Butch and Dea Allen have, uh, beaten the odds ... literally. This St. Joseph, Mo., couple has combed the country in the process of building a remarkable collection of antique butter churns, cream whippers and egg beaters. The Allens are modest about their collection, quick to say it's not the biggest nor the best you'll find. But neither is it chopped liver.
Fifteen years ago, as she moved an antique cabinet into her home, Dea fixed a sharp eye on the decor.
"I need a butter churn to put on top of that," she recalls saying.
Out-producing your average rabbit, that one antique butter churn has since evolved into 300 churns.
"We got that one, and then we found out there were other sizes," Dea says.
"There were not a lot of people collecting Dazeys then, and that's what we concentrated on at first. We started out to get a representation of the Dazey line, and when we got pretty well through that, we started looking around. We found there were a lot of neat churns."
Soon their collection spread not only deep (Dazey churns, crates, can openers, thermometers, scales, pop bottle openers, pencil sharpeners, as well as pieces by other manufacturers) but also wide: Nearly countless egg beaters, cream whippers, milkshake makers, mayonnaise mixers, and more.
"I like the mechanical parts," Butch says. "But we like anything that whips, beats or mixes."
When the Allens started buying antique butter churns 15 years ago, they'd pay $40 or $45 for a decent churn.
"If we had to give $150 for a churn, that was a terrible price," Butch says wryly.
Collector interest in antique butter churns continued to grow. Then, about five years ago, the Internet began to be a factor.
"The internet has changed this hobby dramatically," Dea says. "We've been online for five or six years; we've gotten some good leads through it."
"You don't have to put the miles on the car, and you don't have to wait a half a day at an auction for something to come up," Butch adds. "But that doesn't mean we don't still like to get in the car and go."
The bottom line? Whether it's electronic or face-to-face, the Allens like the thrill of the hunt, and the chance to meet other collectors.
"We just like to talk churns," Butch says. "But the best part is the find."
"Well, that, and the people," Dea says. "We've met so many neat people."
As experienced collectors, the Allens say the most important advice they give to novice collectors is to do their homework.
"For instance, we often see 'married' pieces," Dea says. "In other words, the top and bottom are not right; they don't match. People will screw churn tops on anything. Check it out; you can get stung. Unscrew the lid, check the glass; see if it's chipped.
"We hate to see somebody get stuck just because they don't know. You need to get the books, do the research, find out what things are worth. Just ask questions: 99 percent of all the collectors we know enjoy sharing what they know."
The Dazey line can leave the new collector – well – dazed. Take the one-quart Dazey. The most-sought after model currently is what's known as the "bevel edge," produced from 1906-1912.
"It's really hot right now, because you don't find those in the larger sizes," Dea says.
But there's also a one-quart "round label" Dazey (1912-22) and the "slope shoulder" one-quart Dazey (1922 patent era). The Allens are aware of just 20 of the one-quart slope-shouldered churns (which often sell for about $2,000). The bigger sizes of the slope-shoulder churns have the patent date on the jar front; the one-quart model, however, does not.
If you see what appears to be a one-quart Dazey, it probably is.
"There's always rumors about reproduction one-quart Dazeys," Dea says. "You know, a lady pulls up to auction with her trunk full of them. Well, if you see her, call me! We've never seen one."
Still with us? There's more.
"Now, we found a line of churns that was unmarked, but had the same characteristics as a Dazey," Dea says. "Those are Standards. There is no unmarked Dazey. If it's not marked 'Dazey', it's not a Dazey. Well, there is one exception: Price churns are made by Dazey, but it's a cheaper line. But the only way you'd know it was made by Dazey is if there's still a paper label on the front."
More than 1,500 patents were issued on butter churns made by all manufacturers. Dazey, however, remains most collectors' favorite.
"Dazey's the most popular," Dea says, "probably because they made the most churns."
Butter churns represent the biggest part of their collection, but the Allens happily coexist with whole battalions of cast iron egg beaters, cream whippers and milkshake makers. Like other collectibles, kitchen pieces come in all price ranges.
"Beaters, for instance, range from $2 to $2,000," Butch say "The cast iron lay-flats are big right now. But there's some nice tin beaters, some with springs, some with double action."
"There's a lot of people who collect just for color," Dea says, "like red handled beaters. It's a place to get started that's not as expensive."
Condition is just as important as in churns, the Allens say. "But when you're looking at rare beaters, even if they have some damage," Dea says, "they're still worth some money."
The Allens take a light approach to restoration. Butch has learned to make replacement wood parts, castings and screens, and he also has an extensive used parts inventory. Occasionally he'll have nickel tops re-buffed. Every collector, he says, has a different philosophy.
"Some people said they don't care if it's not authentic, they just want it to look nice," he says. "But you need to be careful: When you tap a rivet out, the cast iron can break. We soak tops in a 5-gallon bucket of WD-40, and brush with a brass bristle brush. On the egg beaters, if they're greasy and grimy, we let 'em soak and then brush them. You should never sandblast them."
The chase for churns, beaters and whippers never ends.
"We're always looking," Dea says. "We find a little bit of this stuff on e-Bay. We go to sales, talk to auctioneers; look in publications, and there's a lot of trading among collectors ... But it's getting terribly tough to find anything. When this stuff is gone, it's gone. They're not making any more of it."
What's the next big thing in kitchen collectibles?
"Pot and pan scrapers could be the next hot item," Dea says. "They've gone for up to $1,500, the ones that have good enamel advertising."
If that's just a bit too hot for you, think electric.
"Electric items are coming on strong," Dea says. "Old mixers, waffle irons, irons. Then there's fruit jar rubbers – especially boxes full. I've seen those go for $2-$3 a box, when the boxes are pretty. But people collect anything.
"There's even people collecting women's rubber overboots!" FC