Tom Eccles that a visit was in order since 1979, when Tom was supplying me with information for my now antiquated book, "American Sarsaparilla Bottles." Now, finally, after some prompting from Tom, and from my wife, I had decided it was time to make the visit a reality and see what he had amassed in the sarsaparilla department over the past 35 years.
Tom and Jeanette
here we go ... but not so fast.
Let's throw in a two-foot snowstorm in Rhode Island the first week of December. Like being in Yellowknife or the like. However, the folks at T. F. Greene Airport in Providence had everything a go in short order and a few hours later I was in sunny, 72-degree Ontario, Calif. being chauffeured by my host. The Eccles had been kind enough to offer me board for three days, which I thought would be plenty of time to see the "stuff"...Wrong!
Tom at trophy case #1.
Greeted on my arrival by Tom's lovely wife, Jeanette, who is
also a collector, and their spoiled-worse-than-me canine, Boomer,
I couldn't even shed my overly-warm sweater before my eyes were
climbing into a cabinet of colored and aqua bottles, all of which
were embossed with the word .. SARSAPARILLA.
Wait a minute ... there's another cabinet ... and another ... and another!
One thing I've discovered while visiting collectors' homes throughout the world is that there's never any wasted space, and this home is no exception...the special world of the collector!
Sarsaparillas..... what else?
Tom is quick to point out some bottles that are as yet
unlisted. We decided to photograph each one, just in case there
is a decision to update my previously mentioned book. This would
certainly be the place to start such a project...with about 75
unlisted sarsaparillas under one roof! As I paw through the
bottles I have to carefully extract each one from its place, as
each is held securely by a nearly invisible fishing line to
prevent it from falling forward in the event of an e--------e.
(Don't even mention that word to a bottle collector!)
I was amazed at some of the names and the stories.
How about an Elliott's Arabian Sarsaparilla from Providence, R.I., with four front panels, dug in New York? Or, a Dr. Dausch's Sarsaparilla for the Blood and Brain? Maybe a Dayton's Sarsaparilla with the words Coca Tonic embossed on the side ... or a Dr. Gompal's from Bombay with "made in Japan" embossed on the base? A Miner's with "sarsaparilla" on the front panel ... at a 45-degree angle? Seems advertising was just as clever back then.
Did I mention the stories?
Here is the Phillips from Deadwood, a bottle directly related to my marriage ... it's true...and the beautiful green Drummonds given to Tom for the price of postage.
After a great home-cooked meal, we are very involved with photography. Photography, I might add, on a very amateur level. For best results, we place a white towel as the background, and, the real secret, is to use a very low light. The digital camera is the savior. Thank God for 512 MG cards and rechargeable batteries...
As I retire for the first evening, I pause to look around my room. It's full...if that's the right word.
The evidence of years of flea markets, yard sales, bottle shows and antique stores fills every available nook. Everything is in its place and nothing is out of place...including the bedside tables Jeanette crafted in woodworking class, and the half-wall of cookbooks, many of which are well used!
"I hate bottles!
After breakfast, a few more photos in our studio, which is really Tom's office. Here we are surrounded by Tom's great roll-top desk, favorite books, bottles, more bottles, and still more bottles, including my personal favorite...stoneware sarsaparillas. However, in here, not all the bottles are sarsaparillas. Many great western ghost town bottles and fascinating items too numerous to mention are visible on every wall. There is no mistaking Tom's roots. He is a westerner through and through and it's evident everywhere I look. He enjoys talking about his land in Nevada, where his bottle club once trekked annually for fun and, of course, bottle digs. And when the sarsaparillas were scarce, the pursuit of western drugstore bottles and dose glasses took over.
Q. "So, Tom, why sarsaparillas?"
"I dug the broken front panel of an Ira Baker's Sarsaparilla in a Nevada ghost town in the mid-60s. That set me in the sarsaparilla direction."
Q. "Tell me about visiting Charles Gardner."
"Jeanette and I were back east so we gave him a call and he graciously invited us to visit him and to see his collection. I remember being very impressed at seeing my first Wyncoop's Sarsaparilla. It wasn't long after that I received a letter from Charlie telling me he had a second Wyncoop's, and offered to sell it to me for $350. At the time that kind of money was totally out of the question! A few years later I purchased a 33-bottle sarsaparilla collection for $875, which included a Wyncoop's. I kept fourteen bottles from that collection and, by selling off the duplicates, recouped my initial $875."
Q. "What's your favorite sarsaparilla bottle?"
"I think my favorite is the Shaker, but it's hard to pin it down to one. I like the Phillips for its roots and was very pleased to get it. It was kind of a completion for me on the western sarsaparillas."
"To have this many sarsaparilla bottles in one collection, there has to be more to it than just going to shows and digging."
"To tell you the truth, I was never very successful digging sarsaparillas ... I ran an ad in a couple of the more popular antique and bottle publications for over fifteen years. That accounts for many."
Tom is quick to give Jeanette credit for her undying support right from the start. Many times, it was Jeanette who encouraged the paying of a little more for the "better" bottles. At the time it might have seemed a bit steep, but, we all know what has happened to "better" bottles over the past 30 years!Jeanette may collect balsams, Occupied Japan, and other treasures, but she holds a strong love for the sarsaparillas as well.
After an all-important "IN & OUT" burger, we are off to Pomona to check out the antique stores.
But it seems that the word antique has a new meaning. And it's not just Pomona. Maybe it's the big shows, or the big auctions, or the bigger yet Internet. Whatever it is, the antique stores, in my eyes, are not the same as they were just a very few years ago.
Back at the house, Tom lets me use his PC to send an e-mail to my wife. So, naturally, that means another room ... with still more cabinets. Before I can sit down, I am mesmerized by a large collection of Occupied Japan items of a select nature. They are great! But what really stands out, is the obvious years of ... "the hunt." The window only allows for three walls of display in this room ... such a disappointment!
On the way back to the kitchen, Tom explains each family photo in the hallway. Family photos are great! I can only wonder if they would be replaced with cabinets if not for the narrowness of the hallway.
More sarsaparilla bottle talk takes up the rest of the afternoon as we sit outside by the pool. Boomer doesn't miss this opportunity to garner some attention, at which he is an expert. "OK. OK. I'll throw the ball"...and all this time I thought it was the man who trained the dog. Guess I had that backwards!
I bring out the Wyncoop's for a photo in the sun, and the Keeler's, and the Clarke's. Tom watches me walk around with these prizes, praying I don't fall into the pool or something cute like that.
We walk into Tom's tool area inside the garage, where Tom once repaired and rebuilt clocks. Also where he made jewelry and cut and polished stones from the petrified wood he accumulated during trips to the northwest many years ago. He offers me a cuckoo clock that is hanging on the wall. I politely refuse, mainly because of limited carrying space. (Don't ever tell my wife I refused a cuckoo clock!)
Tonight we're off to a buffet ... a really good one!
Here come the ribs!
Today we are trying to finish all the photos of the unlisted bottles. Not to mention, I am filling my second 256 MB card with "other stuff". Seems a bit abnormal, doesn't it?
Time is flying and the evening brings us to the living room.
Believe it or not, I haven't had this tour yet. Here, the displays take the form of antique furniture, bookcases and the like. Small collections of Western items grab my attention from every direction as Tom guides me through. He is proud of his trophies, and rightly so. Each of the truly great and wonderful items comes with a story. I have been here almost three days and it's not long enough.
The decision is made to light the fireplace. I guess because it's about 50 degrees. Where I come from, if it's 50 degrees in December, we turn the heat off, not on. Soon it's toasty, but no one can sit down to enjoy it for more than a minute because Tom keeps remembering one more thing that must be shown ... and I love every moment of it!
Walking with his cane, when he remembers it, Tom is back and forth, cooking ribs on the grill, with short intermissions to continue the tour. The conversation drifts back to bottles and the many national events that have been attended. The Chicago show, where I first met Tom in the early 80s. Sam Greer was there with a Shaker Sarsaparilla bottle on his table. (That's another story for another day.) Twice, in Las Vegas and again in Cincinnati, I crossed paths with Tom.
"Great ribs, Tom." (How do these people stay so thin?)
Visiting with the Eccles has certainly been one of the highlights of my collecting career. I can hardly wait to download the photos and relive it.
I hope I haven't given the impression that these folks have completed their collection and are sitting around playing canasta ... far from it! In fact, Tom has assured me we will meet again ... next time it will be in Tennessee, this summer, at the national.
Thank you, Tom, Jeanette, and Boomer, for sharing your home, your knowledge, your passion, and, most of all, your stories.
Oh, did I mention? A cuckoo clock arrived in my mailbox about a week after I was home?
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