Before the advent of electricity, lanterns powered by oil or white gas were the most common source of artificial light. As electrical distribution systems were improved and expanded, lanterns were quickly discarded for a more convenient and brighter source of light. The Amish, however, continue to use lanterns.
Ed Erb of Holmes County, Ohio, maintains his Amish lifestyle with lanterns throughout his home and outbuildings. But his lanterns are a notch above the utilitarian. Ed has amassed a remarkable collection of old Coleman lanterns and anything manufactured or marketed with the iconic Coleman Co. name.
“We remain steadfast to our Amish way of life,” he says. “We have great respect for our lifestyle. We hold true to the biblical commandment to be in the world, but not of the world. Living a plain life provides humility. So living by gas-lighted lanterns in our home is very adequate.”
Ed’s Coleman Co. collection evolved by chance. “Malinda and I were married a short time when we needed a gas range,” he recalls. “With help from my uncle’s plumbing business, we converted a natural gas range to one using white gas (a flammable substance) and I found working on appliances to be of my liking.” In 1982, Ed bought an appliance sales and service business. “Working in this business got me interested in collecting old relics,” he says, “especially Coleman lanterns.”
Coleman’s reputation as a source of sturdy, long-lasting gas equipment is well founded. Many items in Ed’s collection are more than 100 years old. “Those old Coleman lanterns, irons and stoves were built tough, but they could be cleaned up and ready for use in no time,” he says. “And parts were simple and easy to find, so it made collecting them enjoyable.”
Ed’s reputation as a collector of old Coleman lanterns and equipment reaches across the country. Each September, an Airstream travel-trailer caravan makes camp in Holmes County. While there, the visitors are invited to view Ed and Malinda’s display area. It’s a marriage made in heaven: The visiting campers swarm over the exhibit of 2,500 pieces of collectible camping gear.
The Erbs are active members of the International Coleman Collectors Club. Made up of more than 2,500 members, the organization gathers for a three-day rally each June. “The gatherings will draw about 100 vendors with several hundred members attending the activities,” Ed says.
The first Coleman lantern was an arc-style lamp built in 1905. Used only in homes, this lantern was very ornate. The company also produced a general-purpose lantern in 1905. Later, the company expanded into farm and ranch products.
“Coleman lanterns were very useful for farmers, especially in dairy barns and poultry houses,” Ed says. “The all-purpose Model 237 was often found where cows were stabled and milked.” Coleman’s poultry house lanterns were produced between 1921-26 to wide acclaim. A large tank reservoir meant the lantern would remain lit through the night. Lighting the hen house at night increased egg production, a fact not wasted on Coleman, which inscribed the lantern with “The Hens That Lay Are The Hens That Pay.”
Interest in the Coleman collector group grows every year. “As people use Coleman products and appreciate their quality, more people are collecting,” Ed says. “And they come from all walks of life. I would estimate there are about 35 Amish families collecting in the U.S. and Canada. Malinda and I have found meeting and working with Coleman collectors to be very enjoyable. As a result, we see a great future for this hobby.” FC
For more information: Ed Erb, (330) 893-3903 (days only). International Coleman Collectors Club, online at International Coleman Collectors Club.
Freelance writer Fred Hendricks owns SunShower Acres, Ltd., Bucyrus, Ohio, a dairy cattle consulting business. He is an avid farm toy collector. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.