The Wertenbergers: Their Home is a Country Holiday

by Jo Ann Vrabel, Staff Writer
Sometimes a person years for the nostalgic times of yesteryears, when dogs and boys with sticks chased hoops down small town streets, when barbershop quartets serenaded Gibson girls on summer evenings and when a trip to town meant a wonderful tour through the local general store.

The home of Ivan and Thelma Wertengerger, Claypool brings a whiff of those days past. Their home is a warm nest, decorated in the old fashioned country store tradition, and it nurtures memories and ideas of days gone by.

Ever since Mrs. Wertenberger was nine years old, she's been intrigued with advertising labels on wrappers, boxes and metal containers. She can distinctly remember admiring the Wonder Bread wrappers stamped with bright blue, red and yellow floating circles when her mother sent her to the corner store in Middletown, Ohio in the 1930's.

"Sometimes I made a dozen trips a day to the grocery store near our home where mother kept a house full of boarders, "Mrs. Wertenberger says.

"My brother, Elmer Howard (now of Claypool) and I ran errands for the various people who boarded with my mother. And we made lots of nickels and dimes when we did little favors for the boarders, such as purchasing sundries for them, cans of smoking tobacco, a loaf of bread or cookies for the lunch pail."

Cracker Barrel Days
Remembering her walks from her mother's boarding house to the corner store, Mrs. Weretenberger says:
"We bought pink, chocolate and white marshmallow cookies by the pound, crackers from a barrel and pickles from a large barrel too.
"I loved the big root beer barrel when we went downtown. Also I very much liked the samples of Wonder Bread they gave us at school."

Today, Mrs. Wertenberger and her husband collect country store items many of which sold in, or which furnished, the American general stores or corner groceries between 1620 and the 1920's.

Common country store articles are big coffee bins that held beans to be ground, any containers for foodstuffs, tea, coffee or tobacco, dye cabinets from which the store clerks disposed dye to customers, sugar augers, soft drink and beer advertising signs and trays and other premiums that were given to customers for advertising purposes.

Most of the country store articles have labels with pictures and words printed on them. And since they are collectors' items their values range anywhere from $5.00 to $450 to tags marked simply "value rare".

"Since I was nine years old, I have been fascinated with the beautiful works of art on labels, wrappers and signs. I believe that those early years were when I first began to appreciate the patterns and muted colors of country store items," says Mrs. Wertenberger.

Walking into the Wertenberger home stocked with country store treasures or listening to Mrs. Wertenberger describe trays, die cabinets or tobacco cans, it is not difficult to know that she "appreciates" country store articles.

As the visitor enters the lower level of the home through a glass sliding door facing north, a late 1800's South Bend black malleable woodburning stove greets the eyes.

Old-fashioned grey metal pots and pans hang above the stove, which sits on a red brick platform at the center right of the room. A 100-pound wooden Jersey coffee bean bin rests tot he right of the brick platform, and an ancient ceramic life size rabbit poses on the floor. Peppered throughout the room are ornaments and collectors' items in country store tradition.

Holiday Turkey
The Wertenbergers are remodeling this entry room into an old-fashioned family room. And for Thanksgiving Mrs. Wertenberger cooked her family's turkey in the old woodburning stove.

Store Image
Sparkling with red and glittering gold and silver metal tins, which once contained tobacco, tea, coffee and cookies, the main room is divided in two parts furnished in rich, brown wood.

The other part is furnished in the image of an old country store where a black iron potbelly stove squats along one corner, and three old life-sized ceramic cats snooze, curled beside the stove.

Behind the potbelly are rows of shelves holding old tin toys and embellished couintry store boxes and trays.

Hanging on a post along the shelves is Mrs. Wertenberger's prize possession: a paper flour bag with a sketch of a black and barn-red mill on it, reading "City Roller Mills John's Best." (John Bickhart, Warsaw Indiana)

Flour Bag
"My favorite item is the greatest lithograph in the whole world," she bubbles. "remember the old red brick mill that stood by the railroad in Warsaw? (It was located across form Don's Western Store, at the corner of West Market and South Union streets.) It burned several years ago. I have a paper flour sack with the prettiest red brick mill on it.

"We had feed for our farm ground there in the 1950's when our children were small. If it hadn't been for that old mill carrying us Wertenbergers until we sold our pigs, Ike and I could not have financed our small farm." she says.

"A dear friend, Jim Robinson, of Warsaw, gave the flour sack to me. It was folded neatly on a rafter at the old Smith farm, located near Warsaw, and which Jim owned.

"I carried the flour sack home the night Jim gave it to me and I told my husband, "Ike, this is my favorite," Mrs. Wertenberger says.

In a corner opposite the flour sack and the potbelly stove, an old Calumet baking Powder clock ticks beside a dull red and somber green and bronze Indian bust which once sat in a Wakarusa cigar store. Nearby stand an old wooden dye cabinet. Scattered about these main articles are large and small containers of every description.

Coffee Cans
"It is very difficult to realized how many brands of coffee were made in such beautiful cans," marvels Mrs. Wertenberger. "Ground coffee came in cans shaped like a pail with a lid. Brand names included Golden Rod and Jersey Cream. "One of my favorite coffee containers is Red Wolf, which is a yellow can with a red wolf painted on it. I also cherish a small one-pound coffee tin labeled `Hoosier Boy'. The label is slightly torn, but there is a small boy in bib overalls on it, painted in muted colors. Coffee beans came to most country stores in wooden boxes. Some were labeled Jersey, Lion A and P. They were nice containers with tin fronts," explains Mrs. Wertenberger.

"At one time or another, I have owned most of the 100 tobacco tins which were made in the 1800's. Some of the rare ones are Game, Sure Shot, Stag, Dixie Queen, Fashion, Polar Bear, Sweet Mist, Honest Scrap and N____r Hair, which was sold in gold, tan and brown pails.

"Another tobacco container was Bigger Hair, a round, paper box with a picture of a real nice African native on the front," she says.

Advertising Art
"Some of the old trays and signs put out by beer and whiskey companies are fantastic works o f art, as well as trays distributed by soft drink firms such as Pepsi, Moxie and Coca-Cola, which was sold in the early 1900's to cure headaches and exhaustion.

"Some of the best artists of the times designed old tin beer signs and trays. Trays and advertisements with beautiful girls are most in demand among country store collectors," she adds.

"My day was really made when I went to an auction a few months ago and the auctioneer pulled an old greasy black piece of tin from underneath a table. Through the grease, I could barely see there was a ballet dancer with a bouquet of roses with a bellhop at one side and a lover on the other.

Mrs. Wertenberger says that she bid highest for the tin. And when she brought it home she wiped the grease away to find a very pleasing beer sign, preserved in good condition.

In love?
Since she prefers realistic pictures and prints that tell a story to abstract designs, Mrs. Wertenberger has enjoyed contemplating the expression of the little bellhop on the sign.

"What is the little boy thinking? she asks. "Is he in love or does he have a gift for the ballerina?"

Mrs. Wertenberger's collection also boasts a tin, 1899 Green River Whiskey tray with the painting of a black traveling gentlemen in a top hat, posing beside a skinny nag with saddle packed with a jug of Green River. The tray retails for $300. "My favorite trays and other items are painted with children. The old prints of children are pictures of such healthy looking kids with pink, rosy cheeks. Some of the children look like my grandchildren."

The Wertenbergers are parents of Larry Wertenberger, north of Roann, and Becky Thomas, north of Atwood. They have four granddaughters and one grandson with red hair. "I appreciate the dye cabinets which furnished the old general stores. Fifteen different cabinets were made, some with tin fronts, some with prints of children at a maypole or ladies dying clothes."

Beware New Faces
Advertising clocks in good condition, such as the Calumet Baking Powder clock hanging on the Wertenberger's wall, are difficult to find and buy, Mrs. Wertenberger states. She adds that country store collectors should beware of buying old clocks with new faces that may be sold as old faces.

"Miniatures, such as small tobacco tins, tea, cocoa, puzzles or tokens, are great fun to collect," she says. "They are also practical items because they require little storage space. And men love to collect knives with advertising because the are easy to display," she concludes.

Though Mrs. Wertenberger has appreciated country store items since she was a small girl, she began collecting the articles only 15 years ago. "The first large tin I bought was for tea," she recalls. "It was a beautiful black container with birds and roses painted on it. I have had to sell a lot of my country store items to re-invest. Same as any collector, I want to upgrade my collection."

Founded Shop
After purchasing her first tea container, 15 years ago, Mrs. Wertenberger and her husband, Ike, pursued the interest in old items by founding "Ike's Antiques," located in Silver Lake at the junction of State Roads 14 and 15. The store carries a general line of antiques, including country store items, primitive antiques to Victorian furniture and collectors' items including dishes and jewelry.

The Wertenbergers opened their store nine years ago because "of our liking for country store items and because of the encouragement we received from friends and relatives, especially Mr. and Mrs. Fred Beebe of Pierceton. Mrs. Wertenberger recalls the first week the antique store opened. The Wertenbergers had purchased an estate and simply moved the items into their new shop. Within a week, all the goods were sold, she says. "Country store and old advertising can be found at antique shops, flea markets and shows. The prices have inflated, like everything else," Mrs. Wertenberger states.

"Since so many restaurants, country stores and museums are displaying old articles for the nostalgia of good old days, I have had so much fun helping persons find items such as large coffee grinders and store counters.

Since the shop began 9 years ago, it has grown by leaps and bounds, expanding to its current five-room emporium size. The Wertenbergers sell antiques throughout the United States, and twice annually sell their wares in a country store show in Indianapolis.

Decorating Help
Mrs. Wertenberger also assists owners in furnishing centers in antique style. She has aided decorating Clarksville in North Webster; Hooks Drug Store, Indianapolis, Papa Joe's Restaurant, Wabash, where a collection of Coke trays and mementos are displayed. Currently she is helping a contractor in Las Vegas locate country store items for a pharmacy in the western states.

Mrs. Wertenberger says she has always enjoyed operating the antique store with her husband and they have always made the collected items pay for themselves through their business. Since their business is their hobby the Wertenbergers have found a most pleasing way of making a living.

Commenting about antiques and collectors items, Mrs. Wertenberger says: "Collectors' items are not always true antiques. Antiques must be at least 100 years old. Collectors items are not always 100 years old.

"With my fondness for county store pieces, I'd actually like to specialize in only country store and primitive (early) antiques. But we offer a wide variety of collector items and antiques in our store because customers have different tastes, likes and dislikes.

Never A Dull Moment
She notes that country store furnishing are appreciated particularly by young persons who live in farmhouse and who want to actually use the items in their everyday home life. "I know a young couple in Chicago whose entire home is decorated in country store. They really enjoy it," says Mrs. Wertenberger. Entertaining is no problem with all the conversation pieces in their home. There's never a dull moment."

Advising persons who may be interested in purchasing country store items, Mrs. Wertenberger says that reading and studying pieces is helpful, but most importantly, for the novice is handling as many real antiques as possible.

What does Mrs. Wertenberger believe future antiques will be? "We have to live with the times and there are plastic things that should be collected, especially in good, well-made plastic toys and cookie cutters. Though plastic will never be as appreciated as metal is, some modern articles in plastic will be collected some day.

Tomorrow's Treasures
"Today's macrame and handmade dishes and glassware will also be future antiques," Mrs. Wertenberger predicts. Though she doubts that plastic furniture will be valued in later centuries, Mrs. Wertenberger says that persons should be on the look-out for unusual or artistic labels on modern packages and containers especially cereal box advertising.

Stuffed with hundreds of country store pieces and other collector items and antiques the Wertenberger's store harbors an interesting Smith and Curtiss tin baking powder tin worth approximately $225. "Standing in her store, scanning the thousands of articles reflecting life the way it was years ago, Mrs. Wertenberger adds: "My family has brought home or spotted some of the items. And there is no end to all the nice persons you meet with such a hobby and interest." With a house full of country store items and a corner emporium stocked with antiques of every description, the Wertenbergers have made certain that yesteryear is still not too far away.

Warsaw Times Union, "Spotlight", Dec. 21-28, 1973