Feature | You Can’t Take It With You: Legendary eccentric Stan Sanders’ obsession with Utah’s past knew no limits. | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

November 12, 2008 News » Cover Story

Feature | You Can’t Take It With You: Legendary eccentric Stan Sanders’ obsession with Utah’s past knew no limits. 

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nIllegal elephant dung: That was the secret to Stan Sanders’ 400 pound-plus giant pumpkins that he raised in a one-and-a-half-acre garden behind his house on Blair Street in South Salt Lake in the 1970s. The fertilizer was illegal because Utah’s Hogle Zoo is nonprofit and legally can’t give it away. So, Sanders would get a tip from a friend at the zoo when the elephant cages were getting cleaned out. He’d take his youngest son, Doug, now 52, to the refuse containers behind the zoo and shovel the dung into the back of their truck. “Tell me those aren’t memories,” Doug Sanders says. n

Such antics were typical of the man who died this past Aug. 27 at the age of 81, known as one of the state’s greatest antique memorabilia and Utah folk art collectors. He was “the black hole of Utah collecting,” his oldest son, antiquarian bookseller Ken Sanders says. Stan Sanders single-handedly created a market for Utah artifacts and collectibles, according to long-time collector Rick Holt. “Stan started buying up anything that was Utah: medicine, pharmacy and soda bottles,” Holt says, effectively underwriting the collecting of much of Utah’s history. n

Stan spent 50 years archiving Utah’s past, not for any altruistic or noble purpose, son Ken says, but “for the sheer pleasure of it.” Ken inherited his father’s collectibles, which he says are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. He faces what he terms “the Herculean task” of liquidating tens of thousands of pieces from his father’s vast collection. n

“It’s paralyzing me every time I try to get it done,” he says. Given the sheer scope of Stan’s passion for collecting, it’s not surprising one collector terms that passion “a disease.” But for his sons, Stan was a collector, who, Ken says, simply “took things far farther than anyone else.” n

As Ken dismantles his father’s collections, he is disposing of much more. Stan had a life-consuming love affair with Utah, particularly before it became a liquor-control state back in the 1930s. That pre-DABC Utah, much like the state’s most obsessive collector, has been swallowed by the dust of time. The collections face the same fate. n

For now, Stan’s myriad collections and the rows of loose-leaf binders in which he noted every saloon and brewery Utah has ever known all but spill out of the South Salt Lake family home’s basement, garage and annex. The Sanders family even bought the house next door to provide further space for Stan’s obsessions. n

Wander around the collections, and it’s like peering into the bizarre labyrinths of a highly organized mind splintering off in hundreds of directions at once. The inventory includes late 19th century drug-store signage, fire extinguishers, extremely rare beer trays from the early 1900s and pharmacy bottles embossed with claims to cure drunkenness or to provide an “infallible remedy for consumption.” There are postmarks from every Utah post office on file since its 1896 statehood, old Saltair Resort memorabilia such as locker keys, china, swimsuits and stuffed animals including a deer’s butt with fangs and tongue between its cheeks and a two-bodied, one-eyed lamb that gave Doug and Ken nightmares as children. n

The mounted sailfish above the living room fireplace isn’t part of the taxidermy collection. Stan caught the fish on one of several foreign fishing expeditions he organized as founder of a big-game fishing club in Utah. n

All this just scratches the surface of Stan’s gargantuan appetite for the historic, the mundane and the downright strange. Whether a 1925 denim apron from Utah’s only battleship, the U.S.S. Utah, or the menus, china and napkins from the Sugar House-spawned 1950s fried-chicken food chain Coon Chicken Inn—whose racist depictions of African-Americans are a staple of the black memorabilia market—or 500 photographs of swimmers floating like corks in the Great Salt Lake, Stan Sanders simply hungered for Utah’s past. n

After his father’s funeral, Ken went into the garage where the bottle museum resides. The glass shelves that held some of his insulator collection had all vibrated out half an inch. Insulators are undulating colored-glass devices used in telegraph lines back in the 1850s. They resemble controls from a 1950s science-fiction movie spaceship. Hold them to the light and they give off a warm, otherworldly light. Now some decorate the trees surrounding Ken’s home near the University of Utah. n

Ken jokes he didn’t know if the shelves’ movement was from an earthquake or, he says, only half in jest, “Dad from the grave saying, ‘You better get those bottles taken care of, son.’”n


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nStan’s widow, Eleanor, wonders if her husband’s life of obsessions stemmed from being an only child. He grew up near Nibley Park golf course in Salt Lake City. She was one of 13 children, raised on an Iowa farm. She struggles for another explanation. “He’d want something so bad, he’d go after it tooth and nail,” Eleanor says. That included her. After they met in 1949, “every time I turned around, he was on my doorstep.” Eventually other potential boyfriends gave up coming around. “I told him, ‘I married you to get rid of you,’” Eleanor says with a laugh. n

After Stan served in Korea at the end of World War II, he worked at his father’s window-shade store. He bought up the inventory of a trophy store and set up Priced-Rite Trophies on 2585 S. State. The store’s motto: “You can’t beat our deal … even if you steal.” Words some collectors would later, it seems, take seriously. n

Stan’s collecting mania started simply enough with bottles. He was introduced to bottle collecting by a ranching friend named Karen Simpson. Her family’s Marion, Utah, ranch-house roof was covered with hand-blown, clear bottles that turned purple in the sunlight because of magnesium in the glass. Her passion for digging for 100-year-old soda and alcohol bottles in garbage dumps infected Stan. He cared not so much for the digging, but for Utah bottles that other diggers found. n

“Anytime you dug up a bottle, you ran right to Stan Sanders and sold it to him,” longtime collector Jack Player says. Which is how, fellow collector Rick Holt says, Stan elevated what many considered a hobby to the next level. “He wasn’t so much into the digging as the history behind the bottle maker,” Holt says. “He wanted to know how all these entrepreneurs made the state what it was at that time.” n

Player has the second-largest Utah bottle collection after Stan Sanders. Hand-blown, pre-1915 bottles drive him crazy. “They are beautiful, so simple,” he says. In the 1970s, he would take his wife and children on vacation to the ghost town of Mercur, on the west slope of the Oquirrh Mountains. While Gayle Player and their daughters would lie in their swimsuits in the dirt, he and his son would dig in the hills for bottles. n

For years, Stan advertised in local magazines and flyers he’d pay $1,000 for a Mercur Turkish Cream soda bottle. One Christmas, a friend and collector brought him one as a present—and charged him $500. n

The best bottles, son Doug says, are often found digging with a probe in century-old outhouses. “Drunks would come out of bars and go out to use the facilities. Down the hole it went.” The prize of Stan’s bottle collection is an amber-colored JT Suits whiskey bottle. “It was a fable for a lot of years,” collector Holt says. A man he describes as “very colorful, a legendary ghost-town digger” named Blackie Owens found a Suits in an 1860s Utah mining town. Owens, Doug Sanders says, looked like a villain out of television’s old Gunsmoke series, with his handlebar mustache, black Brylcreemed hair swept forward under his Stetson and his rough, sunburned features. “That guy could smell out a bottle,” he says. n

Owens sold the Suits bottle to Stan back in the 1970s for $5,000. Son Ken says its worth at least five times that now. n

n“Dad always said, ‘Right now, 11 people are thinking of an idea,’” Doug recalls. “’Nine of them will sit on their ass, two will get up, and one will succeed. Who are you going to be?’” n

His sons bear his imprint in different ways. Ken collected the one thing his father never did: books. “That’s the only thing he left for me,” Ken says. Stan never had time to read, his widow says. Doug says his father taught him the value of his word. Doug lives in Oakley, Utah, and makes his living sandblasting designs on rock slabs. His father would take the boys rock-hounding as kids. “With my rocks, I don’t do a contract with anybody,” Doug says. “If they tell me they’re going to do it, I take them at their word. You get burned occasionally, but not enough to change things.” n

Their childhood was replete with unusual pets. Stan, an avid duck hunter, once brought home a wounded duck, plugged the drain in the basement, and let the bird live there until it was well enough to be released. He also brought home an injured swan, then dug a hole in the garden for a bathtub so the bird could rest—at least until it chased Eleanor around the garden a few times. n

Stan liked to drink three bourbons with water a day. His favorite drinking companion was a pet chicken named Sabrina who was given her own cocktail to sip. One night, the bird got so drunk, it fell out of a tree. n

Then there were the exotic fish. “Didn’t everyone have a 300-gallon saltwater aquarium replete with deadly lionfish?” Ken joked in the funeral eulogy for his dad. n

Stan’s all-day researching into the world of Utah’s saloons and breweries at the Utah Historical Society finally eclipsed his working life, and he stopped going to the trophy shop. “It was his curiosity, I guess,” Eleanor Sanders says. “Something fascinated him, he had to find out all about it.” n

That’s evident in the dozen or more loose-leaf binders in what was the Utah Stars room in the annex next to Stan’s bottle museum. Dozens of handwritten notes in binders detail players’ lives. The Utah Stars were the American Basketball Association’s predecessor to the NBA’s Utah Jazz. When the Stars closed down, Stan went Dumpster-diving. He had a room built dedicated to the Stars and filled it with ABA memorabilia. Anyone entering the room would trip a recording of the team’s old marketing jingle: Here come the Stars. Here come the Stars. Here come the Stars. A few months after his dad’s death, Ken looks at the pinewood floor and shakes his head at the small fortune it cost to have it built. “It was a concession to his single-mindedness that at least he conceded to do it smaller than a regulation court,” he says. “And with no hoop.” n

nA life spent catering to fetishes can lead to a dark side, Ken says, especially for the collector’s spouse. Eleanor says her husband’s collecting was a joy for him rather than a mania. “He never made it a financial burden,” she says. “We worked together.” While she hated her lifelong career as an accountant for her husband’s trophy-selling business, she appears happy to have supported him through his half-century of collecting. But even she had limits. After their basement was filled with his collections and dozens of binders, she put her foot down when it came to losing any more of her home. n

Stan Sanders paid the price people asked for the items they brought him—no questions asked, no quibbling. “Dad assumed everyone was as honest as he was,” Ken says. When it came to collecting, he adds, that wasn’t necessarily so. n

Knowing Stan’s enthusiasm for liquor, fellow collectors would bring him booze, Ken says. The bookseller spent two years of Sundays taking inventory of his father’s drugstore-bottle collection. His father did rubbings of all the embossed pieces of his 1,000-piece bottle collection. Ken discovered key pieces were missing. “His buddies screwed him out of them,” he says. Collector Donald Keener questions the story. When Stan was drunk, he says, he acted like any other collector. “He didn’t want to get rid of nothing.”

nNot everyone appreciated Stan’s style. Former South Salt Lake Mayor Jim Davis, Eleanor recalls, once told her husband, “If I want to start a revolution, I’d put you in charge.” n

In 1985, Stan ran for the South Salt Lake City Council. He paid more than $5,000 for 60 30-second political broadcast ads—a fortune at that time, and for such a small race. He paid hundreds more dollars for wooden nickels bearing his bespectacled features to hand out during the campaign. n

With his 35 years living in South S alt Lake and his championing of local issues, particularly his outspoken battles against what he termed “greedy” developers, Stan seemed a natural for councilman. He thought the favors he’d done for local politicians, calling up friends to work the phones when his cronies needed help with a vote, would pay off for him. n

“Dad got people stirred up,” Doug says. “He thought when it was time for him, he would get the kind of support he’d given his neighbors over at City Hall.” The support he anticipated never materialized. In a six-candidate race, Stan Sanders came in dead last. “That hurt him a lot,” Ken says. “He wasn’t used to failing at things.” n

nIn the late 1990s, Ken introduced his father “with some trepidation” to trading on eBay. His father took on the moniker of “Utah Stan” and became, according to Ken, “the king of eBay.” n

For Utah collectors like Donald Keener, the Internet has ruined bottle collecting. Collectors don’t go to bottle shows anymore, even though, he adds, online auctions can often result in collectors “getting screwed.” Stan, however, enjoyed the skirmishing. He’d chant at the computer screen “You’re going down,” as he fought to outbid other collectors. n

In his last years, Stan struggled against bladder cancer. “He’d talk to the cancer, yell at it and cuss at it, ‘Goddamn it, go away,’” Ken says. Stan’s doctor told him the cancer was inoperable. “When he was told he wouldn’t survive the operation, he pretty much lost interest” in life, Ken says. n

Despite Stan’s decade of struggling with illness, he continued collecting. “He couldn’t say no to a good item,” Rick Holt says. “Even until the very end, he was making offers on things he didn’t have.” n

For the last 18 months of his life, Stan’s place at home was a corner of the sofa. He watched back-to-back episodes of Judge Judy, the TV volume turned up so loud it could be heard in the driveway. “I kept waiting for him to get bored,” Doug says, wistfully. n

“I’ve done everything I wanted to do,” Stan told his wife before he died. His only regret was that he didn’t go deep-sea fishing in Australia. “He said, ‘It really doesn’t matter now,’” Eleanor recalls, “so he was happy, I guess.” n

When Stan Sanders finished something, that was it, Ken says. He would turn his back and walk away. When Stan tired of deep-sea fishing, he gave away all of his rods. He approached life in the same fashion. A few days after hospice nurses took over his care, he died. Eleanor wipes away tears. “It’s been hard. I keep thinking he’s on a fishing trip.” n

With his father gone, Ken Sanders is determined his mother reclaim her home from the grip of her husband’s obsessions. “She lived with them long enough,” he says. He plans a sale in the adjacent house [2745 S. Blair St.] of some of his dad’s collections Nov. 22-23, and has been promoting the event on Craigslist. The golf room that once boasted a 19th hole, lawn chair and Astroturf will hold the $1 bargain item room. Then the property will be sold. The bottle museum, he adds, is “permanently closed.” He anticipates selling or auctioning off parts of the bottle collection in the months ahead. n

Doug’s one regret is that he and his brother never built their father a museum for his collections. “People still bug me about that,” Ken says. He points out it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. He picks up an old hairbrush bearing an advertising imprint, one of 50 his father collected. Each item, Ken says, has to be identified and valued before it can be liquidated. “Where’s the army to turn all this into a museum?” he says. n

Doug believes his father “would have made a wonderful curator.” That would have kept Stan going, he believes, cancer or not. He imagines his father stuffed and mounted in the museum’s lobby. Then he envisions a waxwork of his father on guy wires flying around his collections, recorded messages introducing new generations to the wonders of Utah’s bottled past. n

“That,” Doug says with a grin, “I would have absolutely done.” n

Selections from the sale, including the toothed deer butt, can be viewed at Ken Sanders’ Rare Books, 268 S. 200 East, through the Nov. 21 gallery stroll. tttt

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