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I’ve never watched the shows dedicated to exposing the trials and tribulations of hoarding. “Hoarding” and “Hoarders: Buried Alive,” I’ve been told, highlight the most disgusting aspects of the practice. I’ve been told that the shows regularly reveal filth and ruined lives. It’s perhaps designed to ward off those who teeter on the brink of mental illness related to the hoarding phenomenon.

Like all obsessions, I’m sure it starts small. As a keen “thrifter,” I often buy things I have no use for. Who can resist a good bargain, after all? I always use the excuse that I need it to add to the collection – and there have been many. I have collected Humpty Dumpty things (inspired by stuffed ones from my childhood), light fixtures, Fostoria Alexis glassware, Jacobean oak furniture, family crests, tapestries, corkscrews, pier tables, old keys, acorn and oak leaf-themed items, things with thistles, pug dogs, German porcelain, all things Scottish, all things English, anything Gothic, Italian marble, pewter, Harlequin dishes, old lamps, old clocks, desk accessories, desks, Ethan Allen furniture, old glassware, old books, old tools, old advertising, brass candlesticks, andirons, wooden coat hangers, linenfold carving, cookie cutters, kitchen gadgets, vinegar cruets, teapots … and the list goes on.

Luckily I’ve gotten rid of many of these collections after finding out that there was simply too much out there to collect, or I just lost interest. As an example, you wouldn’t believe how many Humpty Dumpty items there are. Once you start collecting you’ll see those things everywhere — it’s a hazard of the hobby.

I like things more than money, and as a result have a lot more of one than the other. From the start I was willing to spend grocery money on something old, and many are the packs of ramen noodles served on a vintage 1920s table.

When collecting you go with the adage that “Three’s a collection,” so having two of anything is never enough. After I’ve got three of something, I often keep on going.

I was always inspired by collectors such as Ottilia Buerger of Mayville, who started buying ancient coins at Gimbel’s Department Store in Milwaukee. When she died she had a complete collection of Roman emperors. It was recognized by the experts as one of the best collections of its kind in the world. She donated them to her alma mater, Lawrence University in Appleton.

I recall when she gently placed a gold coin on my hand. “Don’t drop it,” she said, fearing I might dent a perfect image of a Caesar’s head. The weight was impressive for something about the size of a nickel. It was a moment I will never forget.

Now that was a collection! I admired her for being so single-minded that she could amass the best of what was already 2,000 years old. She was also frugal, and drove a hard bargain with whatever dealers crossed her path.

I guess that’s the difference between a hoarder and a collector. A collector is discriminating; a hoarder not so much. And when having too much of everything becomes the reason for living, it’s easy to tell which is which.

My sister, Connie, explained, “When you have no more room to put stuff, you’re normal. When you start piling stuff in the bathtub, you’ve got a problem.”

She’s a wise woman, even if she’s a bit obsessed with her three Shelty (Shetland sheepdog) dogs and numerous birds. (Pet obsessions are a whole other topic).

I know it’s time to start clearing out. When I have to start shuffling containers to make a path in the basement or garage, the warning signs are there.

Money in the bank it’s not. Instead it’s what my grandpa used to call “a frozen asset” – something that’s worth nothing until it’s made liquid (sold).

It’s kind of a fine line between collecting and hoarding, and those of us who can’t tell which side we’re on need all the support we can get.

For those readers who share this problem, I feel their pain. To quote junk collector Red Green in his Mid-Life Musings, “Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.”

Ken Thomas may be reached at

Ken Thomas may be reached at

Beaver Dam Daily Citizen Senior Reporter