A turn of the century collector

No doubt about it, Tom Svobodny of Willmar has an interesting hobby that takes one back to the turn of the century when something as simple as a cash register was a decorative work of art. He has numerous antique cash registers with detailed brass workings, barbershop poles, stained glass windows and more, all from the turn of the century. It’s a hobby that started about 47 years ago, one Svobodny said probably stems from his business of repairing new cash registers. “They (old cash registers) started showing up in back of old stores and they looked kind of interesting.” It mushroomed from there. To date he’s restored 200 cash registers, carefully taking them completely apart and polishing the brass pieces. “The oldest cash register I had was a wooden one from 1885, but I don’t have that anymore.” He does have several other wooden ones, however, and one of them is one of the first cash registers ever made. “They were made out of wood originally, and then they used sheet metal brass, and then the cast brass.” When World War One started, he said, there was a shortage of brass and when the war was over the cash registers were made out of steel. One cash register was sold in 1902 to Benjamin Otis, who had the Cosmopolitan Barbershop located in the basement of a building just a little west of the former John’s Supper Club on Benson Avenue in downtown Willmar. Svobodny said he believes the barbershop is still in business. “It was the beginning of the barbershops in Willmar. He had the best of everything. He had a coat rack that had mirrors on it, and had a mug rack on the wall.” Everybody in town had a mug rack depicting a car, a horse or something. Whatever was on it denoted their occupation. “They had a bathroom in back of the barbershops too where you could take a bath. Baths back then were a quarter and that was actually a lot of money.” All the cash registers have a history, Svobodny said, explaining that underneath the drawer there’s a bill of lading that tells who bought it, who the salesman was, and the day it was sold. “I had one from a drugstore in Fairfax, which I’ve sold, and I just showed one to a guy last week that says Torgerson Drug under the drawer, a turn of the century drug store in Renville.” The drug store burned down, he said, but the cash register obviously wasn’t in there when that happened. “I even have one from the old cigar store in town. It was located across from the school that’s closing, just south of the funeral home. Pearson had the register, he said. He had two registers from the cigar factory on 7th Street. “The history under the drawers of those registers really makes it interesting. You pick up a register and you never take the drawer out until you get home.” He purchased one cash register from Virgie Swalin. “I took the drawer out and it came from the old pool hall by Willmar Typewriter and Camera on Litchfield Avenue, a couple doors down from Setterberg’s jewelry.” That was a pool hall back in about 1910, he said, and the guy’s name was under the drawer. “I went to the historical society and looked it up and found his obituary.” He added, “It’s kind of fun, the history.” Svobodny purchased an old cash register at an auction in Sunburg. It was really different, he said. It was an Ideal brand, but they didn’t have any verification on it. “It had a box full of numbers, like five, ten and 15 and when you pushed the card on a rack, it was like 20 cents for a shave and haircut, and you counted all the little flags at the end of the day.” You can only accumulate so many cash registers, Svobodny said, like his wife’s friend said, ‘one is pretty but you’ve got too many to appreciate it.’ Jayne, his wife, said her friend said just one would be nice. But, Svobodny said, it’s a hobby and now it’s time to get rid of some of these collectibles. “My youngest daughter-in-law said it looks like clutter.” The cash register with all the drawers came from a department store in Madison. They had two of them, Svobodny said, and when he first started his business he remembers National from Willmar who would go to Madison once a year and oil the register. “It was in the contract. I used to watch it and I said ‘if you ever want to sell it let me know’ and when they closed the store down I bought both of them.” Svobodny described the one as being kind of unique with lights on it, a clock and a large paper spool. “The accessories are worth more than the cash register. The clock is worth $1500, the little hanging lights are worth $1500, the paper spool is worth $1100, and the light on the top that gives the name of the store is worth about $900.” It’s quite valuable, he said, but the cash register itself really doesn’t have a whole lot of value, it’s all the accessories, if they were sold individually. There are six drawers in the register, they had six clerks and they all had to account for their drawer at the end of the day. The clerk that had the bottom drawer always made Svobodny think that clerk could easily have been hit over the head by a robber, and some probably were, while they were making change. “You bend over to make change and someone could hit you over the head with a revolver or something. That’s what could have happened, I always thought of that. I wouldn’t want to bend over with all that money back then.” Svobodny also has the honor of owning the old teller’s cage from the Sleepy Eye Bank from 1885. The bank is still there, he said, but today is a fancy old stone bank. “I think it was used as an antique shop, but that teller’s cage was originally in there. It’s 125 years old.” Svobodny’s collection also includes some stained glass signs, and used to include barber chairs. Svobodny said Bob Hillenbrand, who has the old school in Blomkest, now has one of the barber chairs, one of the stained glass barber poles. Svobodny said the barber poles came from a particular town. “Every burg that had a barbershop had a barber pole. The old ones are porcelain and are from 1890s.” He has about a dozen of them. He has a few stained glass window signs as well. The grocery sign came from Redwood Falls from the turn of the century, the 1902 drug store sign from Loffstrom Drug Store at Litchfield, and the jewelry sign from Sleepy Eye from the J.J. Bruckbauer store. He also has a sign from the Sacred Heart Mercantile. In his spare time, Svobodny restores classic cars from the 50s. “I’ve done eight cars, including a 56 corvette, and a 57 corvette.” He said he doesn’t have any classic cars anymore, he sold them all. He also restores old motorcycles and old furniture. “Anything restorable I restore.” His wife said he’s good with wood. Svobodny said you can cheat when working with wood, you can stain it and do a lot of things with it. For the cabinet on the 1912 cash register he used an automotive lacquer for the finish he wanted to achieve. He said he rarely purchased any of the registers at an auction, he’d go out and fix cash registers, typewriters and adding machines through the years and that’s when he would find them. “You’d always get into someone’s back room and see something and ask what they would want for it.”  It’s kind of fun, especially the hunt, looking for it and finding it. It doesn’t work the way it does on the antique pickers show on television, he said. “They have a camera in place inside the barn and they come walking in and say ‘look at all this stuff’ and the camera’s already in there, it’s all set up, staged. They plant it there and make a story.” It’s done pretty well, he said, but in all his years of searching, the barns he’s been in aren’t that classy looking. “It doesn’t work the way they say it does. You couldn’t make a story out of how it really works.” But now, Svobodny said, it’s time to get rid of some of his collectibles.

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