Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rural Delivery: A Fist Full of Memories

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1994. All rights reserved.

There is something about life in the country that makes a person start collecting things.

Sure, city people collect things too. But often there's a difference in what they collect and why. Stamps. Coins. Paintings. Those are urban collectibles. A good investment, some would say.

Rural collectibles are more often things like wrenches and feed sacks and old tobacco tins. I've been in farmhouses where long rows of salt and pepper shakers lined the walls and others where toy tractors were parked prominently above the hearth.

Some of this stuff has value, especially to like-minded collectors. But the kind of collection that grows in the country usually isn't for sale, even if there were a market for well-worn ballcaps, old motor oil cans, or seashells.

Take Hattiie Gietzen's collection, for example:

Last time I saw her she was holding a piece of the Holy Land in one hand. In the other palm she gripped part of Hawaii. And on shelves and bureaus throughout her tidy Idaho home were portions of Belize, Death Valley, Alaska, Panama, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Mexico.``

Hattie, 89 years old at the time, had been collecting sand from all over the world for more than 20 years. The samples -- hundreds of them -- were gathered in small baby food jars marked with neat labels identifying the source of the sand.

"This one here is from the oldest pyramid in Egypt," she said, holding up a jar of white sand. "My niece brought me that one in 1983 after she went on a tour over there."

Each jar of pink and green and pale yellow sand has a history. One grandson brought back sand from the beach at Cape May, New Jersey. Another gave her a jar from his backyard in Chicago. Some samples Hattie collected herself, like the jar of ash from the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, and others were gathered by friends and relatives during their travels.

"When my son and daughter-in-law were on a trip to Belize they went through the Panama Canal," Hattie recalled with a chuckle. "As they were passing through they hollared out to a guy on the shore, 'Sand! Sand!' He didn't speak English, but he finally got the idea and scooped up a handful of sand and handed to them on the boat as they were going by."

The first jar in Hattie's collection was filled with sand from Fire Island Park on Long Island. An old friend had a small collection of sand sitting in plastic cottage cheese containers on a table in his basement.

"Why don't you put the sand in glass jars so you can see it?" Hattie asked him. The friend said he'd do that someday, but never did.

When Hattie's grandchildren asked her what they could bring her from their travels she jokingly requested handfuls of sand. They've been bringing her samples ever since.

Having raised two children with her late husband, Frank, Hattie had six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Together with devoted nieces and nephews, this small army of sand gatherers literally brought the world to her door.

When a niece had a well drilled on her property she brought over a jar of sand from 200 feet beneath the surface. A small note is attached to its lid.

"May we all contribute to your sand collection," Hattie read with a big smile.

"I wanted to keep a specimen for myself, but figured that people who kept jars of sand around might be considered odd."

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