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Big Don's Elegant Garage Sale

The history of the modern world as collected by a local legend

by Jack Neely

Chances are you've never been to a garage sale much like this one. Several hundred pairs of white coveralls. A gas space heater from the St. Louis World's Fair. A set of circa-1920 medical scales. Minstrel tunes on 78. Large Edwardian jardinieres, elegant and fragile. A few dozen cheap gumball machines.

This is not your typical garage sale. The Buttrys were never your typical family.

Donald "Big Don" Buttry died last year, leaving a half-century legacy as the owner of Big Don's Elegant Junk, as well as a whole lot of stuff. He was the famous one, the figurehead, advertised as "The World's Greatest Junkologist;" at six-foot-four, he was hard to miss. With a thin mustache, they say that back in the '40s he looked a lot like Clark Gable, but taller, when he was one of the first security guards at the shiny, modern Sears on Central Avenue, and when he worked on construction projects in Oak Ridge. Many remember him in his later years, when he still had his suave mustache but wore his white hair longish, sitting downtown on a Central Avenue bench, telling stories about the days when the street was teeming with illegal bars and brothels. A 1989 Knoxville Journal story shows him posing on a bench in front of his store in a serape and Mexican sombrero.

Big Don had his name on the signs, but his wife Ruth was the motivator of the business; the whole thing was her idea. It started as what she expected to be a one-time, second-hand sale in the late '40s. By the mid-'50s, it was well-established as a business at 115 South Central, the part of town which had been known as the Bottom and the Bowery, but wouldn't bear the name Old City for another quarter century. People in West Knoxville thought of it as a dangerous neighborhood, and sometimes it was, a place where you could find moonshine or beverages made from heating oil, a neighborhood of flophouses and prostitutes and fences for stolen merchandise.

Big Don's wasn't originally a droll, trendy, retro sort of store. It was a second-hand shop frequented by working families and the homeless. Ramona Buttry says her mother, Ruth, who was more the proprietor of Big Don's than Big Don himself was, saw the store as a sort of mission to the unfortunate. The sign out front advertised blankets, sleeping bags, work clothes.

Her middle name was Gertrude, and she didn't mind it if you called her Flirty Gertie. Originally from Knoxville, she spent some of her youth in Capone-era Chicago, and kept a fascination for the popular art of the Roaring '20s. As an older woman on South Central, she never wholly got used to the fact that her old neighborhood had become a high-rent entertainment district. "She did not enjoy being on South Central as much when it was trying to be 'The Old City,'" says her daughter Ramona, who still runs Big Don the Costumier, across the street. "She and my father liked it the way it was."

Today, the peeling paint on the pressed-board sign still advertises Antiques, Sleeping Bags, Blankets, Books, Furniture, and Mod Clothing, and the store's obviously full of stuff: a Santa Claus figurine, an old cabinet-style radio, lots of clocks, hundreds of things visible through the grimy windows. But the store is closed, and has been since Ruth Buttry died almost four years ago.

The Buttrys own the building and could have done well to sell it in this still-trendy neighborhood. But they just locked it up, leaving the buddhas and plastic Jesuses and ventriloquists' mannequins and all the other elegant junk on the shelves, as they concentrated their efforts on the Costumier across the street.

Ramona—some of her associates admit they don't know her last name—is Don and Ruth's daughter. With orange hair, a broad face and a sly smile, she might remind you just a little of photographs of the French writer Collette; she's a lifelong Knoxvillian, but there's more New Orleans than Appalachia in her affect. The week before Halloween, her store is packed as she discusses a promising floppy felt hat with a customer, seemingly oblivious to the 12 other customers who follow her around the cluttered shop.

Ruth Buttry always wanted Ramona to be an opera star, and the 60-ish costumier still has theatrical aspirations. Much of her year-round business is in outfitting theatrical productions, from Clarence Brown to Pigeon Forge. She has hopes of opening a small theater of some sort, perhaps in conjunction with a Big Don's museum of curios at the old store site. Ramona idolizes her parents, whom she calls "Noble Don and His Lady Ruth." She may offer you an old commemorative issue of the tabloid-sized Knoxville Area Antiques Bi-Monthly that features a large photo of Big Don on the cover, but she'll object if you fold it in half.

To her, many of the things her parents accumulated over the years have sentimental value. For the past few weeks, she's been amending her list of what to sell, usually deciding to keep. But the heiress knows she has way too much stuff for any one person to get a good look at, much less own. When it came time to sell off much of the considerable Buttry estate, she considered trying to hold it at or near the site of the store in the Old City, but realized there wasn't room down there to hold it all.

A Big Don's sale would be plenty impressive. What many people don't know is that the Buttrys had acquired thousands of objets d'art that they never displayed at 115 South Central. They kept most of it stored at their North Knoxville home, near the dead end of Mineral Springs Road, off Broadway just this side of Sharp's Ridge, much of it in a nondescript outbuilding, a storage house built for the purpose. Even Ramona calls it "the mystery building." And that's where Ramona will hold her sale.

Many of the Buttrys' possessions never displayed at the store, especially items in a couple of large estates they'd bought en masse in the last 30 or 40 years.

One was that of the Francis Milligan family, who lived on Circle Park from about 1902 to 1916. Now part of UT's campus, Circle Park was then just near UT, and one of Knoxville's ritzier addresses during the Edwardian era. All of its houses were torn down decades ago.

Ramona points to a translucent green lamp, which she thinks is European, circa 1930. "Mother liked green," she says, gesturing around the greenish room, crowded with greenish objects. "Can you tell? I didn't like green for the longest time."

The Buttrys bought the Milligans' Edwardian furniture and clothing, then put it more or less back into storage, in a large garage on their property, and there most of it remained for another three decades or more. This sale will be the first time much of it has seen the light of day since before the doughboys left for Europe.

Keeping some of the furniture company in a sunny front room is the house's long-term resident, a black cat with white feet that Ramona says is still mean at 17. He's named Lartnec. Born an alley cat, Lartnec showed up at Ramona's store on Central; his name is his original address, backwards. She's careful to keep him locked inside; he tends to pick fights.

In the collection are some vases and bowls—Steuben, Royal Bond, Nippon—and several jardinieres—shiny, graceful, ceramic flower stands, obviously of another era. Ramona wants to keep at least one of them, but can't decide which; she doesn't mind selling most of these fragile Edwardian relics. If he got out of his room, Lartnec could probably knock some of them over.

Also on the block is the bulk of another, slightly later estate, that of Dr. W.G. Ruble and his wife Ethel. Dr. Ruble was a physician who served as a major in World War I and, soon after the war, was mayor of Morristown for a two-year term. Ruble and, later, his widow and daughter, did a good deal of overseas traveling. From reading their letters, Ramona learned that they knew Louis Icart, the French artist fashionable in the prewar generation and known for his often erotic etchings of women. (Fascinated with their dramatic lives, Ramona says she's going to write a play about the Rubles.)

Unfortunately for prospective fortune-hunters, she's keeping many of the finest antiques for herself; many of the more conspicuous things she's saving for her museum.

Included is early 20th-century medical equipment, including an old medical scale and an examining-room lamp, and some bottles of quinine and cans of ether, as well as dozens and dozens of medical books; their titles alone are fascinating. One 1890 treatise is called Practical Electricity In Medicine and Surgery, "Profusely Illustrated"; another is Bumstead and Taylor's 1902 Venereal Diseases.

And in boxes are lots of old 78 rpm records, from classical to minstrel-show tunes. In bins, hundreds of white saucers of unknown origin. Up on racks, hundreds of pairs of white coveralls. Baby buggies and steamer trunks full of clothes. An antique Victorian-style cash register, which Ramona thinks was once used by black-owned Lovely's Electrical Co. Furniture, including a couple of spinning wheels and a medieval-looking dark oak table with feet like those of some mythical three-toed predator. That space heater with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition medallion she thinks may go for $4,000.

Among the pieces to be sold is a dark, impressionistic painting of a snowy pine forest at last light, signed A.A. Lutz. Adelia Armstrong Lutz (pronounced Loots) was one of the five or six leading painters of the turn-of-the-century Nicholson Art League that included better-known Knoxville artists Lloyd Branson and Catherine Wiley. Tell a local art or antique dealer that you have "a Lutz," and they'll probably know what you're talking about. Born at her father's Kingston Pike home, Bleak House, Adelia was about four when General Longstreet commandeered the house as his headquarters. Perhaps inspired by Branson, who painted a well-known portrait of Adelia as a teenager in the 1870s, she spent most of her life painting, showing at the 1897 Centennial Exposition in Nashville and the Knoxville Conservation Exposition of 1913.

Her husband, prominent insurance man John Lutz, built his mansion, Westwood, near his wife's childhood home. (That house, fronted by a serpentine brick wall, is still occupied by the family just as, after all these years, the J.E. Lutz insurance company is still in the Burwell Building on Gay Street.) Adelia spent her entire life, from her antebellum infancy to her radio-age retirement, in that tight little family neighborhood on Kingston Pike.

This dark painting's dated 1923, late in her career, when Adelia Lutz was a 64-year-old widow. Ramona thinks it came from the Milligan estate.

And there are lots and lots of other things. Ramona sounds despairing of being completely ready for the sale. There's so much stuff buried in the storehouse and in two large trailers on the property that she says perhaps the best they'll be able to do this weekend is sell the top layer, revealing other layers for future sales.

Roaming around the densely cluttered storeroom, she seems almost like a garage-sale shopper herself, in awe of the immensity of what's now her own estate, and all the boxes she has never looked at.

At some moments she seems to be on the verge of deciding to just keep it all.

November 2, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 44
© 2000 Metro Pulse