A biographical article on Carroll by Timothy Trent Blade
Carroll Simmons outlived many of his relatives and friends and more than a few of his serious competitors. His first antique was a Norwegian immigrant trunk bought when he was 20 for $1.50 and later sold for $12. After 69 years and the passage of thousands of antiques through his hands, he emerged as the preeminent dealer in the state, having outwitted and outlasted the remainder of his original competition.
Few could compete with his good sense and his intuition about period furniture brought about by the experience and favor his age and cunning allowed. None could compete with his remarkable inventory that filled four houses, a couple of barns literally to the ceiling with Windsor and Hitchcock chairs, William and Mary tables, federal sideboards, Victorian sofas, frames by the dozens, and a cellar full of salt-glazed crocks, andirons, fireplace fenders, apothecary jars, castor sets, blue and white Canton, and other en suite china of the last two centuries.
Simmons' longevity allowed him to hoard his stock and store when he was young, to live off of it when he was old. During the Great Depression, the wars, and during the more recent uncertainties of commerce and culture, he had added to his stock by the roomful. With an eye for quality and profit, untempered by sentiment, he created his reserves from the chattel of other people's lives. Where some dealers had one New England highboy, he had three from Pennsylvania. For every burled bowl which occasionally found its way to a shop in town, Simmons had a graduated set of four.
But the stock of his shop was more than mere merchandise. He treated each piece as though it was an adopted child, something to value, to protect, to find custody for in another home. Once having left his care, these Georgian, Federal or Victorian wards were not forgotten. Their movements across the country, their increase in popularity and value, and their development of patination were all of intense interest to him. Not infrequently, when crises happened - a divorce, a death, a bankruptcy - they'd find their way home again to his shop, where their old guardian had never forgotten their appearance, their origins, or their original price. Some of these "children" he went out to find; some had returned to him three times in twice as many decades.
In Hastings where Simmons grew up and where his commerce flourished, he was well-known, but not always well-liked. Like the prophet ignored in his own country, he was often misunderstood in this conservative river town. Perhaps it was his fierce independence that brought about suspicion, as he persistently bought up the contents of local attics, parlors and barns for pennies and sold them for dollars to strangers and city folk. Occasionally he was ridiculed for the unsightly piles of four-poster beds, trunks, chests of drawers, and cast-iron kettles heaped on the open porches of his shop, precariously covered by Oriental carpets. His personal demeanor was as casual as the arrangement of miscellaneous furniture parts spread around his sheds.
Few now remember the young Carroll Simmons, at 6'3" a slim and handsome gentleman. His more familiar appearance in later years was the bulky silhouette that moved slowly from room to room. He cared little of how he looked. He usually wore no hat or coat, even in the winter as he escorted guests from one outbuilding to another. His gray hair was a spiky bush that matched his moustache and his three-day growth of whiskers. His fingernails were embedded with stain and varnish as, usually, were his shirts, trousers and shoes.
In an atmosphere of isolation and a preference for the past, it was fitting that Simmons ran his business in the most significant architectural structure in Hastings. The construction of the great gothic revival house for General William Gates LeDuc, with its grand verandas and imposing central tower, was probably begun in 1856, but interrupted by the Civil War.
The mansion was surrounded by a spacious lawn shaded with noble oaks, the original ice house and barn, a decaying gazebo and iron deer. The lot behind the barn was strewn with enough cast-iron planters to look like an abandoned cemetery. This romantic vision was encompassed safely within the protective presence of a tall iron fence that separated it clearly from the ugly encroachments of the 20th century.
The LeDuc mansion, inspired by Andrew Jackson Downing's "Architecture of Country Houses," had once hosted President Rutherford B. Hayes. Simmons bought the house during the depths of the Depression for a percentage of the back taxes, moved in and began his business there.
Simmons did not operate the kind of shop where every object was priced and available for purchase by just anyone. The LeDuc mansion was more like an extension of Simmons' own home at the other end of Hastings, a place where regular customers made appointments to visit. Here they sat in the kitchen, heated in winter by an ancient cast-iron stove. They talked and listened, flattered, negotiated, begged, occasionally even threatened, all in the hope that desirable merchandise would be sold to them. More than anything, it was a shop where people waited to get what they wanted. It was no place for the impatient, the faint-hearted or the addicted collector wanting a quick fix.
In the complex recesses of his mind, Simmons kept as firm an accounting of his customers as he did of the columns of figures in his oddly ciphered business ledgers. The sophistication of their courting manners earned customers points and further knowledge of his inventory. Their accumulation of visits, their drinking cups of rancid coffee that had boiled over on the stove, the paying of homage in the form of flowers, plants or baked goodies, or the sending of a postcard from some distant port, all totaled up in Simmons' book.
Ultimately these favors were rewarded by permitting entry, perhaps to the contents of a drawer, another closet, another room or another floor. Eventually, this privilege might extend to allowing access to a barn or shed. Once privy to their contents, customers were required to wait even longer as Simmons further tested their patience and divined their intentions. It took him time to decide if their homes or collections were worthy to receive the company and assume the care of his antiques - his adopted children.
After the obligatory coffee ordeal in the kitchen, visitors to the LeDuc mansion were escorted to the dining room, always dominated by one great mahogany table or another that nearly groaned beneath the weight of copper tea leaf ironstone, cut glass and Sheffield coffee urns and candlesticks. It was surrounded by sets of chairs, and sideboards covered and filled with silver, under whose multiple legs were stacked cases of sterling flatware in patterns expensive enough to please anyone. Here, too, were dozens and dozens of astral lamps. On either side of the fireplace were two deep china closets, and whose inventory was known only by the man who had the key.
At the front of the house was the library, dominated by a marble fireplace and the portrait of General LeDuc himself glaring down on horseback. The walnut shelves, once lined with the general's books, Simmons had filled with early flint glass, other pressed glass and porcelain from several centuries. On the floor, stacks of prints in Victorian frames leaned against one another. Across the hall was the great parlor graced by a bay window and great gilded pier mirrors that reached to the ceiling. Nothing was usually for sale in here, but just seeing the carved rosewood furniture by John Henry Belter would take your breath away.
It was generally only after years of waiting that Simmons' customers were invited to view the upper rooms of the mansion, including the general's bedroom with its original lambrequins at the windows. The closets that connected these rooms were filled with quilts, coverlets, glass lamp bases and stained-glass shades.
At the peak of the house was the attic, accessible by a narrow staircase fitted with a well-worn railing made of a long thin trunk of a fir tree. A few bare bulbs cast their light over the contents of these spaces. The walls were lined with Currier & Ives prints. On the floor sat stacks of curly maple chairs, Antiques magazines that were nearly antique themselves, piles of old damask draperies, boxes filled with chandelier prisms and brass tie-backs.
In the tower itself, Simmons had created a tiny chapel (which he insisted was Episcopalian) with gothic chairs, prie dieu and a portable pump organ. It was here in 1959 that he married Margaret Dunlop.
The last stronghold and private showroom of Simmons' most precious merchandise was his own residence, the Pringle-Claggett house. It was built just before the Civil War by his great-grandfather Judge Benjamin Pringle as a wedding present to his son George. Here, in the house overlooking the river, Carroll Simmons upheld the highest standards and lived with what he loved best: his Baltimore sideboard, his great mahogany Chippendale secretary, his Chippendale lowboy and ball-and-claw chairs, tall-case clocks, Queen Anne benches, the Sarouks and Kabistans, sets of Chinese export, Sandwich candlesticks, the last of his 17th-century pieces. All this beauty was surveyed by the watchful and approving eyes of his ancestors' portraits that hung in several rooms.
At one time or another, other less appreciative creatures lived among these treasures, too, including his enormous cat, Henry, succeeded by several cats all named Willy and, briefly, an ill-tempered German Shepherd misnamed Lucky with an annoying appetite for visitors’ shoes.
Few of his recent customers knew that Carroll Simmons opened his business in 1923 in partnership with his older sister Ellen. They called their first shop The White Swan. Ellen Simmons was involved in the business until her death in 1956.
Carroll Simmons was one of the few dealers in the Midwest who was himself an accomplished cabinetmaker. When Robert Kerstetter came to work for him at the age of 14, he taught him all he knew of the craft, and then sent him to school to learn more. For over 40 years, Simmons kept Kerstetter busy in the back room with repairs and restorations and sometimes generous replacements or enhancements… It was the saddest of fates in his last year for Carroll Simmons to outlive his cabinetmaker who was faithfully in his employ until his death in July 1991.
Simmons had descended from the Pringles in New York and the Carrolls of Baltimore, the family that Maryland school children still read about in their history books. On the occasions when he thought they were worth using, Carroll Simmons could exhibit all the grace and charm expected of and practiced by his eastern ancestors. With these he engaged wealthy dowagers and museum curators alike, and he lectured to the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts with authority and ease. On other occasions he was often vague, abstract or just plain blunt, though never with strong language. As his hearing worsened, he used his deafness to advantage, sometimes to discourage a sale, dismiss the disagreeable, or ignore the ignorant.
He judged people quickly (and usually well), a distinct asset in so personal a matter of transferring ownership of precious goods to the right people. When they came to the door, he would size them up. "It's just what's in these two rooms," he'd say to casual drop-ins, to discourage their prowling. "The rest of the house isn't open to the public." But to long-standing, trusted customers, he'd sell the very bed he slept in, or a rug that belonged to his grandmother. Well, maybe it was his mother's.
He understood the business thoroughly and knew that everything of quality would have its day. If an object was not popular or appreciated when he bought it, Simmons had the patience and (as it turned out) the time to wait until it was. His criterion was simple: he looked for quality within the genre, regardless of his own personal preferences. He bought Tiffany and Handel lamps when people had banished them to their attics and front porches. He gathered up quilts and coverlets, Scandinavian immigrant pieces, and Native American beadwork for their rare beauty and craftsmanship at a time when families were embarrassed by reminders of their humble past. He personally disliked cut glass but had the best selection in the Midwest; he used them as browser bait, as quick turnover merchandise for customers he wanted to be rid of.
While he loved a bargain, Simmons was willing to "pay right up" for things, a phrase he often used when the prices of the national market had gotten beyond his comprehension. By paying more than anyone else, he usually got not only the best, but the most. He had no patience for those who bought and sold antiques part time. These hobbyists he often dismissed as "bedroom dealers."
His skill for anticipating the market was exhibited early in his career. In 1923, he borrowed $2,000, went east and brought back a truck full of early furniture. He sold much of it to Mrs. Weyerhauser, paid the loan back immediately, and never had to borrow money again. He repeated this pilgrimage many times, meanwhile ingratiating himself to the carriage trade, establishing his reputation among them for access to fine things. In the '40s, he bought a house intact with its contents from Mr. and Mrs. Skinner in LeRoy, N.Y., near Rochester. This eastern outpost became his warehouse, filled with fine Federal pieces that he moved back and forth across the country with market demand.
He had a proprietary feeling about his antiques and was sometimes obsessed that they'd find the right home. In his mind, the inventory of everything he'd ever owned (and who had bought it, and what they'd paid) allowed him to construct an image of what his customers' homes looked like, even if he hadn't been invited. He knew what they needed and, especially, what they didn't. He might encourage a purchase by suggesting, "This would look nice on the table you got from me last year," or "This mirror has the same inlay as the one I sold your grandmother." Sometimes he was even more opinionated, and the words, "Your house is too small for that," or "You don't need that," were always quite final.
Simmons once expressed disgust after hearing that pair of beautifully patinated large bronze urns he had sold a young widow had been polished to glittering perfection and placed in her husband's mausoleum along with a Waterford chandelier he'd sold her earlier…all wasted on the dead, he thought.
The depth and breadth of his inventory and his interest in history gave him the unique opportunity to serve the community in ways other dealers might only aspire to. He both sold and donated furniture and decorative arts that are now part of the permanent collections of the state's great museums, educational institutions and historical societies. He sold furniture to Israel and Donald Sack, and to Winterthur. He also regularly loaned furniture and accessories to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the governor's residence, the Goldstein Gallery and Fort Snelling. But at the other end of grandness, it should be remembered, he just as willingly would help kids load a Victorian sofa on their truck for delivery to Hastings High School to be used as a prop in a senior class play.
In 1958, on the occasion of Minnesota's state centennial, Simmons deeded his most valuable possession, the LeDuc Mansion, to the Minnesota Historical Society, to preserve the state's singularly important Gothic-revival residence, and assure the history of its renowned owner, Gen. William G. LeDuc. Ever the businessman, his public largesse was tempered in this transaction by the private stipulation that he could run his business tax-free from the site until his retirement, which happened only at his death, despite the auction of his shop contents in 1986.
Carroll Simmons' reverence for the accomplishments of early craftsmen was often sharply contrasted by his cavalier handling of objects around the shop. With his big, thick hands, he'd drag three or four delicate Hepplewhite chairs across the yard, or recklessly clear glassware from a chest of drawers he'd just sold. Despite the knocks and bumps, oddly, no one seems to remember an accident of any consequence.
Not everyone appreciated the sometimes liberal restorations that Simmons would authorize Kerstetter to make on damaged period furniture, but then, he never charged perfection prices for them either. His facility for making appropriate repairs meant that some people would accuse him of making all his antiques in his shop. During one particular memorable incident, a young collector was buying a Windsor chair in the presence of his disapproving fiancee. The bride-to-be, undoubtedly jealous that her groom was committing so large a sum of cash to such an extravagance, echoed the rumors she'd heard.
"I suppose you made this Windsor chair in your back room, too, Mr. Simmons?"
Unperturbed by the comment, looking right into her eye, he replied with all the cunning and rascality that characterized each of his 69 years in the antique trade.
"Goodness no, young lady! I wasn't in business in 1790."
- By Dr. Timothy Trent Blade, Ph.D. Reproduced courtesy of The Old Times - http://www.theoldtimes.com/
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