FROM HERE TO ANTIQUITY

Mpls / St. Paul Magazine, April 1985

Carroll Simmons might have grown up to be a doctor, lawyer or corporate chief, as did many sons of established families in Hastings, Minn., in the 1920s.  But at a time when his teenage peers were collecting high-school sweethearts, Simmons had an eye for a well-turned Chippendale leg, the dainty curves of a Queen Anne table and the opulent charms of a Marie Antoinette portrait.

With the purchase of his first antique, he was hopelessly smitten.  Simmons strapped it to his bicycle, took it home and stored it in the barn behind his house.  More venerable objects followed, mostly local Victorian furniture.  Without formal training, he learned to repair them, mend broken parts and restore finishes.

In 1923, when Simmons graduated from Hastings High School, he found it hard to get a job, but not too hard to sell his refinished furniture.  So the enterprising young man launched a career as dealer and collector of antiques that has lasted more than 60 years.

During most of that time, Simmons' home and place of business has been a red-stone mansion in the center of Hastings.  Built in the mid-1800s by William Le Duc, a Civil War brigadier general and first U.S. secretary of agriculture, the house was the focus of the town's social and business life at the turn of the century.  Simmons no longer lives there, having moved a few years ago to a smaller home along the Mississippi, but his antiques business still thrives in the Vermillion Street manor.  An air of faded elegance envelops the furniture, paintings, silver and china huddled together in the high-ceilinged rooms with their tall, heavily draped windows.

Simmons, 81, still seems as much a part of the house as its valued occupants.  But the years have not diminished the keenness with which he appraises the quality of a treasure or the potential of a customer.  He recalls with remarkable lucidity the history of his antiques and their connection to people and places.  In the large shadowy barn behind his former home, Simmons shows off a recently renovated carriage that Col. William Colvill of Red Wing used at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Some members of Simmons' extended family of antiques have found a home at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, including a sampler embroidered in 1808 by 10-year-old Mary Sibley, a distant LeDuc relative.  And though he gave his mansion to the Minnesota Historical Society nearly 30 years ago, Simmons still spends each weekday and most Saturdays there, tending shop and refinishing furniture,  too busy an antiquarian to consider retirement.

- Judith Leslie

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