Where Have You Gone, Emily Vermillion?

It was a mistake any collector could have made.

The year was 1983 and I was living in Iowa City. A few years earlier I had left my career as a high school teacher and opened Knock On Wood, a combination antiques mall, woodworking business and restoration shop in a century old warehouse on the south edge of downtown. About that same time I had also discovered Arts & Crafts furniture and had begun canvassing a three-state area looking for anything brown and pegged.

On this particular Saturday morning I was driving Emily Vermillion, an artist and art teacher I had gone out with a few times, over to Des Moines, where she was scheduled to teach a seminar. Midway there we stopped at Grinnell for a brief break and gas.

At the station, Emily hopped out and disappeared around the corner of the Gulf Station where the restrooms were located. As I was topping off the tank I looked up to see a medium-sized flatbed truck pull up at the intersection next to me. At first I could not believe what I was seeing: a small mountain of Arts & Crafts furniture – chairs, desks and library tables, all brown, all pegged and all obviously Stickley.

I quickly hung up the nozzle and watched as the light changed and the driver lurched forward, his rope-encased load shifting backwards ever so slightly. I looked desperately back at the station, hoping to see Emily coming around the corner. The truck gained speed and I could hear the driver shifting into second as he drove down the street.

Still, no sign of Emily.

The truck was soon a block away and about to slip out of sight. I didn’t dare take my eyes off it, fearing it would turn and disappear forever, its load of Stickley furniture headed for an unknown destination. An auction? An antiques shop? The landfill?

And still, no sign of Emily.

I knew I had to make a decision.

I caught up with the truck just as the driver was making a right hand turn. Just maybe, I thought, I could get his attention, find out where he is going, go back and get Emily, then meet the driver at his destination.

I started flashing my lights and honking my horn. The driver stuck his arm out the window and motioned for me to pass him. Instead of pulling over, he began speeding up, thinking he was holding up traffic.

We drove this way for what seemed like an eternity. By now I was sure Emily had emerged from the restroom, only to find the car was gone and so was I – and just how well did she really know me….

Finally, at the far edge of Grinnell, his blinker came on and the driver slowed as he approached an unmarked warehouse. I followed, parked and ran over to the truck as he was backing up to the loading dock. As I peered into the jumble of chairs, desks and tables I could see the labels: the Handcraft Furniture decal of L. & J.G. Stickley and the metal tag marked Stickley Brothers Quaint Furniture.

The driver gave me a look that told me he hadn’t been impressed with my driving etiquette.

I tried to sound casual. “What’s up with the furniture?”

The driver didn’t bother to look up as he began loosening the ropes. “Not much,” he grunted.

“What’s happening to it?” I pressed.

The driver came around to my side of the truck, forcing me to step backwards. “Nothing,” he said. “Just going into storage.”

I could feel my opportunity slipping away. “Whose is it?”

The driver flipped the last rope over the top of his load, then turned and looked at me. “Belongs to the college. And no, it ain’t for sale. They never sell nothing.”

With that he began pulling chairs off the truck and setting them up on the dock. I watched for a few minutes, then knew I had better leave.

The rest of the ride over to Des Moines was pretty quiet. Emily had listened politely, but I could tell she had found out something about me that made her a bit uncomfortable. Like I had a criminal record. Or a drug habit.

I don’t recall that we went out again after that. A few years later I sold Knock On Wood and moved to North Carolina.

Emily, I heard, had caught a train for the west coast, where she probably tells this same story – with a slightly different tone.

Until next week,