Wild West History Association Journal Volume V * Number 4 * August 2012
Hello everyone, my name is Kevin Mulkins. It is my pleasure to share with you my thoughts and stories about collecting. When I was a youngster, just about every young boy collected coins and I was no exception. In those days, we were able to go to the bank and buy a roll of "wheat" pennies or Jefferson nickels. It was common to find pennies dated in the teens, war nickels and sometimes an old buffalo or V nickel. I would also buy a roll of silver dimes or quarters and, if I had the money, a roll of half dollars. Hours would be spent searching through these coins and saving the ones I needed to fill my Whitman coin folders. I would then return to the bank for an exchange and get more coins to search through. I was not the only one in the little town of Cherokee, Iowa who did this. A fellow I would see at the bank often was exchanging coins too. Since then he has become a major player in the rare coin business. Lyn F. Knight was one year behind me in school. I recall him walking down Main Street with a bag of coins just about every Saturday morning after the banks opened. Lyn Knight stuck with it; coins were his passion and focus. He has become a very successful and famous rare coin and currency dealer and an absolute expert in his field.
There's a lesson there! I moved on to other areas of collecting but since then I have always been on the lookout for nice type and key date coins. My collecting interests evolved, some would say digressed, to small antique advertising items, Coca-Cola ephemera, old bottles, first issue/ publication magazines, and old Life magazines.
When I moved to Tucson in 1971, I brought the proverbial collecting bug with me, along with my passion and interest for history and the Old West. This interest and passion had been ingrained in me by the numerous Saturday afternoon western matinee movies I attended as a youngster in the 1950's as well as the blitz of westerns on television at that time. John Wayne's epic 1960 movie The Alamo burned Texas history into my mind forever. However, raising children and making a living took up all of my time and most of my money. The history of Arizona and the Southwest continued to fascinate me though. I remember the first time I saw the deserted old mining camp of Total Wreck in 1974, I was amazed at the place. I wondered how those people survived in such a locale. I visited Tombstone for the first time in 1977 and seventeen years later, it would become my passion and focus of collecting.
As a licensed plumbing contractor in 1980 and owner of a service and repair business, I had the opportunity to meet many interesting people in Tucson, many of them old-timers. One of those people was an older, unpretentious, and quiet gentleman; tall in stature and lean. He and his wife lived about a mile down the road from me. He appeared to be retired since they spent the winter months in Tucson and the summers in cooler Taos, New Mexico. While in his house one day, I noticed he had an extensive western library but I was there to give a plumbing estimate so that had to be my objective. In the early 1990s, we did several plumbing upgrades for him and his wife. We also looked after their home in Tucson while it was rented during the hot summer months. They were very personable people and interesting to talk to. In early 1995, my wife Bev bought a book for me titled The Earp Brothers of Tombstone by Frank Waters. I recognized the author's name because it was the same as my customer's name. I wondered if this could be the same man. My customer, the old fellow with the impressive western library was one in the same! Later, I found out he was a Pulitzer Prize nominated author and had written many fine books in addition to the one my wife had just bought for me. Frank Waters died on June 3, 1995 while in Taos, New Mexico. I wish I knew then what I know now. I would have enjoyed talking with him about the Earps, Tombstone, his life, and especially his many books. I'm sure it would have been a fascinating conversation! After he passed away his wife Barbara shared many reminiscences with me of Frank, his family, and his writings. It was an honor to listen! She also introduced me to some very prominent local Tombstone historians and collectors.
At that point, I became serious about collecting and started reading books about the history of southern Arizona, and Tombstone, in particular. Also, in 1995 I had the good fortune to meet bookseller Bob Pugh, owner of Trail To Yesterday Books in Tucson. Through him, I have learned much about Western Americana books and book collecting. He introduced me to legendary collector Bob McCubbin. Bob's advice has been invaluable, too. These two men, more than anyone else, have "shown me the way." I am grateful to both of them!
In my opinion, collectors are historians and preservationists. Some may hold a Master's degree or a PhD in history while others may simply be at the grass roots level. It is imperative for every collector to thoroughly know his area of interest. It then stands to reason that a serious collector must always be a student of history! Knowing the history of a rare book or document provides the focused collector with the knowledge needed to analyze its all important authenticity and provenance, or lack thereof. For me, that is the joy of collecting because it always provides a valuable learning experience. It is a thrill to hold an original 1881 Tombstone document or rare book in your hand but, more importantly, to know the history of the town and the people who were there and being able to apply that knowledge to your potential acquisition is to me the very essence of collecting.
Bob McCubbin gave me some of the best advice I have ever received regarding collecting. Early in my collecting journey, I randomly purchased Tombstone and Western Americana items that were common. They are still common today and are the same price or even lower now! I had become, as a beginner, an "accumulator" rather than a focused collector. Bob advised me to focus on one area and to buy the most expensive items I could afford first, because they were the ones that would be more expensive in the future and more difficult to find. Common items seem to always be available and rare items are not. A collector, when given the opportunity, and if they can afford it, should purchase the scarce and rare items for their collection first. There's another lesson there! I gratefully followed this advice in buying rare and scarce books related to Tombstone and the Old West and later with documents and ephemeral items. It has served me well.
When you become focused in a particular area of collecting, in due time, you may become somewhat of an expert. You see things that others may miss because of your knowledge and focus. Years ago, a book appeared on ebay that immediately caught my attention. The book Apache Agent by Woodworth Clum had no dust jacket and because of this, it may have been skipped over by other ebay watchers. The description of the book made me think it was one of the rare limited leather bound editions produced by the author for members of the family. I had never seen one of these rare books but certainly knew about them. My research had revealed that only ten of these rare books had been produced. I put a high bid on the book and braced myself for considerable competition. I also contacted the ebay seller and asked him some important questions regarding the book. From that conversation I was convinced the book was, in fact, one of the rare special editions bound for the family members only. At the end of the ebay auction, I was astonished to be the only person who had bid on it. I was elated and very surprised to have paid less than $100.00 for it including shipping. I found out later the ebay seller had purchased the book and other related items at an estate sale in Oregon. Ramon Adams describes this book in his bibliographical reference book Six-Guns and Saddle Leather on page 134, #446. Eventually, I traded that copy to another collector for some items he had that I was interested in.
Remarkably, I ran across another copy of this rare book within six months. This copy was in a museum and was available if the right trade presented itself to the museum owners. The museum copy had belonged to Florence Baker Clum, John P. Clum's last wife. It contained a large tipped in real photograph of her and John Clum. Additionally, it had a warm inscription to her by the author Woodworth Clum and her signature was in it, too. Fortunately, I had something the museum wanted, so a trade was arranged. In a matter of six months I had handled two very rare books. I doubt if I will ever see another one available for sale in my lifetime. It was an incredibly exciting experience for me. The point of this story is; focus, familiarity, and the value of knowledge in your collecting area! Of course, a find like this does not happen every day. There have been times when I have paid more than I should have for a book that I thought was a first edition when it wasn't or a document that wasn't as significant as I thought it was. I'm happy to say that doesn't happen very often anymore.
Whether, you're a $50.00 a month collector or a $100,000.00 a year collector, a PhD or a high school graduate, at the end of the day, both collectors share the same passion and focus. Hopefully, their desire is to preserve the items they collect, share their history, and save them for others to enjoy and learn from. I've always thought collecting and collectors should be a fraternity and should not be a competition or competitor scenario; perhaps this is naïve of me. I've been told that more than once. Unfortunately, in the past and even today, some collectors choose to keep their collections secret and hidden away. They seem to have the motto or notion that, "the one with the most wins." Actually, in my opinion, "the winner may be the one that shares the most" and also, I might add, "they will have the most fun too." There's another lesson there - good collecting to all!
I want to thank WWHA Journal, editor Roy Young for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and stories. I also want to thank all the great collectors, mentors and friends that have shared their collecting knowledge, focus, and passion with me along the way.
© Kevin Mulkins, 2012
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