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Old stuff's the best stuff

Ask Larry Roberts, souvenir collector extraordinaire, and he'll say the older the better. Old Florida created some beauties, not to be compared to the garish plastic mementoes of this post-Disney age.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 6, 2001


MICANOPY -- The world is modern now, and Larry Roberts objects. Take fences, for example. When he was growing up in Florida, fences were few and far between. And if you encountered one, you just hopped over it, and nobody cared as long as you didn't steal oranges or shoot a deer out of season.

Take computers, too. And e-mail. When Roberts needs to communicate, he puts pencil to paper. If he has to write something longer than a letter he drives his rusting hulk over to Noonan's Lake and breathes fresh air and listens to the eagles while he scratches out his prose.

Writing is hard and often dull work. His real pleasure is collecting old things for his antique store in Micanopy, an oak-shrouded North Florida town established in 1834. In his collection he has shark teeth that haven't gnawed anything in 30-million years. He has bones going back eons. Driving through rural Florida the other day, he stopped and picked up an old rock. It was nothing special, except it looked old, and he likes old.

"I always love to find a just-plowed field," he says. "All kinds of things get uncovered."

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He has just written a book -- yes, in longhand -- about his other passion, old-timey souvenirs. Don't worry: His wife, Jeannie, read his handwritten words for Florida's Golden Age of Souvenirs and typed them into a computer, and the University Press of Florida put words and photographs together in a beautiful modern way. Roberts will talk about the book at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading this coming weekend. He will even use a microphone if he has to.

Roberts, who is 55, often feels like a man out of time. Don't talk to him about civilized Florida and its universities and hospitals and hoity-toity culture. Don't talk to him about Eisenhower-era Florida and how cool it was to be alive.

The best time to have been hanging out was possibly between the years 1890 and 1930. That's when Florida souvenirs, his enduring passion, were handmade works of art created by people who, for the most part, never thought of themselves as artists.

"I know baby boomers are collecting the stuff from their childhoods right now like crazy," he says, thinking about those plastic palm trees and flamingoes and mouse ears. "But to me most of that stuff is too tacky to touch."

Gator-headed canes

Larry Roberts likes alligators. He likes the real ones that swim in lakes and rivers and the ones that used to lurk in his bathtub when he was a kid. His dad, Courtnay Roberts, was the Gainesville police officer known affectionately as the "trouble reptile man." Rattlesnake in your azaleas? He'd take care of it. Gator in your garden? He'd carry it off and store it in the house before delivering the critter to the local reptile farm.

"It was a constant battle just to find a place to wash your face," Roberts says.

One time he lost a girlfriend when a frog jumped on her back. It happened in the living room.

The Roberts household, sadly, was not especially conducive to romance. One time his dad brought home another treasure, a deodorized skunk. Whoever insisted he had removed the stink glands from the skunk must have been wrong.

Perhaps the smelly skunk is why Larry Roberts loved alligators, and why he now loves alligator canes.

In the golden age of souvenirs, tourists thought alligators were the best thing since grits. They jammed steamboats for moonlit river cruises to see them. While deckhands lit the night with torches, alligator eyes glowed red. Of course, some of the tourists brought rifles and slaughtered gators by the thousands.

Nowhere were alligators more popular than in Florida's gateway city, Jacksonville. Bay Street was better known as Alligator Avenue. That's because everybody who could whittle whittled alligator curios. They whittled pipes, whistles, letter openers and, of course, canes.

They whittled out of wood taken from orange trees and out of mahogany. The best whittlers bought ebony and ivory and carved in that. A wood cane cost 75 cents. An ivory-handled cane -- "as good as anything you'd find in the Orient," Roberts says -- set back a well-heeled tourist about $6.

"The carvers were Florida artists," Larry Roberts says, "inspired by Florida, creating for Florida visitors. And they created beautiful stuff."

Nobody got rich, as far as Roberts knows, and nobody got famous. Roberts, who owns 40 canes, has found them at flea markets, antique stores and garages all over the country. His best canes are at home, but he sells some nice ones at his store. Expect to write a check for about $150.

If that price seems steep, a less expensive substitute could be Florida's Golden Age of Souvenirs, which costs $39.95. It's one of those coffee table-size books filled with colorful photographs and Roberts' take on their history.

"Florida's long relationship with the tourist-souvenir trade has given us a wonderful variety of keepsakes," he writes. "They tell the story of our state's heritage and bridge the past to the present in fascinating ways that nothing else can."

Surprising finds

He was 6 when he found his first shark tooth. In high school he discovered an ancient manatee skeleton in a creek near his home. The best time to scavenge a creek was after a heavy rain, when stuff got washed out of the mud. Casual collectors always hit the creek at dawn. He'd go at night and wear a spotlight.

"When the other collectors came in the morning, I'd already been there. I guess I was pretty competitive."

He paid his way through the University of Florida by finding fossils and Indian artifacts for the state museum. He earned degrees in art and anthropology. Back then he loved finding old pots and was interested in the beautiful patterns and the ancient people who created them.

"I've always loved history," he says. He's a consultant for the state history museum in Tallahassee and over the years has loaned his collection to museums throughout Florida, including St. Petersburg.

If it happened in Florida, he is interested. An arrow point excites him, but no more than finding an antique once sold at one of Henry Flagler's classy hotels. Flagler came to Florida near the start of the 20th century and began laying down railroad tracks. Where the tracks stopped he built fancy hotels. Eventually the railroad stopped in Key West.

Flagler helped modernize the Florida tourist trade. Souvenirs awaited the tourists. But not the kind of cheapo souvenirs Floridians buy today. The old stuff was special. If you stayed at the Royal Palm Hotel in Miami, for example, you might buy a beautiful silver spoon stamped with the hotel logo -- and painted by hand. Tourists who left the train at Key West might purchase a china plate graced with a detailed painting of the Hotel Casa Marina.

Olive Commons moved to the banks of the St. Johns River in 1908. While her husband managed an orange grove, she painted riverscapes on porcelain as gifts for friends. Eventually she sold them. "The St. Johns River seemed to flow out of her paintbrush," Roberts says. She could paint a complete scene on an ornament much smaller than a dime.

Today, her work is worth hundreds of dollars -- if you could beat Larry Roberts to it.

For sale -- mostly

Roberts Antiques is an impossibly cluttered store, filled with canes and brooches and old fishing lures and, quite possibly, about 50,000 postcards showing old Florida in its glory. Roberts has alligator purses and stuffed bass and Seminole dolls and clothing. He has arrow points and old paintings and more dust than you could shake a mop at.

Roberts can look a little dusty himself, sitting in a dark corner among his stuff. Many of his customers don't even notice him until he pipes up with "Can I help you?" When they engage him with a good question -- "Ah, you know Florida souvenirs" -- his thick mustache bristles and he jumps up. He's a tall man who almost always wears a ball cap, jeans and a Hawaiian shirt.

It's his road uniform, too. About once a month he packs stuff in his van and searches for old stuff. The 1989 Plymouth is turning to rust. Foam rubber leaps from slits in the seats. Peanut shells and old food wrappers lie on the floor beneath boxes of stuff, stuff, stuff.

"It's a good vehicle for somebody in the antique business," Roberts says. "I know too many people who have been ripped off while parked outside of antique shows. Better to store your stuff in a junker."

He sells his wares at shows all over the country. And, of course, he buys antiques all over the country. A good show is one in which he breaks even, sells enough of his stuff to cover his travel expenses and buy a few new things.

He has bird dogs -- antique scouts -- everywhere. They know what he's looking for and contact him if they find something interesting. He keeps in mind their interests and tries to find something that will bring them joy.

He sometimes is surprised at what he finds at flea markets, though these days he is discouraged by the number of post-Disney items worth a lot of money to baby boomer Floridians. He can't see spending more than a buck on plastic junk.

Of course, one person's trash is another's treasure. He can tell you about the time he found the Florida souvenir of his dreams. Greenleaf and Crosby, from Jacksonville, were famous for fine things. One of their rarest and most beautiful items was a sterling silver and ceramic whiskey jug topped by the likeness of Johnny Griffin, the paperboy who worked in front of the store.

"I'd been looking for one for years," Roberts says. Suddenly, in a crowded aisle, in an Atlantic City antique show, he stumbled across one. His heart palpitated. He wondered what his wife would say if she knew he was about to write a check.

The price was enough to sober up a drunken man. At $1,500, the jug is the most expensive item he ever bought. Of course, it is not for sale -- even if you offer to throw in a live, odor-free skunk.

Actually, Roberts likes wildlife enough. Not long ago, on a fossil dive, he happened to look up just before surfacing. Good thing. He was able to use his snorkel to knock aside the water moccasin.

"It didn't mean me any harm. I like snakes."

Another time, as he struggled against the current in the Ichetucknee River, he had sense enough to cling to the bottom just as a 6-foot alligator passed overhead. He lacked any instrument -- say, a nice cane -- to keep it away.

"He was as scared as me as I was of him," he says.

Only one thing truly rattles him.

"Rude people at garage sales get to me," he says. "I picked up this nice piece of pottery one time, a really nice piece, and this woman yanked it out of my hand. I hate garage sales."

* * *

At a glance: Larry Roberts will speak at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading at 10:15 a.m. Saturday in Dendy-McNair Auditorium, Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. For more information, see www.festivalofreading.com.

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