There’s perhaps nothing more impressive than a comprehensive collection that has been carefully curated by a passionate collector. Here, six folks reveal their private stashes of collected goods, from books to bourbon, that tell tales of preserved history and passion for culture, art and food. An heirloom corn seed, vintage rye, well-loved Singer sewing machine, a published history of homes and gardens, and a señorita painted on teal canvas are among the highlights in these treasure troves. The collectors, who live throughout the South, open their doors to share the breadth and depth of their collections and how they got hooked collecting. Enjoy!

Chef David Bancroft’s Heirloom Seeds

David Bancroft
Chef and Owner of Acre and Bow & Arrow
Auburn, AL
Collector of heirloom seeds

The effort to preserve the heritage of food and culture, through farming, seed collecting and husbandry, is at the root of David Bancroft’s heirloom seed collection. David Bancroft is chef and owner of Acre Restaurant in Auburn, Alabama, his home state, to which he returned after many years away. Three on-site gardens direct the dishes at the Auburn eatery, which celebrates the seasonal harvest and flavors of Alabama. Following the success of his first endeavor, the chef opened a second concept, Bow & Arrow, which fuses his Texas upbringing and the Lone Star State’s legacy of smoking barbecue with the tradition of Alabama potlucks.

Chef David is a four-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef: South” award and winner of Food Network’s “Iron Chef Showdown” competition in 2017, and he is the keeper of a collection of heirloom seeds.

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A self-taught chef, farmer, and forager, David is preserving history through farming, seed collecting and husbandry. Image: Acre

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David Bancroft and his wife opened Acre restaurant in Auburn, Alabama, in 2013, and many of the ingredients used in the kitchen are sourced on the on-site gardens where you can see the heirloom seeds come to life. Image: Acre

When did you develop an interest in heirloom seeds? How did it grow into a collection?

My Grandpa Kennedy was a farmer. He raised cattle, chickens, goats, catfish and tilapia, and he farmed peanuts, cotton and pines. The opportunity to carry on his legacy has led me to dig a little deeper and improve the quality of vegetables we grow by utilizing heirloom seeds passed down several generations through our families.

Tell us about the relationship between the seeds and the preservation/future of food.

Through trying to grow massive quantities to feed the masses, our country lost many small family farms and traditional farming practices along the way. A lot of that was lost through seed collecting and passing stories from generation to generation. I am grateful that commercial farming industries are feeding millions of hungry families across the world. However, I do find it important that I preserve my family’s history through farming, seed collecting and husbandry.

What was the first seed in your collection?

The very first heirloom seed that I was gifted (that didn’t come from an heirloom seed packet) was Cherokee “White Eagle” Corn. A friend of mine, Jamie Swofford, found me at an event in Hickory, NC, and stuck some corn seeds in my pocket and told me, “You’re responsible for these now!”

How do you come across new seeds?

As other chefs and growers begin to learn about your respect for husbandry, the network of heirloom preservationists begins to grow and expand. For example, we were once invited by Slow Food Charleston to participate in a dinner where each chef honored one revitalized heirloom ingredient. We selected “Seashore Black Rye.”

Tell us a little bit about your collection and what makes it unique.

I have now collected, from seed companies or other chefs/growers, around 50 to 60 different heirloom seeds that we grow throughout the seasons. It very quickly becomes a hoarding situation, so I find it best to share my stash with other growers as much as possible.

What is a favorite seed in your collection?

My current favorite seed is “John Haulk” corn that was gifted to me by my friend Chef Steven Greene. In gratitude, I gifted him some “Willow Leaf Butterbean” and “Speckled Butterbean” seeds that were passed down four generations on my wife’s side of the family out of West Virginia.

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Ethan Summers’ Vintage Sewing Machines

Ethan Summers
Founder and Designer of Oil/Lumber
Nashville, TN
Collector of sewing machines

Ethan Summers creates custom furniture, home goods and clothing in his Nashville studio. It is the latter that inspired the start of Ethan’s collection of vintage sewing machines, which total 15 and are used to produce the company’s line of apparel. Modern wares are made on beautiful pieces of history, providing each item a touch from the past. Oil/Lumber is a lifestyle brand driven by the mission to create “well-designed items that are constructed and sourced ethically, without compromising any aspect of the design process.” Displayed around town at Five Daughters Bakery, Bar Otaku and Burger Up, as well as on the backs of the city’s stylish who appreciate unfussy fashion, Ethan’s creations are showpieces of originality.

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Talented hands craft apparel using vintage, industrial sewing machines, the only type of machine used to produce the company’s line of apparel.

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This is a Consew cylinder arm sewing machine in Ethan’s collection.

When did you develop an interest in vintage sewing machines?

I’ve always loved old pieces of equipment and tools. I grew up going to a lot of estate sales and garage sales and really got into collecting old tools and eventually got into vintage motorcycles. So naturally, when I started to look for sewing machines, I was drawn to the older forgotten-about machines. It also helped that they were the only ones I could afford. Most of the machines come from a period of time where the design and overall quality of the materials put into the machines was well thought out. I fell in love with the aesthetics and story behind the vintage machines.

When did you start your collection? Did you intentionally set out to create a collection?

I started my collection in 2015 completely out of necessity.

Tell us a little bit about your collection and what makes it unique.

I have a lot of machines that have come out of factories that used to produce clothing for many top brands in the U.S., including a sample house out of Lexington, KY that did work with Levi’s, Tommy Hilfiger, Ecko Unlimited and Carhartt, to name a few. Some of the other machines have been found at thrift stores or garage sales around town. Some more recent machines came out of School for the Blind, where they sewed mops and brooms.

Do you have a favorite item in your collection?

I really don’t have any in particular, but if I had to pick one, I’d say my Singer 269w, which does a bar tack on many of the garments you see. It is a very expensive and hard machine to find, so when I got it, I was pumped to get it up and running back to the original state.

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Ridley Wills’ Library of Books on (Mostly Southern) Architecture

Ridley Wills
Owner of The Wills Company & Wills Handyman
Nashville, TN
Collector of books on architecture

Most of Ridley Wills’ book collection is dedicated to Southern architecture. An appreciation and passion for restoration architecture and its place in the fabric of our culture are at the core of Ridley’s collection, and his work as owner of a residential, design/build remodeling and home-maintenance firm, The Wills Company. His library holds volumes on the subject of architecture, including many rare and out-of-print publications detailing the craftsmanship and art of grand and humble houses and gardens in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

ridley wills book collection

Ridley Wills stands proudly with his diverse collection of books dedicated to the art of architecture in the South.

When did you develop an interest in Southern architecture?

Early on as a child. My father had a passion for history, collecting historic postcards and writing books about Nashville and Tennessee history. My mother collected antiques. My grandfather was an architect. So, my interest came quite naturally. In fact, I would drag my parents to and through historic houses whenever we went on family vacations.

When did you start your collection?

Again, early on, certainly by high school. Elder’s Bookstore was always a great place to hunt.

Tell us a little bit about your collection and what makes it unique.

Initially, I collected books solely related to Southern architecture. In doing so, I got hooked on trying to find books published by local groups on the architecture in their specific town. Garden clubs throughout the South in the mid-20th century were the best at this sub-genre. Many of these homes have since been lost, but remain documented within the folds of these often forgotten tomes. Over the years, my tastes and interests have evolved, and I most often am drawn to monographs of architects I admire.

What is a favorite book in your collection?

Published in 1936 by the Garden Study Club of Nashville, History of Homes and Gardens of Tennessee is one of my favorites, especially because it is the first book that got me hooked on this collection odyssey.

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Justin Sloan’s Bourbon

Justin Sloan
Co-owner of Justins’ House of Bourbon
Lexington, KY
Collector of bourbon

Two Kentucky-bred bourbon collections came together under one roof when Justins’ House of Bourbon, owned by Justin Sloan and Justin Thomas, opened in Lexington, Kentucky, last year. For Justin Sloan, the bourbon obsession began as one would expect: with a glass of bourbon. An affinity for the taste grew into an enthusiasm for the history of each bottle.

Justins’ House of Bourbon is a liquor store, but moreover, it is experiential retail, with 80% of their clientele being tourists looking to learn more. No matter if your budget is $11 or $11,000, the Justins are eager to educate you on the spirit and help you find the perfect bottle.

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Justin Sloan (left) and Justin Thompson (right) co-own Justins’ House of Bourbon, which opened last year in Lexington, KY.

Justin Sloan, when did you develop an interest in bourbon?

I went down a rabbit hole that I couldn’t get out of, and I couldn’t stop trying to find all of the different bottles and getting to the history of it. My business partner and I are both from Kentucky, and we hung our hats on bourbon early. Eleven years ago, he started The Bourbon Review with his brother and a couple of other guys, and we met through that. We both had a collection and loved collecting and chatting about the history — it grew from there.

When did you start your collection?

About 11 years ago. One day, I looked up, and there were 10-15 bottles, and it blew up pretty quickly from there. About five or six years ago, it reached a level that I realized maybe I could turn this into something we could make a living off of.

Tell us a little bit about your collection and what makes it unique.

We have stuff from the early 1900s, all the way through today — large format, pints, half-pints. Our collection encompasses a lot of the unicorns of every brand, even historically. We have old Granddads from 1917 and Old Taylor from 1933 — some of those old, iconic brands and early vintages of those.

We still have new stuff for today. It seems like every couple of months there is something new coming out, but we are now being more selective. We don’t look for collectors’ bottles because it is more about the taste. That is how this all started — with buying stuff we knew we liked. If we find something we like, we hone in on those. We have drunk almost everything we have in the shop, between JT and me.

I don’t have a bottle count and the number moves, but I would say well over 1,000 bottles priced from $11 to $30,000 a bottle. There is something for everybody.

What is a favorite/prized bottle in your collection?

Off the top of my head: 1985 Van Winkle Rye. For bourbon, there are a handful that stand out to me. It is very tough. Justin always says it’s like picking your favorite kid. If you have five kids, you might have a few favorites, and one or two you don’t like, but they are still your kids.

If we meet you in a bar, what are you drinking?

Whatever you’re buying me!

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Jonathan Savage’s Fine China by Richard Ginori

Jonathan Savage
Owner of SAVAGE Interior Design
Nashville, TN
Collector of fine china by Richard Ginori

It comes as no surprise that the home of Jonathan Savage is expertly designed and thoughtfully curated. In the interior designer’s many years of scouting for projects, he’s come across many collection-worthy items, but it’s Richard Ginori’s fine china that dons his shelves. The sophisticated patterns and handpainted, handcrafted pieces are eye-catching, lending themselves well to a collection on display.

Jonathan collects Richard Ginori china for its masterful design and sophistication. Image: Southern House

The collection is not just beautiful but useful. It’s especially elegant when layered for a dinner party. Image: Southern House

When did you develop an interest in Richard Ginori’s fine china designs?

I was at a dinner party at a friend’s home and admired it. I then came across it exploring the streets of Florence.

When did you start your collection?

I started it five years ago when I moved into my new home. I continue to add to my collection.

Tell us a little bit about your collection and what makes it unique.

My collection is made up of black, white and gold. I have collected three different patterns by Ginori with this colorway. My favorite thing to do is mix the patterns together at dinner parties.

What is a favorite piece in your collection?

I would say the petite pickle dishes that also work great as a utensil holder.

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Libby Callaway’s Painted Ladies

Libby Callaway
Founder of The Callaway
Nashville, TN
Collector of thrift-store paintings, featuring ladies

A collection containing carefully selected painted works with ladies as the subject adorn the walls of Libby Callaway’s home. An avid thrift and antique shopper, and founder of The Callaway, a boutique marketing agency, Libby has an inimitable eye. The paintings in her home are not works of fine art. Rather, they’re pieces that she purchased on gut instinct  — and for no more than $20.

libby callaway collector

Libby Callaway and her painted ladies gather together in her Nashville home.

When did you develop an interest in “lady paintings”?

I found the first four “ladies” at an Amvets Thrift Store on the east side of Knoxville in 1993. They were all signed by the same (very novice) artist. They were unframed, painted with acrylic on canvas boards, and not in perfect condition (one has pretty notable water damage). But none of that bothered me: their iffy condition only added to their character. Plus they were $1.98 each, and I was shopping on a half-price day. I went home and hung them in formation on my living room wall. They’ve had a place in every living room I’ve had since then. That was potentially the best $3.92 I ever spent.

When did you start your collection? Did you intentionally set out to create a true collection?

After the purchase of the Initial Four, I’m not sure when (or even if) I decided it was going to be a real collection – it just happened. I have always been a hard-core second-hand shopper, hitting up thrift stores and antique malls on the reg for fun. After I made that first purchase, my eyes were opened to the sort of imperfect beauty that tends to define the pieces I choose to add to the mix. It’s kind of like when you hear a word for the first time – and then for some reason, it keeps popping up in conversation or in books. Kind of like that, ladies kept showing up for me.

Tell us a little bit about your collection and what makes it unique.

I have more than 70 but fewer than 80 paintings now. They are all sizes. The smallest is only 2-by-4 inches, painted on a hard piece of wood. The largest is probably 4-by-6 feet – a portrait of Marlene Dietrich dressed in drag, wearing tails and a top hat, from a famous scene in the film Morocco. About a dozen currently hang in my living room and entrance hall; others are in storage, moving in and out of rotation as the mood hits me.

Again, it’s important to note that none of the ladies are what you’d call fine art, though some of their painters were most definitely armed with more skill and vision than others. My process for making purchases is driven by gut instinct: I know what I like and what I don’t when I see it. There is no rhyme or reason. I have many kind and thoughtful friends and family members who, over the years, have tried to give ladies to me as gifts; their success rate has historically been pretty low. My selection process is highly subjective — it’s arbitrary to the nth degree.

In terms of what I’ll buy, I have only two hard-set parameters: none of my ladies were painted by professional artists and, with the exception of two or three, none of them cost more than $20. I made up these rules for myself early in the game. The price cap was for practical reasons: I acquired most of my collection when I was in my 20s and early 30s. Without much disposable income (ah, the life of a newspaper journalist!), I couldn’t justify paying more than $20. As for the non-pro-artists thing, that was pretty much for the weirdo-factor alone. Bad art is a bummer. But so-bad-it’s-good art? Bring it on. For sure, some of my gals are beautiful and very traditional; but just as many fly that freak flag high. The most eccentric pieces were picked up at the famous and sorely missed Chelsea Flea Markets that were my stomping grounds when I lived in NYC in the ’90s. I’d sometimes go three times a weekend; antique shopping is my religion and those parking lots were like church for me.

What is a favorite painting in your collection?

I love them all for different reasons, but there is one in particular that stands out, and I never get tired of seeing [her] when I walk through my front door. She’s a señorita, painted from the waist up, against a textured teal canvas. She has a come-hither smile on her face, and blonde hair partially covered by a black lace mantilla. There is a gold necklace with a line of round charms hung around her neck, and [she] has a swath of iridescent pink fabric taut across her chest — which is considerable. She is sexy and ripe and lush — zaftig, to employ a sorely underutilized word. Sometimes I test visitors when they express interest in the collection, asking them which is their fave. She’s the top pick, nine out of 10 times.

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