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Collection of a lifetime (with video)

CLENDENIN, W.Va. -- Chuck Hamsher gazed about a vast room stuffed with stuff.

"Right now, we're preparing for what probably is going to be the largest estate sale in West Virginia this year."

If it wasn't for where he was standing, you might think the owner of Charleston's Purple Moon antique and collectibles shop was engaging in a bit of hyperbole. But where he was standing was in the midst of just one of several vast rooms chock-full of a vast amount of stuff.

Hamsher, his wife, Connie, and a co-worker were racing to organize a sequence of weekend sales that will disburse to the four winds the remarkable lifetime legacy of collecting by Helen Gandee, a member of the family that founded Clendenin Lumber, who died last August at age 86.

"After Mrs. Gandee passed away last year, they're wanting to move on with the property," said Hamsher. "Helen Gandee collected antiques all her life. When her family closed the business, she began filling this warehouse with them."

The family contracted with the Purple Moon, which does estate sales on the side, to bring coherence to the many objects filling the 20,000 square feet of warehouse space. The rooms are crowded with everything from classic early American furniture sets, Fostoria American glass and a small army of porcelain dolls, to oxen yokes, a Hamilton pump organ and a coffin ("Luckily, it was empty," Hamsher commented).

The estate sale starts July 5-7, and may run all four weekends in July, depending on how quickly things go. Hamsher expects a crowd as they advertise the sale across West Virginia and beyond through the Internet. "I'm betting about a thousand people the first day," he said.

What they will find is an array of choices.

"The antiques have been incredible. I think we've got 15 dining room sets in the building," he said. "There are beds galore. There are armoires. There are chests of drawers, covering virtually every style, from primitive to traditional to art deco to modern."

There's an armoire that breaks down into pieces, so it could be hauled cross-country on a settler's covered wagon. Upstairs, a child's coffin features a lid hand-painted with morning glories and a plaque inside that reads: "At rest."

Hamsher won't follow a reporter's video camera into a tiny room filled with a small village of glassy-eyed porcelain girl and baby dolls. "The dolls kind of creep me out a little bit. I'm not a big fan of the dolls. But there are some interesting dolls here."

Gandee had a wide-ranging eye when it came to what she wanted to possess, judging from a long corridor of ironware pots, classic early American tools and horse and oxen yokes, to numerous dinnerware and glassware sets.

Hamsher paused overtop a dining room table crammed with glass. "Fenton, Blenko -- some West Virginia-connection companies, as well as a lot of things from Europe and all over the world."

He first encountered Gandee a decade ago. "We're always haunting all the antique stores in the area."

He found her shop one day and was amazed by what it contained.

Then he tried to buy something.

"What we found then was a lot of it was not for sale. In fact, there were some Blenko pieces that even had prices marked on them and Mrs. Gandee didn't want to sell it that day. So they didn't leave. That's kind of the way it was. We still run across pieces that have the 'not for sale' sticker stuck on it somewhere."

From talking with the family about her, he shared a few thoughts about her collecting urge.

"She was a collector more than anything. I think she just truly loved this stuff. She came from very humble beginnings. She had six brothers and sisters; they lived in a very small house in the '20s and '30s that had no running water, had no electricity."

She later met the man who would be her husband, Gene Gandee. He, along with his father and brother, launched and grew a supply business that became Clendenin Lumber, which later sprouted a second area location.

Perhaps the memories of her life as a child led Helen Gandee to hold on to what she was able to gather around her as an adult, Hamsher mused. "I think we see that some with a lot of folks who came out of the Depression. They kind of clutch on to these possessions they love because they didn't have hardly anything then."

What is valuable

Gene Gandee, who at 90 is still going strong, picks up the thread of his wife's warehouse-size devotion to collecting. He sat in a back office in the warehouse complex along W.Va. 119, as a small white poodle named Penny napped atop his desk

"She never threw anything away! She even saved the stretch around my underwear to tie up something with," he added, laughing.

He grew up in Hard Camp in Roane County and met Helen when they were teenagers. At age 19, he watched her get baptized in the Elk River at Clendenin. He seized the opportunity, he said, chuckling again. "I asked her for a date as she come up out of the water."

As his family's supply business prospered, the couple were able to travel -- and collect things.

"We traveled all over the world. I tried to buy something good wherever I went. It's not all valuable. I got a little Russian girl about that tall" -- he holds two fingers 6 inches apart -- "that I glued her head back on three times. That's valuable to me. It's not worth 50 cents broken."

The couple had property in Florida, where they first started collecting in earnest, he said. "It's a habit, a good habit. A lot of fun. And you can lose money real easy. But you can have fun. I sold $60,000 worth to a doctor in Florida and two trailers of stuff."

More recent auctions didn't go so well, he added, waxing philosophical. "In these last auctions we had, we lost our shirt. But that's part of life."

It's a little depressing seeing the collection out there in the warehouse about to be scattered, he said. "But you live with it. We'll do better here by renting some of these spaces."

New old stuff

For Chuck Hamsher's part, he and his wife have so much stuff to disburse that visitors who come on different weekends will see a constant infusion of new old things -- until everything is gone.

"There are some things we're not going to have room for even given the amount of space here. We're going to be feeding things in during the duration of the sale. There'll be new items added into it virtually every week."

Given the limited number of sale dates and the large amount of objects, prices will not be sky-high, he added.

"One or two pieces are probably going to be in the thousands or thousand-dollar-plus range. There hasn't been a priceless antique here. But it's certainly all good quality and things that we don't see every day in this area."

Want to go?

WHAT: Helen Gandee estate sale

WHERE: 5148 Elk River Road, along U.S. 119 in Clendenin in an area known as Blue Creek; look for the "Truss America" sign and a yellow warehouse.

WHEN: Hours for the first weekend of the sale are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 5 and 6 and noon to 5 p.m. July 7. The sale could extend throughout July; for details, visit pmestatesales.com.

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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