The graphic appeal of old games boards

Quebec game board, 2nd quarter, 20th cent. offered by Martin Osler on the Collectivator site

The board game called “Checkers” in North America and “Draughts” (pronounced as “drafts”) in Europe is one of the oldest games known to man. The history of checkers can be traced to the very cradle of civilization, where vestiges of the earliest form of the game was unearthed in an archeological dig in the ancient city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, which is now modern day Iraq.

Draughts (British English), or checkers (American English) is a group of strategy board games for two players which involve diagonal moves of uniform game pieces and mandatory captures by jumping over opponent pieces.

Octagonal sided game board, late 19th cent.,Waterloo, Ontario, offered by Wendy Hamilton on the Collectivator site.

The most popular forms are English draughts, also called American checkers, is played on an 8×8 checkerboard; Russian draughts, also played on an 8×8; and international draughts, played on a 10×10 board. There are many other variants played on 8×8 and 12×12 boards. Canadian checkers and Singaporean/Malaysian checkers (also locally known as dum) are played on a 12×12 board.  I have found that what is referred to as Canadian checkers, might better be called Quebec, or French Canadian checkers, because after years of buying and selling both 8, 10 and 12 square variations of the board, I have found that it is pretty much accepted that if a board has 12 squares across it is from French Quebec.  With 8 or 10 spaces, it is assumed to be Ontario or other “English” culturally based province.  How did this variation get started? Maybe folks in Quebec just liked a bit longer game.  After all, the winters are cold in Quebec so what’s the rush to get outdoors.

Circa 1820, Lunenburg Cty, Nova Scotia Parcheesi board, illustrated on page 216 of Canadian folk art to 1950, by John A. Fleming, and Micheal J. Rowan.

Chess may be considered the game of kings, but Pachisi is the game of emperors. Long before the American game of Parcheesi was first played in the late 1860s in North America, Pachisi, the Royal Game of India, had made its way around the world.

You won’t find nearly as many parcheesi boards out there, which illustrates that many more people went for the simpler game of checkers, but the boards are particularly sought after for their more complex graphic pattern.  And let’s face it, not a lot of people are buying old game boards to occupy their time on a Friday night.  For the most part, People buy old game boards to put them up on the wall as a graphic focus.  And who can blame them.  A checker board  is  inherently interesting.  We like looking at contrasting squares.   The orderly rows of squares suggest discipline, and harmony.  It’s peaceful and it draws the eye.

Quebec, mid 19th century Parcheesi board, illustrated on page 40 of the Price’s book “Twas ever thus”

I have bought and sold many game boards over the years although we have never added one to our collection.  I’ve found many that attracted me, but I think the reason I am happy to appreciate them and then find them a good home is because we like paintings so much that we want to donate all our wall space to them.  It’s the same reason we don’t collect old advertising.  I love looking at a great old sign, and some of it is as exciting visually  as a good painting, but they rarely turn my crank like a good painting will.  It’s true that some boards and ads do transcend into the realm of fine art, but they are few and far between, and such a thing has never fallen into my hands.

late 19th cent checkers board, Waterloo, Ont, offered by Wendy Hamilton on the Collectivator site.

Unlike most antique furniture or accessories, a game board can fit into many room décors be it traditional, or modern because of it’s graphic nature.   They also look fabulous grouped together.  We have friends with about 14 game boards placed carefully  over a very tall and wide wall in their living room and the overall effect is breath taking.   They are all different, while also being similar in that they all have the graphic checkerboard as the main component.  Some are primitive.  Some refined.  They all say something about who made them.  And of course patina can be a large factor.  The wear on some old game boards can beautifully tell the story of usage and age.  You are struck visually with the pattern, and at the back of your head you can’t help thinking about all the happy hours spent talking and playing the game together by countless individuals over the years.  You think about how when these boards were being used regularly, there were no game boys, television, or U-Tube to occupy your “down” time.  You could read when you wanted to be solitary, or if you wanted to have some entertainment and commute with others you would  find the local checkers or parcheesi game.  Or I suppose if you wanted a bit more of an intellectual work out you may play chess.  You still needed the board.

Because gameboards offer many interesting variations on a similar theme they are a natural and fun thing to collect.  I love looking at them.   If only we had more wall space.

Circa 1880 Quebec Parcheesi board, offer on Collectivator by Croyden House.

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Changes

I’ve just looked on my Word Press home page and this is my 107th blog entry.   I promised myself 100 entries.  Tiny drum roll please.   I’m enjoying it, so I’ll keep on going.  My goal has been to write something once a week about an aspect of my life spent in the antique trade, and the pursuit of Canadian folk art in particular. Beyond this my intension has been to go beyond the technical, and take a look at a life spent as I suggest “seeking authentic”. What is it in an item that catches me, and keeps me interested? Why do I care?   Actually, I am more interested in the expression of beauty, and the preservation of it, than I am in the industry per se, but I have also made a living from my full time involvement, so the industry part affects me.  Today I’m thinking about that.

We listen to a lot of NPR in this house.  Jeanine tries to clear her agenda every day at three to listen to Terry Gross on Fresh Air.  I’ve become a fan as well.  It’s too much politics these days, but it’s still intelligent radio. On Wednesday in the morning I was listening to a business review as I was doing up the breakfast dishes, and a report came on about changes in the antique business since the introduction of on-line shopping about the year 2000.  The program confirmed that as those of us in the industry know, the antique industry has taken a hard punch, and is now greatly reduced in size.  I think it suggested over-all the industry is down 60%, but I could have that figure muddled, and after spending a half hour searching the NPR site I could not find the interview to check it.  In any case it’s dramatic.  They had a quote from one of the appraisers from the Antiques Road Show on how half of the shops in his home town of Houston, Texas had already closed down, and the others were in trouble.  The thesis suggested that the value of dark furniture, china, pottery, etc. dropped dramatically as these items became more easily available on-line.  Basic consumerism. Why drive around when you can sit at your desk and order exactly what you are looking for?  This situation is essentially true for all retail, and with rising costs for a bricks and mortar location, it just takes a trip through the down town of a small city to see the results of this situation.  We have big box stores on the edges of towns but less and less independent little shops in the core. It’s a shame really for those of us who live to dig around in crowded, interesting spaces, but it is entirely understandable.

They chose the antique industry as an example because it has suffered the double whammy of changing retail structure, and of changing cultural tastes.  There are now more Millennials than there are baby boomers.  It’s a fact, and so far the kids don’t want their grandparents finely made dining room suites, or their knick-knacks.  Nor do they want their Great-Grandparents diamond point armoire or harvest table as difficult as that is to comprehend.  At this point the show tried to be up-beat by suggesting that the day may come when the children of the Millennials will decide they want fine mahogany furniture again instead of Ikea, and the cycle will begin again;  but I doubt it will be as simple as that.  And what dramatic changes would need to take place in the economy for the rents of commercial space in busy markets to drop significantly so that an antique shop could start to open up again.  I’m not looking to bring everybody down here although the program did not make me feel chipper.  I believe that by looking at the reality of the situation, and acknowledging the changes , we might better be able to make the best of it.  There is no question that the industry has diminished, but there is still a lot going on.

Pickers are still dropping furniture off the back of their pick-up trucks at various antique shows. A lot of the  co-ops, on-line sites, and surviving shops continue to do good business.  Facebook groups, and magazines continue to support and bolster the ideas behind collecting, and at the heart of it all, yes, I still believe that many people will potentially come to grow tired of mass consumerism, and will come to “seek authentic” for themselves.  To everything, change, change, change.

O.K. next week I will be back to tell a humorous story about my truck catching fire or some such thing, but this week I really wanted to acknowledge the effect that radio report had on me.  It can’t all be happy face, and I believe in facing these realities head on to understand and move beyond them.  And the one thing I know for certain is that  some unforeseen thing,  or event will come along that will totally change everything.  We have to remain positive to make  that positive change.  We have to keep at it.  Support and encourage, and enjoy what you love.  It’s still the best game in town.

Discovering the stash

Most people are happy enough to keep their money in the bank but some folks, be it because they have lived through a time of bank failures, or shortages such as the war; or just because they have a general mistrust of institutions, and prefer to keep their money in their sock:  Or hidden in a cupboard, or buried in the back yard, etc.  People can be very imaginative when it comes to squirreling away money.

We live in Norfolk county, where if you ask around, you will hear lots of stories of lost and found money. This is perhaps due to the large contingent of Belgian, Dutch, and other European farmers who immigrated here to develop the tobacco industry. A lot of these people had experienced unstable financial times. Or maybe it’s the same everywhere.

Friends who bought a local farm decided to wash and put back the existing curtains, only to find that when they opened the washing machine to add softener, the drum was full of curtains and floating money.  The old couple had sewn hundreds of dollars into the hem of the curtains.  They had died without telling anyone.  Thus it was just dumb luck which averted their fortune being thrown into the dumpster.  I know a family that spent weeks digging up the back yard when they realized that dear old dad, before the Alzheimer’s had set in, had been burying money in canning jars back there over the years.   It makes you wonder how much money is swept away and forgotten.  The problem with secrets is that they are quite often buried with their creators.

It was on a late fall trip to the pickers barns in Quebec in the early nineties that I had my brush with dumb luck.  I was solo on a quick two day, there and back run to pick up more stock for the then active Harbourfront Antique market in Toronto.  During this period I would often leave our house at 4 a.m. make the ten hour drive to Victoriaville; then see three or four pickers that afternoon and evening before crashing.  In the morning I would make a few more stops before heading home about noon, which meant I would arrive home  about 2 or 3 a.m. if all went well.

On this particular trip I ran into some particularly nice western furniture at the barn of Alan Chauvette.  It turns out that the rumors were true.  One of the local pickers had family in Manitoba, and in spite of not speaking much English, he had returned home with a huge load of western pieces.  Many interesting  Ukrainian and Dukhobor pieces as well as furniture from early French  settler’s homes.  I bought five or six excellent cupboards, and chests,  feeling happy to have arrived at the right moment to have a crack at it.  I also spent a lot of money. More than I had budgeted.  Jeanine has always kept the books, (thank goodness as I am a disaster), and my method was to simply spend all the money I had, and write a couple of cheques if necessary.  I didn’t keep a running balance, but had an intuitive sense of when to stop.  Well, I threw that sense right out the window this time, for the opportunity to buy some good Western pieces. I knew I was pushing it.  We kept a tight operating budget in those days, so if we didn’t want to dip into savings  a big buying trip meant I really had to have a good Sunday at the market.   I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it would work out.

Phil with Marcel Gosselin

I was feeling pretty satiated when I arrived at picker Marcel Gosselin’s barn about 10 a.m. as a last stop before returning home.  I was still picking up a half dozen stoneware wash sets from him every trip, because they were still popular at the market and he was still finding lots of them. He was also my source for Aime Desmeulle’s folk art, which was selling well at the time.  As I finished filling in the last remaining little spaces in the load with smalls, I was about to write the cheque when Marcel piped in “Are you sure that’s all Phil? I’ll sell you that small cottage chest for $175.  You know you’ll get about $400 for it.”  It was a tidy, little 4 drawer pine cottage chest from Nova Scotia which were very popular at the time.  I looked at my full truck and thought about the cheque book.  “Thanks for the offer Marcel, but look, I don’t have room for it.”  The load was already well above my racks. “ Look there Phil, on the right side of your tailgate.  I can put it on its side and tie it on right up there.”  Sure enough, I could see he was right. “O.K. Marcel, throw it on and give me the total.”

I got home very late, and went straight to bed.    Next morning, going into the kitchen for coffee, there sat Jeanine looking at the cheque book, and looking worried.   “I understand this was a great opportunity, but it’s going to have to be one heck of a good market on Sunday, or we’re going to have to dip into the savings to cover ourselves.”

By the time we got all the wonderful pieces upstairs we were feeling good about it, even if it meant cutting it close.   We still have a wonderful four colour Ukrainian  sideboard from that load that I fell in love with while scraping it down.  We had a good dinner,  and I decided to go upstairs to look over the stuff one more time before hitting the sack.  I was excited by the pieces, but also feeling concerned about so completely blowing the budget. I continued to open the cupboards to inspect the interiors, and  when I finally came to the little pine chest I had bought from Marcel, I opened the top drawer to see how well it travelled in and out. What’s this?   I was amazed to see a small plastic wallet lying there in the middle of the drawer.  How did that get there?  It wasn’t there when I looked at it in Quebec.  Then I remembered that we had put the drawer on it’s side to fit it into the load, and sure enough, when I felt up inside under the top, someone had built a little open shelf up there.  The wallet was full of crisp, old issue Canadian cash.  $1,300 in all.   I couldn’t believe the luck.  I could easily imagine that had I continued to carry it upright I would have sold it  full of cash as it were, and maybe even then it would go into a home upright,  and never be discovered.

Jeanine was having one last coffee before going to bed.  Yes, she can do that. She looked puzzled when I handed her the little wallet.  “ I know you are concerned that I spent so much, and I thought this may help”.  It took her awhile to believe my story, and our good fortune.

When I saw Marcel a week later, he was surprised when I shoved a folded hundred in his shirt pocket.  “What’s this for?”

“Never mind.  Just take it and don’t ask any questions.”

Learning to Love Auctions

What is it that would cause a teen age boy to attend an estate auction on a sunny Saturday afternoon , when he could be going to the beach with friends?  Thinking back on my sixteen year old self I remember that I found time for both, and that as soon as I discovered them, I enjoyed attending auctions.   Initially I think it was the “game’ aspect of watching two or more determined buyers going at it, trying to outbid each other to win that desirable object.  . Although not inherently materialistic, I find it interesting to observe the dollar value of things on any given day, and compare it to my estimates of it’s worth.  Also,  an auction presents an opportunity  to be among strangers, and observe their interplay.  Something I also love about public markets, both of the food and antique variety. And finally  of course there is the stuff itself.  There, spread out across the yard lie the components that taken together represent the life and  possessions of an individual, or family.

When I turned sixteen my Mom inexplicably and without warning bought me a brand new Vauxhall Viva station wagon.  She and my Aunt Marie were visiting a car dealer friend, and it must have been a heck of a good lunch, or a sweetheart of a deal because they came home with the news that they had both bought a car. One for me, and one for my cousin Ron.  We suspected that alcohol was involved, but naturally we were delighted all the same.  So I had wheels, and occasionally, a local auction advertisement would catch my eye, and I would take some of my hard earned  cash and set off to see what I could score.  Hard earned being the correct term in that I had a summer job on the night shift at the local canning plant.  I worked in the cooking area.  About 100 degrees, steamy, and loud for eight hours.  Minimum wage.  I learned to get by on about four hours sleep so I could have some fun before going back into the abyss.

I didn’t need anything of course.  I wasn’t setting up house or starting a shop.  I would just find myself interested in certain things.  A naive painting.  A primitive, handmade table, a chrome ashtray stand with an airplane on top.  An old plastic radio. The ephemera of interesting small things dumped from a keepsake drawer into a box lot. I loved to sort through it all and find the unexpected. I realize now that as I was looking over all that stuff I was developing my aesthetic.  I didn’t give a hoot for all the fussy glass and china and Victorian furniture , but I started to love the look of old paint, and hand wrought things.  I decided what of the paintings, if any were of interest.  I grew an appreciation for rusty old farm tools.

I didn’t even bid all that often, and when I did I would fall out early as I didn’t have a lot to spend. But I would usually come home with something.   A little gem unnoticed in a box-lot, or something so off base and goofy to most people that no one else wanted it.  I seemed to score a lot of funky, handmade furniture.  Nobody wanted that stuff.

After a few auctions you begin to notice who the dealers are.  The ones who stuck out from the crowd by how often they bid and won,  seemingly without matter of the cost.  In our area there was Madge Wilson, of Grannie’s Boot who incidentally is still  in the business today, and Don Palmer, legendary picker form the Aylmer area.   On anything of great antique value these two would very quickly leave everyone else in the dust and battle it out between them.  They both had great knowledge and taste so I learned a lot by just observing them.  On something I really liked  I would try to outbid them, but I would rarely win.  I don’t think they liked the idea of encouraging a young upstart, although they would very occasionally throw me a bone.  Still, I would most often leave with something, or a few things in the back.

In Dresden, where I was raised we had a Two car garage.  My mother rightfully insisted in keeping her car indoors, but didn’t mind having things stored temporarily on the other side.  When we sold the newspaper business, I decided to keep a few things.  I noticed one day that the bottom of the trays used to store type were made from very old hand carved wooden plates for making  circus posters.  These approx. 2’x3’ works of art showed wild animals, acrobats etc. with a place blocked out to include the local time and place.  They had remnants of the old ink soaked into the wood.  They were very old, and they were fabulous.  I also had a circa 1840 hand feed rotary printing press.  Quite small, but weighing about half a ton.  Then there was a lot of old hand carved type, etc.  So it did not take long for my space to fill up.  That’s when I met my new, old friend Dan.

Dan was always at the auctions.  He was the friendly looking, disheveled  old dude who would give the auctioneer a $2 bid when he need one, and would go home with twenty or so boxes of old tools, hardware etc. and the occasional piece of unwanted furniture.  I got to talking to Dan over coffee as we were checking out the preview.  He was a nice guy and generous by nature.  Since his wife’s death some years earlier Dan had lived on his own on a small hobby farm at the edge of town.   Just a few blocks from my house along the river road.   One day Dan asked me to come by for coffee and he would show me his barn.   I got myself right over there.

After coffee and a chat in his kitchen we went to the barn, and when he threw open the doors I was truly amazed with what lay before me.  There arranged on rows of tables and in cupboards lay thousands of sorted everyday items.  A box of cork screws here, next to kitchen devices, beside hand tools.  You get the picture.  Then over there are stacks of furniture, old bicycles, and a couple of cars including a big, black 1957 Cadillac limousine.  Wow. “Where did you get the limo, Dan”.  Turns out it was the governor of Alabama’s, and he had bought it cheap because the engine was seized. Knowing that I was running out of space he offered me a 10’x20’ space in exchange for helping him once a week to move and organize things.  I liked Dan and had no trouble agreeing to the terms.

Within a couple of years this space was also quite full, but my high school years were drawing to a close and soon I would be leaving town to pursue higher education.  My mother was wanting the other side of the garage back for storing her picnic table in the winter, etc. and I didn’t want to leave my old friend Dan with a problem.  By this point he was finished with going to auctions and wasn’t leaving the house much.

Realizing the game was almost  up, and not wanting to leave a burden on his kids, Dan phoned a local junk collector he knew and sold it all for one money on the understanding the guy would clean out the barn.  I was just about to leave home for London, Ontario so I told him to go ahead and sell my stuff as well.  There was some cool things in there, but there was also a lot of junk.  I think I got $800 for it all which was probably about what I had spent, and which came in handy to buy books, etc.  The stuff in my mother’s garage lasted about another year until a professor from a Chicago University with a printing studies program  found out about my old press and came racing over to sweet talk my mother into donating it to the library there.  Oh, and he’ll take those old Circus printing plates as well.  They had a deal when he agreed to take everything.  I couldn’t really be upset as I had left the problem unresolved for so long, but I still think about those Circus plates from time to time.

How did this whole thing get started?

The other day as a friend was about to leave,  I spotted a couple of small finger jointed pine shelves leaning against the back porch wall where they had been standing for the last six months or so.  They were part of a cheap wooden shoe rack I had bought a few years back at Canadian tire for about $16 on sale.  The finger joints had begun to come unglued and one of the upright supports had snapped, so rather than repair it we bought ourselves a better one .  Although I had no use for shelves, I found it difficult to throw them away.  “Hey, could you use these shelves.  They need a little gluing but they would make a great little rack for drying herbs or something.”  My friend looked at me and said, “I have no use for them as a shelf, but if you want to get rid of them I will use them for kindling for my wood stove.”  I stood there for a moment assessing whether this was acceptable,  and then reason clicked in and I said “Sure, go ahead and burn them up.” I thought they may have served a nobler purpose, but hey, a man’s got to light a fire.  This incident got me thinking about why I have a tendency to save things that I either find interesting as an object, or which I think I might find useful  later on.

I’ve never lived through a period of want.  Never not had enough to eat.  Never even longed for a new pair of pants.  I’ve been a pretty lucky little monkey when it comes to living in a time and place where I have not wanted for much.  So why do I save broken shelves?   And being someone who saves things, why have I not become a collector per say?  Or for that matter, a hoarder.

Over my 35 years in the trade I have encountered and come to know several collectors, and indeed we do have a pretty large collection of Canadian folk art, but this is largely due to my vocation, and the tendencies of my wife Jeanine who does have a true collector’s instinct.  In collecting terms I relate most closely to the crow.  Not in that I am necessarily attracted to shiny things, but in that I tend to pick up and carry away that which I find interesting or pleasing enough that I think I may want to look at it again and again.  Knowing that one day, I may find that I have enjoyed the object enough, and if it no longer holds a special relationship to me,  I am quite happy to find it a new home.  I recognize this makes me more a dealer, than collector.

It is the process I am interested in. Not so much the act of possession. I like handling the stuff and taking it somewhere else where it will be safe. I like to feel I am saving it from the fire.  Also, I like to be surrounded with things that resonate with me. Things that make me feel something when I look at them. Things I find beautiful.

Does  my becoming a dealer come from me not wanting to throw out possibly useful things as much as it does from an appreciation of beautiful things?  Probably so, at least in the first place. As I grow alder I save a lot less for eventualities.

And why with this tendency have I not become a hoarder? The simple answer is  I guess it never appealed to me.   I have always lived in environments that are essentially orderly, and although far from being minimalist, have never been overly crowded or chaotic.  That being said, from a very early age I have always had a room, or a space in a barn , or someplace where I could pile things that were of interest, but not necessary for my day to day life.  My hidey-hole.  My Raven’s nest. I have included as evidence a tricky triple exposure photo I made of myself in a room I had for my “extra” things in London when I was in my early twenties .

As a kid I wasn’t particularly prone to dragging things home, although as soon as I had my own space in the form of a tree house, I started to put things in there. That was when I was most crow-like.  An interesting rock.  A discarded cowboy beIt buckle. You name it. Then when I was about 16 my Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie decided to sell the farm and move to a house in town, so that was when I attended my first auction.

I remember that lovely late spring day, arriving to see everything from this familiar place being dragged out of the house and barn and spread across the yard.  My initial response was sorrow. My next response was interest.   I was there with my parents and my Aunt Marie and cousin Ron.  Ron was eleven days older than me, but already a lot cooler.  He had started to grow his hair longer, and had taken to wearing torn blue jeans and moccasins without socks.  We were close, so when he excitedly told me that he was going to bid on and buy the Bakelite portable record player, I was excited for him, and decided then and there that I would also bid to buy something to remind me of these folks and their place.

Ron’s record player came up first, and he was up against considerable competition. About half way through the bidding he had to ask Aunt Marie if she would cover him if he went over his savings.  She agreed, and he won it for about thirty bucks as I remember.  A lot of money in those days.  It was worth it though.  It was a great sounding unit and loud, and we had countless hours of enjoyment playing large stacks of hit 45’s in his bedroom as we discussed everything under the sun, and ate mandarin oranges from a tin.

The auction wore on and I tried for a couple of things unsuccessfully before winning an old pine drop leaf table which had never been painted  for $5.  It washed up beautifully, and I began to sit at it to do my homework feeling an indescribable closeness to it.  The table is still with me; and although it’s nothing special, I continue to love it for the association.

Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie’s table today

Anyway, it was on that day when I bid and won a useful table for $5 that something clicked in me. And the switch is still stuck in the “on” position.  Within a year I had made an arrangement to rent some space in a barn from a 70 year old man I had befriended, who lived by himself on an unworked farm at the edge of town.  And the rest as they say is history.

La Malbaie, part two – Bringing it all back home

malbaie2When our offer to purchase a small barn’s worth of antiques near La Malbaie, Quebec was accepted, we recognized we had two main problems to solve; getting it all back to our place, and having somewhere to put it when we got it there.  The church showroom was already quite full, as was our little storage sheds, so we talked to our friend and neighbor Dave who had a farm around the corner with some unused out buildings, and arranged to rent them at a reasonable rate.

There were many items in the lot that were outside our regular inventory; commercial products mostly like old beer bottles, tins, etc., so our plan was to sell most of this as quickly as possible to realize back some of our investment, and allow us to focus on what we normally sell.  We knew a lot of dealers by this point so we invited them all to come when all the stock had arrived, to have a first pick of it.  This generated a bit of excitement that we all shared.  It felt like Christmas was coming when you were ten, and you couldn’t wait to see what will be under the tree for you.  A date was set in three weeks time.

I rented the largest moving truck they would allow me with my license which was really, really  big.  If I’m not mistaken the box was 20’ long, and 10’ high.  A good friend named Sergio who ran a nearby apple farm offered to ride shotgun.  When I talked to the seller in Quebec I asked if he could hire four strong men to load, and he said it was no problem.  He knew such men who would be happy for the work.  He said he had a motel room waiting for us. Things were shaping up.

Sergio and I set out about 5 am the next morning. A time which allowed us to cross Toronto before morning rush hour, and which barring delays would put us in La Malbaie about 3 in the afternoon.  The  trip, although long, passed pleasantly enough as we chatted about anything and everything and occasionally munched away at our packed lunch.  Sergio is Italian so we spent a fair amount of time with him teaching me swear words, and street sign language. Did you know that if you are walking down the street with an Italian friend and he holds his hand straight out about belt level and waves it front to back it means “I’m hungry. Let’s go get something to eat”?  I didn’t either.

malbaie3We pulled into the farm about 3 as expected and drove directly to the barn.  There was our man with a team of 4 very large men behind him looking tough, and ready for action.  We only took about fifteen minutes to stretch and get our bearings, and then the trucks ramp was lowered and we got started. I stayed in the barn and pointed at the items to be loaded, and Sergio stayed in the truck and arranged the placement.  We started with the big, boxy pieces like cupboards, dressers and sideboards, stuffing smaller items like bicycles, signs, wall cupboards, etc. in all the little spaces.  The guys were amazing. Strong and careful and we filled the truck form front to back in less than three hours. As we rolled down the door you could see that we had taken approximately half on the contents.  We then all went down into La Malbaie where we had a delicious dinner and a few celebratory brews at our host’s motel.  His treat.  What a guy. Then we settled in for an early night and slept the sleep of the dead until about 7 the next morning. We grabbed some breakfast and headed west.  Pulled in at home about 7 pm and went straight to bed.

It was all hands on deck the next morning at 9 am.  It took us about five hours to unload in such a way that everything could be accessed.  We spent the rest of the afternoon looking at all the small treasures that were stuffed in the various drawers and boxes.  I had an early dinner and went straight to bed so that I would be ready to head out with Sergio at 5 the following morning for round two.

Essentially it was the same routine but with the added fun of the scrap metal dealer arriving to haul off all the recent and thus rejected cash registers and the like.  Where did this guy get all those cash registers? He must have bought out a local supplier.  When the truck was full again there was still a small pile of things left.  I said I would probably be back for them with my pick-up, but if I couldn’t make it back, I’d phone and he could call the local junk guy to come and get it.  I wasn’t sure if I had another trip in me.  Turns out I did, and Jeanine and I left a couple of days later in our faithful old pick-up.

Well that small pile turned out to completely fill the poor old thing, and I’ve never seen it sit lower on it’s chassis due to the large number of cast iron pots and pans which dominated the load.  The wheels were practically rubbing on the fenders and I thought I was going to run out of gears and have to back up some of the sharp inclines you need to pass to get out of the region.  Somehow she hung in there and we made it home.  I was so impressed I almost wrote Ford a letter.  We got home and had a few days to prepare for the pick.   We pulled out all the things that we wanted for ourselves and got them back to the church.

When the dozen or so dealers arrived we explained that the procedure would be for them to go through everything and make a pile of the things they would like to purchase.  We explained that as we had known them all for years and had done good business we would trust them to tell us what they would pay based on a reasonable, but not outlandish profit.  In other words “We trust you to be fair”.  Unless we felt we were totally being screwed we would go along with the price.  You know, it worked amazingly well.  Almost everyone was completely fair and the few who were not stood out like a sore thumb. “Oh, so this 100 year old, unopened bottle of Molson Ale in mint condition is only worth $15. I would have thought more, but if you say so.”  There were a couple moments of “I saw it first” tension but they got resolved without fist fights.  Everyone felt encouraged to share in our good fortune and grab what they could use.  At the end of the day we had reduced the load by about a quarter, and the venture was paid for.  A hellish amount of effort, but we continued to make money from that load for years, but I have to say that the best part for me really was the joy of opening everything up and discovering all the treasures inside.  World of Wonder.malbaie5

When we hit the Motherload in La Malbaie

lamalbaieIn the late nineties when we were making regular picking trips to Quebec,  we would sometimes combine work with pleasure, and take an extra day or two to go exploring after making the rounds of the regular picking barns.  It was on one such trip in mid-summer when we had finished combing the barns around Victoriaville, that we headed up route 183 on the North Shore past Quebec city, to the Charlevoix region, and the town of La Malbaie.   Champlain named this place La Malbaie, or “the Bad Bay” when his ship got stuck in the harbour,  but it was known locally as Murray’s bay for years until 1967 brought a new awareness and emphasis on preserving our history.  Whatever you choose to call it, it is a beautiful and magical region of large rolling hills leading down to the mighty St. Lawrence river.  The wilderness is dotted with tiny, quaint villages made famous in paintings by Clarence Alphonse Gagnon, Marc Aurele Fortin and A.Y. Jackson, to name a few.  It has retained much of its early, rustic charm because the region was not easily accessible until the early sixties when the Quebec Government built the big highway, route 183.  However it has been a summer playground for the rich, both Canadian and American since the early 1900’s because its untouched natural beauty was accessible by boat along the St. Lawrence.  For this reason, you still find many impressive estates, and the magnificent Manoir Richelieu, established in 1899, with the current building being built in the style of a French Chateau in 1929.  It’s a wonderful region to explore, and only a two hour drive from Quebec city.

Manoir Richelieu

Manoir Richelieu

 

So on this occasion after a full day of enjoying the region we settled on a small strip motel along the river in town, which looked clean and inexpensive.  We had a great meal at the small, attached restaurant and settled in for a good night’s sleep. In the morning, we had breakfast and set about packing up to leave.  I was putting the cases in the truck when a pleasant looking middle aged man approached me.  “So I can see from your truck that you an antique picker.  Would you be interested in looking at some things I have for sale?”  I was a little taken aback as I was thinking about getting on the road, but answered “Well that’s what I’m here for so sure, what are we talking about.”  He explained that the antiques were not at the motel, but in a barn on the family farm, about a half hour drive away.  As it happened they had just sold the farm which had been in the family for years, and before the deal closed in a month’s time they had to clear a barn where they had stored the contents of their grandfather’s museum when it closed in the mid-sixties.  Their grandfather had  run a private museum in an old fishing boat which had been dragged up on shore along the river.  The kind of place you pay a quarter to go through. When they needed the land to build the new highway, he had to close, and at the time just moved everything, lock, stock and barrel to the barn on the family farm.  It had remained there untouched.   He explained that his grandfather was an eccentric who collected and displayed everything he could get his hands on, so that not everything in the barn could be considered a valuable antique.  There is a bit of everything there, furniture, farm implements, old signs,  bottles, eyeglasses,  furnishings, you name it.  Although the time frame seemed ominous, I was curious so we agreed to go and have a look.  What harm could it do.

by A.Y. Jackson

by A.Y. Jackson

We followed him up and down the twisting country road, until finally reaching a charming, old Habitant farm house and barn looking out over a picture perfect valley.  We drove straight up to the barn.  It was not a large barn, but when we opened the door we could see that it was packed from wall to wall with every sort of thing.  So packed that there was no possibility of entering without hours of shifting large cupboards and the like.  And dark.  As our eyes adjusted we could see about a dozen large armoires absolutely overflowing with objects.  The whole space was chock a block with everything you could imagine.  We spotted several old bicycles, one being a tandem. Lots of books and paintings. Right away I spotted several nice old signs, both commercial on tin, and hand painted on wood. There were quite a few cash registers, dressers, tables, and six glass store display cases. There were benches  and beds, and dozens of cardboard boxes filled with God knows what.   . I could see that four or five of the armoires were really nice, and it seemed he was making an honest appraisal when he suggested that about 80% of it was good but not extraordinary, but that there was some very good things in there as well. As he spoke I scanned the room and made a mental note of  everything I could see. malbaie4

“So here’s the deal.  I want $20,000 for it all with the condition being that the barn must be cleared of everything by the sale date.  When you have everything you want, I know a couple of scrap dealers who will come and scoop up anything that is left, especially metal. There has to be about forty cash registers in there, and a lot of them are newer and nothing special, not to mention heavy so I doubt you will want to take them.”  I stood there in the sunshine, looking out over that beautiful valley and thought “this is a tough one. It would seem the value is there, but it is a hell of a lot of work, and this place is a long, long way from home.”   Jeanine looked over at me and shrugged.  “ O.K.”I said, “it’s a lot to take in. We are interested, but we need a little time to think about it.  Give me your number and I will call you back within 48 hours with an answer.”  He agreed and gave us 48 hours.

We then left after saying our goodbyes, turned west and headed towards home.  We didn’t talk about it until we had travelled for a couple of hours and stopped for a bit of lunch at a roadside food truck. When in Quebec I always have to get my poutine and “vapeur” fix.  A “vapeur” being a steamed hotdog in one of those funny Quebec buns. As we sat there at a picnic table looking out over the St. Lawrence towards Ile d’Orleans  we finally got around to discussing the elephant in the room. I started, “So, I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and we have to recognize that it is a rare opportunity to buy so much from one source.  Also, from what I could see there is easily $20,000 value, but how much more I’m not sure, and it is definitely a lot of work and expense getting it all back home. Not  to mention we only have a month to accomplish it.”.  Jeanine agreed and added “well let’s make a list of everything we could see, and assign what we would think to be a low retail value, and go from there.” We did this and determined that of what we could see, there was about $35,000  worth. Of course we also recognized that what we could see was just scratching the surface of what there was in total.  We drove a few hundred more miles and then Jeanine said “I think we should offer him $15,000, and if we get it fine. If he says no then let’s just pretend it didn’t happen.”  I agreed. It was obvious he was under pressure to find someone fast and if we were going to take it on, we had to be sure it was worth all the trouble.  Jeanine phoned him right away on the cell, her French being so much better than mine, and I was surprised to hear her offer what sounded to me like $10,000. Then there was a pause, and she gave me a big smile and thumbs up .  A moment later she was concluding the conversation by saying, “O.K. it’s a deal and we will be in touch when we got home to arrange the details.”  I looked at her and laughed.  “Am I correct that you made a snap decision there to offer him $10,000, and he agreed?” “Yes, well I was going to say $15,000 but then I started thinking it’s typical in Quebec to ask twice what you really want because everyone negotiates so fiercely, and $10,000 just came out of my mouth.  He jumped at it.”  Good work Jeanine.  Now we just have to go home and figure out what we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Next week – Bringing it back from La Malbaie.malbaie7