Salt of the Earth: Sand Mountain man’s shaker collection tops 5,000

By CHRISTINA COOKE
The Chattanooga Times Free Press, May 2005

The salt and pepper shakers on James Thornhill’s kitchen table are cheap, plastic and far from remarkable. Looking at them, you might assume that he has no taste in spice dispensers. But you would be wrong.

The 72-year-old Sand Mountain, Ala., resident has a collection of shakers that would impress even the most snobby of connoisseurs. As of last week, he had 5,018 sets.

Mr. Thornhill started collecting shakers with his wife, Eva Mae, back in the mid-1970s. The two were browsing a flea market when they spotted 15 sets on a table and bought them all.

He built a small shelf in the kitchen over the washer and dryer to hold the first few shakers. Over time, he built a shed behind his house to accommodate his growing collection.

Mrs. Thornhill died about 15 years ago, but Mr. Thornhill continues to collect with his son Lebron, 41.

Every Sunday about 7 a.m., he and Lebron, who live together, drive up the road to the flea market in Scottsboro, Ala., where they buy any shakers they can find for a reasonable price. “I’d give a dollar for ’em, two dollars, up to three,” said Mr. Thornhill. “But four and five dollars, I just don’t see it.”

The collection’s current home is an 864-square-foot building with a concrete floor. The 12 rows of shelves that line the plywood walls from floor to ceiling include pairs of windmills, bloodhounds, San Francisco trolley cars, covered wagons, hamburgers, wood- en clogs, snowmen and footballs. There’s even a set of feet with painted toenails that say, “Getting a kick out of Florida.”

“You look and you’ll see just about anything here,” Mr. Thornhill said. “I come in about every Sunday and walk around here by myself and see what I can find and what I can’t find.”

Mr. Thornhill looks at home amid his collection. He’s a short man with a strong build. He has white, wavy hair that he combs straight back and a long, white beard that he said he hasn’t shaved in 30 years. He speaks with a thick Southern accent and chuckles a lot. He points to a set of ceramic shakers along the back wall.

“John F. Kennedy is sitting down yonder in his rocking chair with a lady,” he said, adding, “I don’t know who she is.”

He moves to a set of salt and pepper shaker dentures nearby. “I’ve got the toothpaste and the toothbrush right there close to ’em,” he says. “In case you got to brush ’em, you can just reach over and go ahead.”

He picks up another shaker — a plastic waiter — that’s sitting on a shelf by the door. When he twists it’s neck, the shaker screams, “You’re breaking my neck!”

Mr. Thornhill was born on Sand Mountain, Ala., in 1933. Both of his parents died when he was 12, and he dropped out of school to help his relatives raise corn, cotton and peanuts on the family farm. Later, he took a job at a saw mill on the mountain.

When he was 22, Mr. Thornhill began working at Stainless Metal Products in Chattanooga, a company that makes the wire display racks that hold snack foods in convenience stores. March 11th marked his 50th year at the company.

Still, at 72, he wakes up at 3 a.m. each day and drives 55 miles to work, where he sets up the brake presses, punch presses and spot welders that produce the racks. He returns home at 3:42 p.m. to work on projects around the house and help his son fix up antique cars.

“James is probably the most liked employee we have at the plant,” said Ronnie Neal, his boss. “He’s more or less everyone’s grandfather. Everyone just loves James to death.”

Hal Priest, the human resources manager at SMP, said, “He’s always jovial, always mak- ing some kind of joke with everyone — he calls it ‘aggravatin.’ At Christmas, he comes in with a big sack of candy and hands it out to all the ladies — and the guys, I guess, too.”

“I don’t think he’s got a mean bone in his body,” said Michael Beecher, director of operations, “but he does have a little twinkle in his eye.”

Mr. Thornhill tried to retire about five years ago, but came back after three months at home. He said he plans to work at SMP until they shut the doors and run him off.

And though the doctor ordered him last fall to stop showering his fried taters and pinto beans with salt, he also plans to continue collecting shakers until he’s got them all.

“As long as I’m living,” he said, “I’m going to keep collecting.”

NOTABLE SHAKERS IN JAMES THORNHILL’S COLLECTION

  1. Ceramic wedding rings on pillows with the inscription: “Idelle and Gip, Dec. 31, 1931.”
  2. Two halves of a hard-boiled egg.
  3. Feet with painted toenails that say, “Getting a kick out of Florida.”
  4. A tube of tooth- paste and a toothbrush.
  5. A pair that reads “Dad you are the salt of the Earth” and “Mother you are the pepper upper.”

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