Not long ago a man walked up to me in Kroger and, in a barely audible voice, said, “My wife told me I ought to get in touch with you; I have something you might be interested in.”
The man was neatly turned out in jeans, work shirt and a gimme cap. He spoke in measured, serious tones. We shook hands. This had all the trappings of a scoop. “Tell me more,” I said.
“I collect lard cans,” he said.
Jerry Harrell’s wife, Barbara, was right on. I took down his number.
Wednesday afternoon Harrell, 68, his 14-year-old grandson, Andrew Harrell, and I sat on the front porch of a small cabin at the back of his meticulously groomed eight-acre homestead on Duncan Road and talked about his love for what he calls primitive antiques. The wooded landscape, land that has been in his wife’s family for 150 years, offered scant refuge from the 97-degree heat. (“Her grandmother was related to all the Duncans in Lowndes County,” Harrell said of his wife’s family.)
It all began innocently enough, this collecting thing. It was 1996 and Jerry and Barbara were out exploring — something they do a lot. They stopped at Larry Clemmons’ shop on Yorkville Road near New Hope to look around. Clemmons trades in a wide assortment of collectibles, much of it Americana.
Clemmons had several lard cans and Harrell bought them.
Jerry was charmed by the colorful artwork on the cans, and though lard figured in his past, he had no memory of ever seeing anything like them.
The lard cans sparked an interest in collecting that has grown to include wooden boxes, other tin containers, old signs, butter churns, wood-burning stoves and primitive furniture.
Harrell graduated from Caledonia High School, class of 1966. Two years later, he married his longtime sweetheart, Barbara Ott and was drafted into the Army. After serving two years in Europe, he returned home and went to work in the parts department at Hardin Chevrolet. In 1997 he opened a machine fabricating business in Vernon, Alabama, he runs with his son, Anthony.
Jerry has an Army buddy he and Barbara visit, who lives on Lake Superior at the northern tip of Wisconsin. Those long road trips have provided ample opportunity to visit antique and junk shops throughout the Midwest — by then Harrell was also collecting vintage John Deere tractors and hay wagons. If you’ve been to the Caledonia Christmas parade in recent years, chances are you’ve seen them.
The lard can collection now numbers 54. Harrell knows of only one other person — besides the decorator for the Cracker Barrel chain — who collects lard cans, a fellow in southern Illinois.
Lard is cooked and refined hog fat, a kitchen essential in the days before cooking oil or Crisco.
“I can remember we used to cook the lard out when my dad would kill a hog,” Harrell said. “We would cook the fat in a wash pot, then dip it out and put it in a jar.”
Harrell’s cans date back to the early 1900s; most contained 50 pounds of regular cooking lard. So much of the packaging you see on products produced in the late 19th century and early 20th century is elaborate, idiosyncratic and comical — much more interesting than the packaging you see today.
A can of Old Hickory Pure Lard from Nashville pictures a full-length illustration of Andrew Jackson on the can. Farmer Peet’s Open Kettle Rendered Lard features a pig wearing a chef’s toque. The side of the can is illustrated with cartoon caricatures of Farmer Peet’s pig.
“When the lard was used up, families would use the cans for storing flour and sugar,” said Harrell.
While Harrell said he probably wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to add to his collection of cans, his focus is now on signs and old service station items. No doubt, he will find that field considerably more crowded.
Even so, I expect the Harrells will continue to enjoy themselves.
“We’ve met a lot of interesting people,” said Jerry. “That’s been one of the highlights of it, meeting people.”
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.