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Canine Culture

A Space for Discerning Dog Lovers
Written by Anthony Head. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

We brought home a new puppy this summer. Pepper is a rambunctious Lab and Border collie mix who enlivens the energy of our house to immeasurable levels. And after a couple of months, I needed a break. With Pepper on my mind, it felt like a good time to revisit the Dog Museum at Antiquibles Antique Mall in Elm Mott, located about five miles north of Waco, just off Interstate 35.

Elm Mott's Dog Museum holds thousands of canine statues, curios, collectibles and other objets d’art (Photo by Will van Overbeek).When I arrive, Barbara Hays, who owns both the store and museum with her husband, David, tells me that despite ongoing interstate construction between Dallas and Austin, this summer was Antiquibles’ best in years—which, in turn, introduced more people to the Dog Museum.

“But, it’s still quite a big draw on its own,” Barbara says of the museum, as she walks me toward the back of the massive but orderly antiques ware-house. Consisting of about 1,000 square feet, the Dog Museum is framed by dark-wood and glass cabinets holding thousands of canine statues, curios, collectibles, and other objets d’art. It is a colorful, whimsical world, mostly in miniature, where dogs dress as sailors, firemen, and King Henry VIII. Some boxers are boxing. Some poodles canoodling. Some dogs pose au naturel—standing, running, dozing—while others look back through the glass with the same take-me-home eyes as you’d see at a county kennel.

The collection covers more than two centuries of dog art, depicted as jewelry, salt-and-pepper shakers, buttons, and doorstops. Clearly, our canine companions have always been enduring subjects for folk art, like the life-size terra-cotta bull terrier, a handsome fellow from the 1930s that Barbara purchased in London and says is one of her favorite pieces; or the bronze statue of a monkey riding atop a greyhound, which is both amusing and a bit affecting. “I got that piece from London, too,” she explains. “It’s from the 1870s, and I learned that back in the day, the sport of dog racing used monkeys for riders.”

Despite the enormity of the collection (self-described as “the world’s largest public exhibition of dog items”), the museum is curated with care and vision. It’s been a long time in the making, too: Barbara and her husband began collecting dog memorabilia in 1967 and have traveled to 23 countries looking for more. Many items represent global canine fondness: dog-head pipes carved of Turkish meerschaum; tiny figurines made of colorful Murano Italian glass and Zsolnay porcelain from Hungary; and a hand-hammered copper relief sculpture of hunting dogs chasing a wild boar, which, Barbara says, was formerly on display at Orly International Airport in Paris.

One case holds several sculptures from a series that German artist Helmut Diller created during the mid-1900s for the Italian woodcarving company Anri. With loving attention to accuracy, Diller hand-carved dogs in various states of repose. “These carved wood pieces are truly beautiful with their detail,” Barbara says. “My husband carves, and so I guess I have a special appreciation for them.”

The collection also represents dogs in American culture with antique signs and vintage merchandise from Greyhound Bus Lines and Buster Brown Shoes, as well as collectible figures of comic-strip icons like Snoopy and Pluto.

I’ve always considered the museum’s 18th-Century French rifle to be among the best of its treasures. The polished hardwood body is fitted with a flintlock and finished with a hand-carved dog head for the stock. “We took it to Antiques Roadshow, and they said it’s definitely from the 1700s and was probably made for someone special,” Barbara says, noting that the value is unknown.

The collection also represents dogs in American culture with antique signs and vintage merchandise from Greyhound Bus Lines and Buster Brown Shoes, as well as collectible figures of comic-strip icons like Snoopy and Pluto.

On a previous visit to the Dog Museum, in 2010, I noted the absence of Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s kitschy yet classic “dogs playing poker” paintings. Barbara responded that she was obviously familiar with them but not in any hurry to acquire one. When I again bring this up during my recent visit, she points out a framed lithograph titled One to Tie, Two to Win. It depicts a baseball game, but the players and spectators are all dogs. “Everyone has dogs playing poker,” Barbara says. “I’ve got dogs at a baseball game, in its original frame. That’s more rare.”

The original painting, I learned, was commissioned by Red Seal Tobacco in 1909, and Coolidge later painted the “dogs playing poker” series. But before I leave, Barbara admits that she does, in fact, possess one of the poker series—a variation included on a 1974 Shiner Bock calendar that depicts the dogs drinking Shiner beer. It remains upstairs in her office, though, along with another 1,000 pieces she’s acquired for the museum. “I guess I could bring it out, but, honestly, I’ve hesitated to put it up. It’s just so common.”

Truth be told, it would be hard to find space to display it. With more than 7,000 pieces to see, the museum is already packed to the ceiling. What I didn’t find, appropriately enough, was any piece that said, “No dogs allowed.” And as it happens, there’s no sign like that at Antiquibles, either. Barbara tells me that well-mannered dogs on a leash are allowed. Which means that for my next trip to the museum, I plan to bring Pepper.

From the December 2013 issue.

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