Just last week, a curious traveler from South Africa bounced down the gravel path to Avery Sisk’s cabin, edging her car around boulders and over four single-lane bridges, finally reaching a leafy corner of semi-civilization where no cellphone will operate, just to see where Sisk – a 73-year-old retiree – built a shrine out of coffee mugs.
Such is the drawing power of Sisk’s collection: roughly 25,000 java cups gathered over the last 15 years, all of them dangling from nails punched in the exterior walls, on the ceilings, along a fence rail and shaped into arch – completely covering his cottage perched on the Johns River.
His legend has grown large enough to lure thousands per year into wildest Caldwell County, including an adventurer from Iceland, a tourist from Hawaii and, on Friday, me. I spent an hour searching for this wilderness monument until I found Sisk in a rocker on the front porch, where he explained that his obsession grew more like an untended garden than an Eiffel Tower of kitsch.
“Just a hobby that got out of hand,” he said. “I don’t drink coffee.”
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As Sisk led me through his mug gallery, I counted 41 cups from Hardee’s alone, most of them the classic brown and tan Rise and Shine variety, but a pair of them special editions from Indiana and Tennessee. He showed off a pair of favorites: his Ronald Reagan cup hanging inside the front door, showing the Gipper from what looks like his Bonzo era, and his John and Caroline Kennedy model, for which one mug-hound offered him a C-note.
Along the walls, I found mugs advertising the Sands Casino in Las Vegas, Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire and the Cleveland Browns. There’s the joke cup from Appalachia (“Here’s yer cawfee, Paw!”), and the red Chesapeake Bay crustacean who’s crabby until he gets his coffee. I had to duck to keep from bumping my head, a precaution I normally have to take only when reporting from caves.
Sisk, who lives 49 miles away in Lincoln County and retired as a maintenance man for La-Z-Boy, told me that the House of Mugs grew out of his desire to buy an antique oil lamp. At the same Hickory flea market, he and his sister Ruby Shook also picked up 750 coffee cups for $15.
Inspired, he and Ruby began hanging the mugs in a far corner of the cabin’s porch, which originally irked Sisk’s wife, Doris. Sisk explains that she softened her stance once reporters started putting her picture in the papers.
Regardless, soon Sisk was scouring flea markets in Rutherfordton, Spindale, anywhere, buying mugs sight-unseen, toting them in a pickup sometimes more than 1,000 at a time.
“I got used to it,” sighed Doris, who does enjoy coffee. Black.
Luckily, admirers donated nails. But once, after Hurricane Frances in 2004, water from the Johns rose up the porch steps and carried off 100-odd cups. Still, Sisk persisted. He and Doris still have roughly 8,000 mugs to hang on some empty space around back. And that doesn’t even consider Sisk’s ever-growing collection of police patches, which he casually mentions does not have any representation from Wake County.
My family’s crusade to the House of Mugs capped a week’s vacation in Maggie Valley, which involved such highlights as rafting on the Nantahala River and a hike to the top of Looking Glass Rock. And even though my 8-year-old son Sam didn’t linger long in the House of Mugs, I know it will grow in his mind as an example of life lived properly, a project that demonstrates the importance of being devoted, dogged and ridiculous.
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If you go
The House of Mugs can be found by reaching the tiny hamlet of Collettsville in Caldwell County, about 12 miles west of Lenoir, then following Old Johns River Road, on the left past the Collettsville General Store. Do not rely on any sort of electronic device to guide you there. Donations are happily accepted.