By Dixie Terry
Members and guests of the Johnson County Genealogical and Historical Society enjoyed a treat on Nov. 20, when Johnson County Circuit Judge Williamson shared a portion of his collection of political memorabilia, including a number of county-related items.
Williamson was introduced by Gary Hacker of “From the Past Antiques,” who said he and Judge Williamson have had many conversations on antiques.
The collection venture began in 1982, soon after Williamson was sworn in as Circuit Judge, when he was in Harrisburg to work on 63 cases that had been handed him. There, he saw the framed political collections of a peer, who shared that he had many duplicates that he would share with Williamson. “I took him up on it,” said Williamson, and those became the nucleus of his collection that has grown to massive proportions in the past 33 years. “It’s an addiction, but a legal one,” Williamson pointed out, telling of the upstairs of their home, where the major portion of the collection is stored, as his wife smiled and nodded.
He would become friends with a number of professional collectors, who are always on the lookout for his special interests. He said he is very fortunate to know these collectors.
On-the-job training was underway as he encountered other collectors at flea markets, antiques malls, auctions and estate sales.
Williamson told of the “golden age” of collectibles that includes the decades prior to the 1920s. And, though there are some good quality items after the 20s, they are much fewer after the Bill Clinton era.
He stated that he had no Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in his collection.
The collection boasts of pieces from before Lincoln, through the Bill Clinton hey-day. In fact, he and Clinton are acquaintances, since the judge was attending law school in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Clinton was teaching in his first year. “We were pretty good acquaintances,” Williamson said.
Dan Quayle, who lost to Clinton, was also an acquaintance of Williamson, when they both attended De Pauw University. Williamson was once interviewed on WPSD when they learned he that he knew Quayle, then running for president.
Clinton and Quayle both figure highly in Williamson’s collection, some of which he displayed for the JCGHS.
Swapping is a common procedure in acquiring political items, which is how Williamson became the owner of a well-valued item featuring Pleasant Chapman, a congressman from Vienna/Tunnel Hill in the early 1900s. When the judge was requested by a collector/friend to marry he and his fiancé, at Ferne Clyffe State Park, he complied. When the newlywed asked what he owed, the judge said he couldn’t take pay. But, a celluloid vintage political card became a part of his collection of P.T. Chapman.
He said most pieces in his collection have a story, sometime quite lengthy, all a part of the collecting adventure it seems.
General John A. Logan is a very important subject in the collection. Williamson showed a square off-white bandana with the general pictured, that he plans to frame. He showed a similar item, already framed, that he had bid for online.
Paul Powell, a hometown hero of Vienna for decades, is another favorite category, as Williamson opened a hat box containing one of Powell’s popular fedoras, that he was often seen wearing. Inside the hat box is the name, Robert Brothers, Springfield.
A large Masonite sign, with “Re-Elect Paul Powell, Secretary of State, DEMOCRAT, is a favorite reminder of the county politician.
In a photo, signed, “Paul Powell, Best Wishes,” is the Democrat politician, surrounded by 16 nuns, adorned in white habits.
One of Williamson’s favorites of Powell is a poster, in great shape, from 1938 or later, proclaiming, “Paul Powell for Representative.”
There was also shown a Paul Powell bumper sticker, door knob hangers, a sign for hanging around a supporter’s neck, and even a small bag, “Put It In The Bag.”
Also shown was a 1962 large framed photo of Powell, that Williamson discovered on a basement wall in a Cape Girardeau antiques store.
C. Ross Reynolds, a Johnson County son, also has several of his political reminders in the local mix.
Political post cards were quite popular in the days gone by, and a 1912 edition of Woodrow Wilson was shown.
Williamson has a category of third party candidates, with not so familiar names, but all a part of political history in the U.S.
Illinois governors memorabilia, includes Wm. Stratton, one of Williamson’s favorites, in a 1958 fan, a very common collectible.
Williamson seems to have all the buttons ever made for state representative C.L. McCormick, another Johnson County politician. As well, he has a collection of binders that held his house journals and bills.
“Paul Simon for President” was seen on a large bow-tie shaped wooden sign, “one of a kind,” said Williamson.
There are several plates in his collection, including one of Simon. Not a favorite collectible, since they can get chipped, lowering their value considerably.
Williamson got to know Ken Gray quite well at his West Frankfort Museum, where he found a number of items to add to his collection.
Flamboyant was congressman Gray who served Southern Illinois well, and who left behind a paper legacy. Included was a citation from World War II, along with a ribbon and medal from the VFW, among a multitude of other memorabilia of the well-remembered Southern Illinoisan.
Williamson also showed some license plates of Gray such as “21 Congressman”; “ILKG2;” as well as a Virginia plate, when he served in D.C.
Williamson also proudly showed a letter to Gray from Bill Clinton, saying after his election, “Your Franklin County came through for me.”
Kennedy is well represented in the collection, including an unused ticket for JFK’s birthday party in 1961, when Marilyn Monroe sang, “Happy Birthday Mr. President” in her famous oh-so-tight gown.
The most valuable in Williamson’s collection is a celluloid political button of Kennedy, one of about fifty that was made for approval. It was not approved by his father, Joseph Kennedy, for some reason, and was never distributed widely. Williamson said he had only been collecting for a couple of years when he discovered the item in a Paducah antiques mall. He liked the looks of it and bargained with the dealer, from $12 to $10. The piece had been brought in from Princeton, Kentucky, in a collection. Williamson was later offered $375, but he chose to keep it. Later, he discovered from an Ohio dealer that it is worth $12,000. “It’s going right back in the lock box!” he stated.
Mayor Richard Daley, Chicago, who Williamson said was one of the finest mayors for that city, is represented well, and with one political sign printed in Spanish.
Williamson showed a cardboard poster of Illinois Senator Dirksen, “my all-time favorite.”
An American Indian friend of senator McGovern created a wooden bowl for his South Dakota friend, said Williamson, as he proudly showed the carved bowl.
The late Senator Gene Johns, Marion, whose family recently held an estate sale, is also represented, with a wooden plaque that he had received and was signed by Governor Otto Kerner, along with the fountain pen used.
Williamson belongs to a political memorabilia collectors club and attends conventions around the country, where he has discovered some of his treasures, also with a story.
The JCGHS business meeting was conducted by president Jerry Miller, prior to the program. Bobby Carter, secretary, read the October minutes, that were approved. He also shared of a recent tour of the Williamson County Historical Society Museum in Marion and encouraged those present to take a tour of the four-story former jail.
In the absence of the treasurer, there was no financial report.
The society will hold their annual Christmas potluck on Sunday, December 4, at 1:30 p.m. at the community room of the Carnegie Library. The program will include a show-and-tell session by members. There will also be an election of board members.
Anyone interested in Johnson County history is urged to attend.