Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Albin Elchert - The Collector

Albin Elchert (1975)

My grandmother had lots and lots of cousins. This was not unusual at the time; big families meant plenty of farmhands (among other reasons). One of Grandma’s cousins was a man named Albin Elchert (1873-1976), of New Riegel, Ohio. Cousin Albin (who was born “Albinus”) was a notable man for several reasons. He lived to be 103 years old, which was newsworthy enough to cause several newspaper articles to appear around his centennial. Like most of the family, he farmed most of his life, but also worked as a printer, roofer, and manufacturer of patent medicines. And he was a collector – a stamp collector, an Indian relic collector, and a collector of match books, glass flasks, buttons, gourds, beehives, coins, and swords.

When my father was a boy, he spent a fall afternoon at Albin Elchert’s farm, picking the lovely “Snow” apples that grew in Albin’s orchard. He played with Albin’s grandchildren, and sometime during that afternoon seventy years ago, was shown a shed in the farmyard that was full of Albin’s collections. His stamps were in that shed, as were many other treasures. I do not know what became of his collections, whether his children claimed them, sold them, or got rid of them. Yet using a few surviving bits of postal history related to Albin Elchert, we can get a few clues to the hobby, which was also a business, too.

The Collector from Detroit

In or around 1928, Albin Elchert made the acquaintance of wiry, dark-eyed man from Detroit, Michigan. Henry Ford was already a rich man, and was spending some of his automaker profits buying American antiquities. Ford was no dabbler; in the 1920s, he bought entire buildings, like Thomas Edison’s New Jersey laboratory or the Wright Brothers Ohio bicycle shop. Ford went to Elchert not for a building, not for stamps, but for his wooden statue of an Indian.

Wooden statues of Indians, placed in front of cigar stores all over the Midwest, were a fixture of American decorative arts. The Indian that Elchert possessed was a striking figure, hand carved in the 1860s or 70s by Arnold and Peter Ruelf of Tiffin. Nicknamed “Seneca John” and “The Tiffin Tecumseh,” the hand painted statue stood in front of the cigar factory of John Dehmer for almost a half-century. Albin Elchert bought it in about 1916 or 1918, and sold it to Henry Ford for a reputed price of $100. The statue is still in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Cigar store Indians are still to be seen on occasion, but they are borderline politically incorrect. I have no idea whether Albin bought the Indian with the thought of keeping it or reselling it. $100 was a tidy chunk of change in 1928, and presumably, both he and that man from Detroit were satisfied with the transaction.

Not Quite Amateur, Not Quite Professional: Milo Custer

In 1911, Albin received a letter from one Milo Custer, of Bloomington, Illinois. Custer was researching flax in Illinois, and was at work on a monograph entitled, Pioneer Preparation and Spinning of Flax and Wool, which appeared in print the following year. That same year he published a book on War of 1812 pensioners in Illinois. During a life of historical research, Custer also wrote on the Kickapoo Indians, Asiatic cholera, and Illinois obituaries.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the idea of a “professional” historian was not quite in focus. Wealthy dilettantes like Theodore Roosevelt and Francis Parkman were producing book-length histories, while in Ohio Henry Howe and various county historians were producing tomes that were paid for by subscription. Milo Custer was somewhere between: he produced serious, well-researched studies of local interest, and in 1909 became the curator of the McLean County (Illinois) Historical Society. Yet he was a bit eccentric; never married, he lived with his mother, and when Society leadership changed hands, he burned membership lists, refused to turn over savings account records, and threw part of the society’s coin collection in a pond.

Custer coveted a flax breaker owned by Albin Elchert. A ponderous machine that looked something like a large paper cutter, the breaker owned by Albin Elchert was a 4 ½ feet long hinged device that beat the flax plants heads into a fibrous consistency. The resulting flax could then be woven into cloth. In a letter to Custer, Elchert wrote that it was “made of oak wood, and was made by my Grandfather in 1863.” It is not recorded how Custer knew Elchert had a flax breaker, but Elchert offered to sell it to Custer “for $10 cash if you want it at that price” and that Custer would have to pay the “express charges” himself. I do not know if this transaction was completed.

Albin Elchert must have had other wonderful things in his backyard shed – wonderful in themselves, or merely mundane things made wonderful by age. That he was a stamp collector, his descendants all knew. We cannot study his collection because it no longer exists. But as a study of a collector and a collector’s actions, we can at least be tantalized by the few clues that remain.

[Sources include: The Tiffin Advertiser Tribune, various issues; correspondence with the Benson Ford Research Center, Dearborn, Michigan; Milo Custer Collection, McLean County (Illinois) Museum of History, website (; and Time Magazine, April 2, 1928.]