The problem is, Jerry Phelps dreams bigger than most of us.
Normally that’s just fine. A person can accomplish a lot in life with a good dream to follow. And a strong partner to help carry the load.
So when his friends were off vacationing in Florida or Europe or wherever folks who don’t dream as big as Phelps does go to vacation, there he was in his truck hitting antiques shows in his home state of Kentucky. Or in nearby Indiana. Or Ohio. Or Kansas. Throw in a trip to Canada. And, oh yeah, California. He made a trip there once, too.
And Brimfield. He drove out to Brimfield, Massachusetts, for the big flea market. Only he bought too much stuff and had to leave some of it behind. He was driving a compact pickup truck at the time. A Dodge Ram 50. What was he thinking? A man with Big Dreams should know better. He got a bigger truck.
And so it went. Year after year. Decade after decade. Keep doing something long enough and you get pretty good at it. Soon Phelps, a retired anesthesiologist, had amassed a world-class collection of late-19th century advertising items. Signs. Clocks. Bottles. Cigar store Indians. Anything. Everything. It’s hard to say, exactly, but Phelps figures he has 8 or 9, maybe 10,000 advertising items.
The numbers aren’t really important. Let’s just say he has enough to fill a country store, an apothecary shop and a museum. All of which you’ll find on his 63-acre property overlooking Taylorsville Lake just outside of the unincorporated town of Mount Eden, Kentucky, which is about 50 miles or so from Louisville, where Phelps was born and raised.
Phelps knows well the roads from Louisville to his Taylorsville Lake property, which he calls his Van Buren Village. That’s because he and his wife, Imogene, hauled 52 truckloads of his collection from their home in Louisville to their new place when they moved there about 20 years ago. Most items Jerry and Imogene hand wrapped and packed themselves. The move took months. But that’s how love works. Little by little with a good deal of patience.
“I don’t think anyone else in the world would have done what she did for me,” Jerry says of Imogene. “I wouldn’t say she loves what I collect but I guess she loves me enough to put up with it.”
There’s no doubt about that, because there’s more.
Besides the country store, apothecary shop and museum, Van Buren Village has 10 hand-hewn log buildings – seven log homes and three barns – which were originally built in Kentucky in the 1800s. The Yeager Cabin, built in eastern Jefferson County in the 1820s, is the oldest. There’s also two miles of gravel roads and four ponds with covered bridges. The bridges are replicas. The rest of the Village is as real as sweat, something Phelps knows about all too well.
Paul Lefkovitz, a longtime collector and board member of the Antique Advertising Association of America has seen a lot of collections in his time. “When you think about the extraordinary collections of vintage advertising in the U.S.,” Lefkovitz says, “the Van Buren Village certainly comes to mind.
“Jerry and Imogene have labored for decades to assemble a truly magnificent and unique collection of vintage advertising, with special focus on rarely-seen examples of country store, apothecary, displays of all types, signs, posters, clocks and much more. In its beautiful pastoral setting, I can think of nothing else quite like it.”
Van Buren Village has been a work in progress for more than 45 years. Phelps’ lifelong dream was to have an authentic log cabin village open to the public.
“Why I get such a thrill out of all of this, I can’t tell you,” Phelps says. “It’s just always been there.”
But even the thrill can’t maintain the dream. Phelps is 84. The upkeep on Van Buren Village is too much.
Father Time slows every collector, even the great ones. Phelps tried to sell his dream, including his home on Taylorsville Lake, but no one seems interested. The land and home? Yes. His Van Buren Village? Not so much.
So Phelps is slowly selling off his collection. Some of it has gone to auction. A few items have been sold to private collectors. Phelps will keep a few things when he and Imogene move back to Louisville. The rest will be sold, until all that is left is a question.
What becomes of a dream unrealized? Does it, like a pretty picture left in the sun too long, fade away until all that remains is a memory? Maybe.
Or maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Maybe it isn’t about the dream at all. Maybe it’s about daring to be a dreamer. Or in Jerry Phelps’ case, a man who dared to dream big.
For more information about the sale or availability of Jerry Phelps' advertising collection you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org