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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GHOST TOWN DIG
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

ROCK SOLID
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

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