We have become a nation of collectors.
Today, every citizen is a collector and every product is collectible.
Just walk into your nearest Wal-Mart edifice and witness the never-ending stream of baubles meant to entice us with their sure-to-increase value: telephone cards, Happy Meal toys, Elvis dolls, ceramic knickknacks, POG caps, Star Wars action figures, movie posters, Pez dispensers, comic books, Hot Wheels, NASCAR knives, special "limited edition" Barbies, sport and nonsport trading cards. Not only is it implicit that these are all collectible, but each and every object has an entire magazine or web site devoted to the joys of collecting it.
But all that's just amateur stuff, millennium-induced hoarding that will supposedly pay off years from now when the owners dust off the still shrink-wrapped items and truck them down to the post-apocalyptic flea market. There are others among us driven by impulses far more demanding than mere monetary appetite, whose collections of sundry objects border on the obsessive. You've probably heard of a few.
For instance, there's that guy in Old North Knoxville with hundreds (or was it thousands?) of beer cans lining the walls of his fine Victorian home, row after row of empty aluminum vessels depicting the history of hops. From out west come reports of a fellow who's built an entire warehouse to shelter his car collection of over 100 Lincoln Continentals--spanning the '61 through '68 model years only, thank you. And what about that upstanding family practitioner with the mystifying collection of miniature farm tractors? How can such behavior be explained?
UT's Department of Psychology made a small foray into examining the phenomenon last year. In a phone survey of 694 randomly selected Tennessee adults, it found that 45.8 percent consider themselves collectors. A nearly even percentage of men and women claimed to be collectors. Race, age, years of education, and community size did not discriminate collectors from noncollectors.
Collecting would appear to be a universal pursuit, with the reasons given starting with "nostalgia" (38.3 percent) and "beauty or esthetics" (17.3 percent). Others included "home decoration," "complete a set," "investment," and, of course, "other." Men were almost twice as likely to collect for investment as women.
"Some people honestly do collect for investment purposes--if you offered them a good price, they'd sell it in a heartbeat," says Dr. Wes Montgomery, a UT associate professor of psychology who co-authored the study with Jodie Sutton Castellani. "But this is not true of collectors who do it for the love of it, who are content to see the collection have a life past their own."
This would describe those in the "other" category, collectors who cannot explain their actions as they amass their huge accumulations of stuff. These are people who simply follow their own impulses, without self-doubt or fear of alienating loved ones. They do what they do because they have to.
Here are four of Knoxville's collecting elite, individuals who have committed themselves to fashioning collections that tower above those of lesser devotees. They have all created one-of-a-kind monuments to their own magnificent obsessions.
Scrap-Hauling Urban Archeologist
When Andy Whitaker cranks up his ugly old '71 Chevy pickup, he is a man charged with a special mission. It might appear that he's only hauling scrap metal for a living--cleaning up dumps, moving stuff out of demolition sites--but in reality he's making an expedition to the distant past, sifting through fragments of history and rescuing artifacts cast away generations ago.
Where others might just go about their scrap-hauling business without much thought, Andy is a seeker. He crawls through century-old dumps digging up bottles and shards of ornate china. He locates long-forgotten ruins like Highland Park in Fountain City and uncovers their secrets. Whenever an old building or home is torn down, he tries to intercept the debris before it all ends up in a landfill, saving 18th-century bricks, fluted columns, hexagonal floor tiles with linked patterns.
Some would say that to gather these bits of cast-off history is enough. But for Andy, it's just the beginning. For him, they are destined to become part of his ongoing architectural project: Kingwood Terrace.
Drive along Kingwood Street in Fountain City and it's hard to miss. In Andy's yard is his monument to the ages: 60-foot-long garden terraces that decorate a small grade above street level, built from the flotsam and jetsam of Knoxville's past. Since 1989, this slim 33-year-old with the sandy mustache has almost single-handedly constructed the masterpiece, topped by an 11-foot-tall archway. Made of stone, brick, cement, and steel, it looks able to withstand history itself.
"I think the spirits in those dumps have been gettin' ahold of me to immortalize their fragments," Whitaker explains softly, half joking. "I don't know if I'm an archeologist or nothing. I'm just more of an anthropologist in a way."
He points out a sliver of smooth white China imbedded in the terrace's cement, rubbing it with his thumb.
"I often wonder, like, why did this plate break? Was it a lover's quarrel, or did a child drop it? It's got a lot of psychic energy, it seems like."
It's the found objects cemented between the bricks and stones that make Andy's Kingwood Terrace so fascinating. As you walk by the walls, long-forgotten fragments demand your attention: a bronze mold of a yearning baby's hand ("I guess it's a sample for bronzing your child's hand prints"), a stone wheel with concentric grooves ("It's a stone polisher that came from a little mill off Tazewell Pike"), nude art deco figurines, a white clay jar with black lettering ("Only Prize Medal for Marmalade, London, 1862, Great Britain"), an old brass pot from Civil War times ("I found it on Van Heart's Ridge--that's where Fort Adair used to be"). Practically every era of the region's habitation is represented.
The project started about seven years ago when a tree fell down and broke a birdbath in the yard. "So I thought, 'Well, I'll just build a little wall through here,'" he says. "Then all of a sudden it metamorphosized into this monstrosity.
"Sometimes I work on it regularly, but sometimes I go months at a time and do nothin' to it. It depends on what kind of influences are around me, as in people. I'm kind of lonely, so I worry about women too much. I get obsessed with that and I end up being alone all the time. You know how it is, the old classic story--the single guy. But I try to use my extra energy on something creative, as you can tell."
He hopes to complete it by the year 2000--still to come are a heart-shaped bridge, another stairway, a multi-level fountain, and a three-in-one fireplace with a pottery kiln, a grill, and a Dutch oven. Thus far, city inspectors have given him the green light, though he's had to "straighten up" his yard a few times.
"I'm not a perfectionist when it comes to straight lines, but I focus on making it structurally sound and interesting," says Whitaker. "I'm a big nut on structural soundness, I overdo everything."
To Andy, Kingwood Terrace is not only a bit of neighborhood improvement, it's also an expression of his own philosophy of recycling the past. Whenever he sees an old building come down and its materials sent to landfills, he feels torn.
"I often think 'What a waste.' I say that because I see some good architecture go down. Like the Christenberry Heights Junior High, which they're turning into a magnet school. Which is good--if the buildings are outdated and they weren't energy efficient. But they could've at least saved the auditorium part because it had some really cool stonework.
"I guess it depends on what you call progression--some people call progression fixing up the old town, and some people call progression tearing down the old town and building a new town. It all depends on the building--you can't say one basic thing for the whole thing. Like during the Cold War on Gay St., people put that ugly-ass siding on it and it looked awful. Then they took it down years later and said 'Whoo, look at that!'"
The Glass Menagerie
On this particular Sunday, you won't find Donald M. Fiene, Ph.D., in any of the usual places. As others gather in various houses of worship, places of brunch, and assorted fishing holes, the retired UT professor of Russian is instead attending to his own rituals. He'll be at the police shooting range picking up bullet casings.
This is because the dapper 66-year-old with the neatly trimmed gray beard has yearned to gather them ever since he sold his prized collection of .38 shells to Billy Fritz at age 12. Now he has giant bottles brimming with bullet and shotgun shells of every size, color and make.
"I hate guns and shooting and all the rest of it, but I do recognize that when you see 'Winchester,' you're talking about America," he says, gesturing to one of his many antique metal signs. "This is a nation of shooting the shit out of people who walk anywhere near you. And that is our culture, that's the way we live. So that's partly why I do it."
This particular allegiance to violent Americana is but one of Dr. Fiene's many pursuits, however. He manages to devote himself to the creation, organization and perpetuation of some 50-odd collections that populate his house from basement to attic. He is a collector of collections.
If you have the time to tour his and his wife Judith's Fort Sanders home, the most immediate evidence of his obsession is the vast number of power line insulators--cylinders of glass and porcelain--that are arrayed on every horizontal surface available: shelves, window sills, tables, mantles. He's got 5,000 of them. He's not particularly sure why.
"Well, I found a few along a railroad track, and I liked the shape and color of them, so I brought them home," he says. "It became a hobby." That was in 1970, when at age 40 he suddenly discovered within himself a desire to gather stuff. Since then, he has kept very busy satisfying that urge.
There are, for instance, the 10,000 Russian stamps ("I think I have about three left to go--and I'll probably get them"), the kitschy John F. Kennedy plates hung above the sink ("What is that? Is that a true hobby?"), the 80 slide rules ("If there's ever a total electronic wipeout, I'll be fine"), the autographed books (Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Kurt Vonnegut, J. D. Salinger), the 128 banana stickers kept in alphabetical order ("They're just like collecting postage stamps--there's a certain colorfulness there"), Sunday School pins ("Catholics never had those; Protestants do"), red tail light lenses, Russian icons, doorknobs, furniture coasters.
Then there are the hundreds of seashells set in glass display tables and shelves ("This represents another area I've let slide--I like it the way it is. I don't want to add anything to it because I don't have the room. Well, I could take a couple more"), the 150 typewriter ribbon tins ("It's really amazing that we have found a place for these things and show no sign of stopping"), the 60 toilet bowl sanitary seals from around the world ("They put them in the Russian hotels. I just decided I liked those strips"), and the hundreds of "flower frogs," those multi-holed objects you place in vases to prop up flowers. Could it be the world's biggest collection? Maybe.
But those are just minor dabblings compared to Dr. Fiene's other major obsessions. First, we have the skulls. There are the small ones, tidily affixed to display boards--beaver, squirrel, snapping turtle. Then we come to the ones on the walls: ram, buffalo, longhorn steer. Finally, there are the ones in the basement: South African water buffalo, lion, panther, bobcat, alligator, yak, camel ... and, yes, human.
"I find them in the woods, at flea markets, I buy them in the mail," he says. "I'm more interested in laying out real money for those than anything else I collect right now. I just got interested in them. I keep telling myself, 'You're not going to do any more.' They're fairly expensive, $100 typically for bigger ones. But right now, though, if I run into an opportunity to buy one, I do it."
Finally, and most defiantly, Dr. Fiene collects metal signs of a very specialized sort: chain link fence signs, those signs fence manufacturers affix to their products. In particular, he is obsessed by the Cyclone Fence company. He has begged, borrowed, stolen and bought 350 of the company's signs, which he has linked together to form great metal sheets that hang from his basement ceiling.
"Nobody collects them that I know of," Fiene reports. "People are all the time picking up these kind of porcelain enamel signs, but they're looking for soft drinks. Why they aren't looking for Cyclone Fence signs, I don't know.
"I went after these because they were cheap. Nobody cared. You can go and ask a guy who's the owner of some fence and say, 'Can I have that sign?' And he'll say, 'Fine, take it.' Nobody wants them--they don't care about this advertising for someone else. I like the way these things look. I like the way I have put them up in tiers. And behind them are other porcelain insulators. You see there's more there, and there's more on the other side of the cellar. It's just unbearable."
Also winding its way through Fiene's cellar is a wisteria root that comes in through one window and exits on the opposite side only to climb up another tree in the back yard. Why did he nurture such a thing?
"You'd have to figure that out yourself, because I can't say. It's like doing something that no one has ever done. I try to do something like that every a year--something that absolutely no one has ever done. How many people do you think have forced a wisteria to do that? I don't think too many."
Will he ever stop? Considering that he's also writing two books--one an autobiography, the other a study of Russian icons depicting divine wisdom--one might think he'd run out of time for such collecting. His answer is simple: "Never, sir!"
Not Mad, Really
As Bobby Beaty tools along County Farm Road in Friendsville, out near Maryville, he'll most certainly point out that once upon a time this was all rural land--there were no mini-marts, no housing developments, no big power lines. But as you near his property, the great masses of trees and hills still look vibrantly green, striking a beautiful contrast to the clear blue skies. If it wasn't 95 degrees out, you'd swear it's a small chunk of heaven.
The slim, neatly groomed 57-year-old owner of Beaty & Waters Used Cars has seen a lot of change in the past 30 years--in fact, one fairly new construction is his own warehouse built near his home. He put it up in 1987 to house his ever-growing collection.
"When I started collecting, I put 'em in boxes," he says. "And I just kept puttin' 'em in and closin' the box up. Everywhere I go, if they had a box, I'd get it. And I just kept stackin' 'em up over there in the house. Why, I had 'em in the closets, under the beds, and everywhere else. Mrs. Beaty wasn't likin' it too well, you know."
The problem was momentarily solved with the construction of the warehouse. But, wouldn't you guess, he had to expand it two years later. The collection was getting bigger, and it needed display space.
You see, Bobby Beaty collects baseball-style caps. He has 6,400 of them. Or thereabouts.
Shelf after shelf, they line the walls of his warehouse in perfect rows, like bodiless soldiers marching in single file. They aren't stacked on top of each other, they aren't doubled up on the shelves--they sit at attention in unbroken lines, stretching the entire length of the warehouse. There are caps with sports team emblems, political slogans, addresses from stores of every sort, car dealerships ... every kind of baseball-style cap you can think of. And they're all neatly sealed in plastic.
Beaty's obsession with caps started in 1983, when a friend of his gave him a Beaty Seed & Feed cap from Cleveland, Tenn.
"And it was so pretty, I decided 'I'm just gonna start collectin' 'em,'" he says. "It just hit me. It's different, you know. So I got started on it and I couldn't quit."
Is there any particular kind of cap he searches for?
"No, just any cap--I don't care what it is," he says. There are no especially valuable ones in the collection, though there are a few notables. He's got one from Junior Samples, "just like he wore on Hee-Haw," political ones from former Gov. McWherter and Presidents Bush and Clinton, ones from companies no longer in business like Blount National Bank and Clayton Lincoln-Mercury. He estimates that 90 percent of them have been gifts from friends and family.
"You know what a friend is--it's somebody who likes to do something for you. Your friends'll take care of you. I've been in business out there at Beaty Used Cars for 33 years and I might go in the morning and there'll be two there on the desk that somebody dropped off--you don't even know who brought 'em to you. They just know you collect 'em and they'll bring 'em to you."
While caps are certainly Beaty's primary obsession, his warehouse shelters plenty more collections in various stages of organization. He has Coca-Cola trays, beer cozies, tobacco cans, Velveeta cans ("I bought those in stores an' laid 'em back.), sport cups, and several antique bicycles, including an old Huffy with rocket-ship styling.
"Just anything I thought was different or odd, I kept it," he says in mild understatement.
There's his complete collection of every Thrifty Nickel published ("I've kept them from day one"), the hundreds of old car manuals ("Here's one for a '78 Chevy Malibu"), baseball cards in unopened boxes, old push mowers, Vol memorabilia. Most impressive is his car collection, which uses up most of the warehouse's floor space. He's got clean Volkswagen Bugs, pickup trucks, and a number of '50s Chevrolets, including a '52 Powerglide coupe with 21,000 miles that he's had since 1965. Situated among these prime examples of automobile engineering are probably the last two mint-condition Yugos in the country.
"These two little Yugos are supposed to be the worst cars ever built," he muses, "and they probably are, I don't know. But I remember when I was a kid they had a Henry J., and the Allstate. You could buy one of 'em for a song and a dance, $5-600. Now they're probably worth $30-40,000. I just thought maybe these might hit. My grandkids might get something out of 'em."
But caps are still first on the collecting agenda--after all, he says, "It's hard to quit collectin' when your friends go somewhere and bring a cap back." He'll be running out of shelf space soon, though he hasn't yet formulated a plan.
"I don't know. I haven't any idea what to do," he says. "I'm pretty proud of 'em--I mean, it's a feat. Now, it'll take you a long time to put that many caps up, if you just sit down and think about it."
On the Air
Julian Burke lives in a museum. Although from the outside it looks like your typically large rancher nestled in a West Knoxville subdivision, inside is a storehouse of radio and television history. Crowding every square foot of available floor space are studio microphone stands, art deco radios that look like ornate furniture, early television sets with pop-up mirrors. But these aren't your every day flea market finds--these are pieces of electronic equipment from the earliest stages of the industry's evolution, and all are of museum quality.
"I've seen a few collectors around Knoxville who have a ton of stuff--I mean a lot," says Burke. "The average person might say, 'Wow, you look like a radio collector.' But I'd say 95 percent of it is just junk. Just run-of-the-mill rough stuff."
Burke, who owns his own coin-op machine business, specializes in collecting early electronic rarities--one-offs, prototypes, equipment from companies that didn't last long. A huge glass case in his living room contains scores of microphones, vacuum tubes, and odd bits of broadcasting flotsam--Lowell Blanchard's mike from the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, Mel Blanc's "skunk mike" from Warner Brothers Studios, two sets of official NBC chimes, a one-only prototype of an iconoscope tube built by hand in the RCA labs in Camden, N.J., an NBC flag of solid wool, original batteries from the '30s.
The living room itself is like a wondrous department store of like-new equipment from the earliest years of radio and television. Marconi ship-to-shore spark gap sets from 1912 share space with a 1946 RCA television set that was in production for only 20 days, its sleek cabinet designed by the renowned Raymond Loewy. Burke flicks on a 1951 Spartan TV ("It's a little later than what I like to collect, but it was my family's first set") by raising its mirrored lid. After a short humming warm-up, the screen softly glows and Jimmy Durante appears out of the ether, tap-dancing in a black and white mist, singing "Now everybody throw your arms in the airÊ..."
Burke estimates that he's got about 5,000 pieces stored in his house and two warehouses. His fascination with radio history started when he was growing up in Seattle in the early '60s--walking to grade school, he would stop at the local TV stations on the way there and talk to the old engineers. They taught him about the equipment and about radio and television itself--having been there from the start of the medium.
"I was in a very unique position in that I not only got to see these people on a daily basis, but I got to learn stuff from them," he says. "People today don't have this kind of understanding. So that's kind of how it started--when I see an old piece of equipment, I know exactly what it is."
Although he started collecting electronic equipment in 1968, he doesn't recall making a conscious decision to make it his life's pursuit.
"I think like with most collectors, all of a sudden one day you realize you've got shelves and shelves and boxes full of this stuff," he says. "And then you start trying to segregate it so you can keep it in a logical order, because if you just keep it in boxes, you don't know what you've got and you keep buying duplicates. You just try to keep up with it--it gets harder and harder, but all of a sudden one day you go, 'Wow, I've really got just a ton of junk.' I'd hate to move all this stuff."
But it's not only the hardware that captivates Burke, it's also the talent these pieces of equipment used to broadcast--talent that's no longer around in mass entertainment today.
"Oh, I miss a lot of it. There's material back then that is absolutely solid gold. Back then you had entertainers who had to be funny for a living--there was no bad language, no four-letter words being spoken on radio and TV. You had to be genuinely, honestly funny to make it. And good examples of that would be Groucho Marx, Jimmy Durante, Milton Berle--I mean, you could sit there and watch them for hours and they could keep coming up with one-liners that'd keep you laughing.
"Talent like that is gone forever because today with videotape technology they can delete, add special effects, and doctor it up so you really don't have to have talent anymore to be in the media. They can doctor your voice, alter your appearance, make something out of you that you're really not."
Although our TV entertainers may be mere constructs today, there are still people here who really are what they are. Collectors like the above gentlemen don't amass their collections for profit or for profiles in the local media. They do it because they find some sense of their identities in this work--they are what they collect.