Until he died this year at 84, James “Cotton” Reynolds collected enough Civil War rifles, swords, spurs, belt buckles and cannonballs to fill a room from floor to ceiling – a lifetime hoard that included a caisson, a deep freezer full of surplus guns and a few extra treasures stashed in a tomato canner.
He grew up in Perryville, Ky., where North and South clashed in 1862, and as a boy he’d comb the fields for grapeshot and pull bullets out of stone walls. Later in life, as a professional plumber, he’d swap work for artifacts, slowly building one of the world’s finest personal collections.
If you could gain audience to Reynolds’ shrine, he could look at one brass button and tell you where he found it, who manufactured it, who wore it and for how long. In his lifetime, he pulled together all the wartime belongings of a single Union captain: his sword, his whiskey flask and his wallet with tobacco still inside.
“When I was a little girl, he’d come home and say, ‘I got a goodie today, honey,’ ” said his oldest daughter, JoAnne. “Being a plumber, I’ll bet half of that stuff came from fixing someone’s commode.”
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On Tuesday, a large slice of Reynolds’ collection hit the auction block in Angier, near the home of his younger daughter, Beth Dixon. A standing-room crowd filled the hall at Johnson Properties, where owner Jimmy Johnson practically purred over the goods.
“Oh, my, my, my, my, my,” Johnson urged the crowd in his auctioneer’s patter, smacking his gavel. “Don’t wait so late St. Peter won’t let you in. This is 50 years of collecting right here. You can burn all the fuel you can in all those fancy trucks in the parking lot. You can’t put it back together.”
Johnson and his team of auctioneers sold more than 600 pieces from Reynolds’ collection Tuesday, a total the collector’s daughters estimated at less than half the whole lot. All of their father’s guns, for example, will be auctioned in Ohio.
“We found old money,” Dixon said, flipping through pictures on her tablet. “He’s got paper nickels and dimes and quarters. Have you ever seen one? He hid everything. We found this in my mom’s old tomato canner.”
Reynolds didn’t confine his gathering to Civil War pieces. The offerings Tuesday included a 149-piece set of John Primble India Steel Knives, which went to an online bidder in Minnesota for $7,500.
Buffs and novices raised their hands, scooping it all up. A U.S. military-issued spur sold for $7.50. A Confederate buckle brought $650. In one moment of hot bidding, a rebel sword from Georgia drew $3,250 from a collector’s wallet.
“Three grand would have been a deal, but $3,300 was getting high,” said Roger Van Praet of Clayton, who lost the bidding on the sword, but bought five buckles. “It’s my first time collecting Civil War stuff. I’m Canadian, actually.”
The catch of the day, though, was the cache of Capt. W.H. Turner’s belongings, including the tobacco-filled wallet. A Kentuckian, he piloted a ferry boat during the war in a border state that pitted brother against brother more than most.
“Let me tell you,” Johnson said, gesturing to the collection. “You can’t recreate this. It took Mr. Reynolds years to put these together. The buttons are all on the jacket.”
Both daughters said they had a hard time parting with their father’s artifacts. But when Reynolds died in April, they knew he wanted someone else to enjoy them as he had. As if by posthumous request, Reynolds’ items from Capt. Turner went to Mayo Cameron of Sanford, who keeps his own private museum. A collector for 30 years, Cameron paid $4,700.
The auction lasted all day Tuesday, bringing tens of thousands of dollars at least.
JoAnne Reynolds said her father sometimes found himself keeping a sort of macabre death watch over an elderly collector in bad health.
She added: “Then he’d say, ‘Now they’re waiting on me.’ ”