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Caretakers of history

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Auctioneer Doug Houser sells a vintage brass railcar plaque at Saturday's railroadiana auction at Mahoning Valley Fire Hall as clerk Jackie Zehner-Clemson tracks bids. The estate sale continues tomorrow in Schnecksville.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Auctioneer Doug Houser sells a vintage brass railcar plaque at Saturday's railroadiana auction at Mahoning Valley Fire Hall as clerk Jackie Zehner-Clemson tracks bids. The estate sale continues tomorrow in Schnecksville.
Published January 17. 2014 05:00PM

Rail history is on the auction block and collectors are jockeying for a piece of the action.

The Houser family of auctioneers has teamed with Summit Hill Atty. Joseph Velitsky in liquidation of an estate expected to produce four or five auctions of an extensive collection of railroadiana.

"I've been doing this since 1971 and I've never seen a collection of railroad memorabilia like this," said Doug Houser of Houser Auctioneers, Schnecksville and Allentown.

The contents have the potential to attract railroadiana fans from a wide region. In fact, it'll be a veritable feeding frenzy for those who collect all things choo-choo.

The first sale on Jan. 11 drew 200 to Mahoning Valley Fire Hall, 2358 Mahoning Drive W., Lehighton, on a rainy, icy Saturday morning.

That auction offered pickings from the first lot of possessions of the late Dave Stone, former resident of Lansford and Bethlehem.

Stone worked for the Lehigh Valley Railroad for over 35 years. He reveled in the rich history of the line, a railroad which opened from Easton to Mauch Chunk in September 1855.

The LVRR was built for the purpose of transporting anthracite coal. It was known as the Route of the Black Diamond, named after its cargo.

On June 24, 1970, the LVRR filed for bankruptcy protection. Its properties were taken over by Conrail on April 1, 1976.

Stone worked at the LVRR for more than 35 years and served in various capacities. He was one of the final employees to walk out of LVRR facilities before doors closed forever.

By that time, he'd amassed an extensive collection of memorabilia from many different rail lines. Among the items are vintage advertising and signage, china, work clothes, lanterns, photos, paintings, paperwork, manuals, jugs, stoneware, stockholder reports and schedules.

Stone's collection filled three houses, including two sides of a double-block on Kline Avenue in Lansford and his residence in the Lehigh Valley.

In fact, the scope of his collection challenged the crew charged with packing, sorting and liquidating.

"We hauled out eight truckloads," said Linda Houser, the former Linda Middlecamp, a Lehighton native.

The Bethlehem house is next to be emptied.

"The place is filled to the rim," said auctioneer Jason Houser, son of Doug and Linda.

Stone was a Coaldale native, son of Stephen and Susan Kitchko Stone, and was proud of his coal region roots. For that reason, many pieces in his collection hail from the Panther Valley.

"There is so much local history here," said Marie Metzger Houser as she helped to finalize details at Saturday's sale.

How did one man manage to acquire so much?

Well, for one, Stone never married and had no children. He remained by himself his entire life. He devoted his life to caring for his parents and collecting things that held meaning.

He traveled to sales, flea markets and bazaars with his dear friend Jean Balas, Lansford. Balas was like a sister to him.

"He was my best friend since I was age two," Balas told the TIMES NEWS. "We were in each other's lives all our lives. He was very private." Balas didn't want to get into too many details about Stone out of respect for her late friend's preference for anonymity.

Another said everybody always spoke highly of Stone.

"Yes, he was a good person," said friend Len Kovach, Lansford.

Stone passed away Oct. 5, 2013, at age 70. Arrangements for estate liquidation began shortly later.

A highlight of the initial Jan. 11 public auction was the sale of a large framed LVRR train print of a steam locomotive at Switzerland of America, Mauch Chunk. The color print fetched $550. A similar print with a different scene managed $500.

A rare J.J. Wilkel, Mauch Chunk, whiskey crock tallied $420. A LVRR lantern with a signed globe brought $95. A pack of about 50 paper maps of the "Route of the Black Diamond" brought the gavel down at $105. A Canadian National step stool reached $110. A train conductor's cap and trainman's cap each brought $240. A heavy, cast-iron engineer's bell chimed in at $140. A LVRR print of Niagara Falls, popular rail destination, hit $240.

The auction generated interest from a wide geographic area. For example, a one-of-a-kind International Passenger Rates ticket cabinet for wall mounting sold to a Perkasie phone bidder for $400.

Another unique item was an Asa Packer framed stock share of the LVRR, $120.

Interestingly, one single piece of china from a dining car - a Victorian celery dish signed LVRR - was hammered at $100.

Local antiques aficionados picked up some prized items.

For instance, a rare crock jug from the Connie Dorrian Family Liquor Store, Summit Hill, was bought by Gary Frantz, Andreas, for $330. Another hot item was an early LVRR photo of the Rockport Tunnel, matted and oak-framed, dated Apr. 14, 1887. It made its way to top bidder Atty. William Schwab, Lehighton, for $340.

The second sale will take place 9 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 18, at Schnecksville Fire House Pavilion, 4550 Old Packhouse Rd. with two auctioneers selling simultaneously.

Additional sales for February and March will be announced in THE TIMES NEWS by Houser Auctioneers. Those sales aren't quite ready.

"We still have to go through the boxes," said Doug Houser.

There's a general understanding among antique collectors.

"We never really own anything, we're only caretakers," they say.

In the grand scheme, that sentiment is true.

Even in the best scenario, those who own a vintage artifact are allowed to watch over the piece only until they depart. After that, a prized heirloom changes hands. At every auction, antiques find a new home. And so a caretaker fills a temporary role. You can't take it with you.

Still, there's nothing as enriching as living with a throwback to the glory days, they say.

And as long as humans share a passion for the past, there will always be another caretaker waiting in line.

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