The conversation went something like this:
Andrew: I'm flying in from Philly on Thursday. We have to drive to La Grange.
Me: Why? What's in La Grange?
Andrew: A house full of stuff.
Me: What kind of stuff?
Andrew: You'll see. We have to drive to La Grange.
So there we were, sitting in rain-soaked gridlock in downtown Chicago trying to get out to La Grange, Illinois at 5 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon. Me wondering why this was so necessary. Why we had to drive to La Grange on a whim. About a hour and a half later, we sat at the bar at Brixies in Brookfield, going over the tap list so I could bring him up to speed on some new locals. Solemn Oath had launched in such a flash, I said, that since the last time he was here this past Spring, they'd already gained significant mindshare, especially out this way in the western burbs. Yarnbomb was his introduction.
What unfolded next was nothing short of glorious. We rolled up to a house in a quiet neighborhood of La Grange — an unassuming two-story with a few lights on upstairs. Roger Tempelton, a slighter version of Hemingway in a beige pullover, short white beard, frameless glasses and white socks in mocassins greeted us at the door. He was expecting us.
Roger sells paper, all over the world, and works with insurance adjusters to offload and flip damaged goods, often supplying antique and gift stores all over the Midwest with some truly unique, if not treasured, items. But his true passion is antiques. And his home in La Grange is spectacularly outfitted with items he's most passionate about — letter writing desks, canes, mandolins, taxidermy, snuff and music boxes, and so much more. Roger is often called on to outfit retail and living spaces with his wares the way an art collector might loan to a museum for a retrospective After some small talk and getting-to-know-yous, Roger cracked open a couple of beers, Arcadia's Jaw Jacker, an easy harvest style ale with cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg, clinked bottle necks, and started the grand tour.
We started in the mandolin room, where Roger twirled the many bowed-wood instruments around so we could see the various ways in which they were caned with slatted wood on the backs. Far from being in tune, each one still carried a resonate tone in its belly, which bulged enough to fit a football inside. Some of them seemed impossibly made.
A table filled with scrimshaw (scrollwork, engravings, and carvings done in bone or ivory) told stories hundreds of years old. Many were simply bone canvases, including teeth, tusks, and even a walrus penis bone the size of a toddler's baseball bat, each covered in elaborate and detailed artwork. Others were makeshift tools such as pie crust crimpers that the sailors would bring home for their wives as gifts. With so much time at sea, and little material other than whale bone and ivory, these craftsmen got creative.
Roger has amassed a dense collection of letter writing boxes as well. The exteriors, many in micomosaic made of wood, paper mache, ivory, brass and other decorative elements, are as varietal as the interiors. Many have secret compartments and left behind correspondence. We even found a ledger from a rum runner in the 1740s, likely a sea captain. Based on this record, I hope he settled up — it was one hell of a tab.
The canes. So many canes. Roger has one collection devoted to weaponized canes, some that hid swords and daggers, clubbers, but especially single shot guns built right into the narrow housing of the cane itself. Simply cock the handle, drop in a shell, and a trigger releases for the shot. The mechanics of these weapons were all still fully functioning. Other canes captured the likeness of a pet, or expressed fair warnings using the grimace of an alligator, snake or spirit animal. Some were bought for their intricate craftsmanship, while others were clearly a living artifact, being carved and shaped by the owner over time as a storytelling instrument. One of Roger's favorites sports deep knife marks that form the words of places it's owner explored over a lifetime, including Kings Canyon, Arizona and the Rocky Mountains — which covered a good spread back in the 1800s.
One of Roger's first collections was animal skulls. What started as a small group of rodents and cats, has grown to include alligators, snapping turtles, tigers and more. Most of Rogers collection stems from a long-time fascination with animals. As a member of numerous animals' rights organizations, Roger sees beauty in wildlife, whether alive in the wild, or as a relic found in a dusty attic. And the materiality of things like tortoise shell thankfully gave way to things like plastic, which prior to their invention, only the finest craftsmen could achieve with animal byproducts. Saving these artifacts from being forgotten can at least give new appreciation for the value of the life lost.
Roger has a cameraphone. Actually not in that sense — he has a small Samsung flip-phone — but an actual cameraphone, or phonograph — a portable record player with a metal housing that looks like an old Polaroid camera. Each piece pops out, attaches, and with a tiny handcrank, actually plays records with beautiful clarity. It was almost surreal to watch this thing come to life. Men would often bring these cameraphones along on picnics or to the beach. It's like the original Jambox.
In the basement (various basements, garages and trucks actually) Roger keeps the rest of his collection in various states of being sold or moved. Tucked beneath a polar bear head, a possessed-looking fox, and two raccoons rowing a canoe was a truly unique item — a beer tin. More suited to storing motor oil than beer, Roger says these cans were taken to the brewery, filled and capped, and brought home like a growler. Why anyone would fill a tin with beer instead of almost anything else more suited to the beverage, I might never know — perhaps these were made according to some government regulation.
Afterwards, the three of us went out. We followed Roger's lead to Alex and Aldo's, a little Renn faire-looking Italian place tucked in to a strip mall. The only waitress came around from behind the bar and scratched out a few words. "What are you drinking? We've got Schlitz." Schlitz it was then. "Kitchen just got cleaned up, but I'll make you a pizza" conceded the owner. Pizza it was then.
Roger saw me taking a photo of my beer and grew curious.
Roger: "What's this all about then?"
Me: "I'm taking a picture of my beer"
Roger: "What the hell for?"
Me: (pausing) "Well, this is what I do" and I showed him Good Beer Hunting
Roger: "Well why didn't you tell me you like beer. What the hell are we drinking this garbage for?"
And that's how we ended up at the Wild Monk at midnight in La Grange, IL drinking one of Roger's favorite beers in the world, Ommegang's Three Philosophers.
Roger: "Isn't that something? That cherry flavor. I love this beer."
Me: "It's something alright.