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I attended my first large cast iron auction in around 2011. A tall and lanky gentleman wearing denim overalls and a baseball cap was seated in the front row, bidding on and buying a lot of pieces. The auctioneer clearly knew him, and called him by name – Harold.
That same gentleman was seated in the front row, wearing overalls and a baseball cap, at the next cast iron auction I attended. Again, the auctioneer called him by name. Again, Harold bought a lot of the pieces that were offered.
This became a pattern. In fact, I am not sure if I have ever attended a large cast iron cookware auction in person where Harold was not seated in the front row, wearing overalls and – usually – a baseball cap. Harold is a strong bidder. If Harold wants a piece of iron, Harold will get that piece of iron. There is no outbidding Harold. It is only at recent auctions where Harold might look around, notice with a small smile that I am bidding on a piece, and let me buy it. And even though I think Harold likes me just fine, he doesn’t let me get the piece if he really wants it. If he really wants it, he will buy it.
Harold is well-known in the cast iron collecting community. It’s not a particularly large community, and many know or know of the others. I think Harold knows just about every one of us. He is gentlemanly, gracious, and hospitable. Before I had even met him, he invited me – through another collector – to stop at his farm in Hamilton, Missouri to see his cast iron collection. After I met Harold, he told me he’d be “tickled” if I were to stop out. And so Linda and I did, on a beautiful fall morning in October 2015.
Harold starting collecting cast iron over 50 years ago. His mother and grandmother Henry always cooked in cast iron – fried chicken, bacon, breads – it is part of Harold’s heritage. He doesn’t remember what he first acquired, because he has always had iron. Harold has his family’s cast iron cookware. Harold believes that every piece of cast iron is a piece of art. “Finely crafted and like no other. Every piece is a piece to use, but it is art.” Harold respects, is intrigued by, and admires the crafting of each unique piece of vintage cast iron that he owns.
Harold started buying cast iron cookware at farm sales; deep fish fryers and skillets, and whatever else caught his fancy. He didn’t learn to cook with it until he was about 70 years old, however; he was busy with his family, work, and farm.
Harold owns a farm with about 1300 acres just outside of Hamilton Missouri. James Cash Penney, the founder of J.C. Penney stores, previously farmed much of the land. Harold started working with “Mr. Penney” (as Harold still calls him) when Harold was 11. Harold worked at Mr. Penney’s store in Hamilton, stoking the furnace, putting together toys, and sweeping floors. When Mr. Penney came to town every month or so, he began having Harold come to his farm to help him clean up destruction caused by the many bulls that Mr. Penney had at the farm. Harold and Mr. Penney became very close and remained so until Mr. Penney’s death at age 95. Harold still has the last letter that Mr. Penney wrote to him.
Harold retired from auctioneering registered (purebred) cattle sales about 15 years ago, when he was 65. That work took him around the United States and Western Canada. For many years Harold also showed prize cattle across the United States, and held cattle sales at the farm.
The large headstone of one of Mr. Penny’s champion bulls – “Eileenmere 487, The Wonder Bull” – is still on Harold’s property. People came to the farm from all over the United States to purchase cattle that were sired by that bull. Each bull had its own small barn on the property; the barns still stand today. Harold continues to raise cattle and work the farm, with the assistance of his grandson, Will.
When Linda and I arrived at the Henry farm, we rang the big iron bell outside to announce our arrival. Harold greeted us and showed us his iron throughout the house and outbuildings. What a collection he has! We saw iron in Harold’s kitchen, foyer, hallway, dining room, living room, bedroom, basement, family room, garage, outbuildings, barns, and in rooms in one of the barns. Most of the pieces were carefully cleaned and stacked on shelves for display. Some pieces were awaiting cleaning, and some had sat in the same space for many years. Harold is justifiably proud of his collection and it was a treat to see it.
We started with the pieces that Harold commonly uses – two tall shelving units full of iron, just adjacent to his kitchen. Harold’s favorite user is a #10 3-notch Lodge cast iron skillet. He also loves to cook chili and soups in his #9 cast iron Dutch ovens, and he had several on the shelves. Another piece on the shelf is his grandmother Henry’s #9 Wagner “Long Life” skillet, which Harold laments that he “ruined” by heating on a stovetop burner that was too small for the pan. Harold said he learned the hard way that the stovetop burner needs to be at least as large as the bottom of the pan. If not, Harold says that the pan will unevenly heat and bulge where heated and when it cools, it may remain bulged, and then you will have a pan that spins. He showed us a light round mark which was surrounded by a dark area on the inside of one of his #9 Dutch ovens, which remains because Harold had used the oven to cook on a burner that was too small for the piece.
Harold had laid his collection of #0 skillets out on the dining room table for us to see. Harold was surprised to learn that he had around 68 of them; they had been stacked downstairs on a shelf where he did not always see them. He had also purchased two toy teapots the previous day at the auction we had attended – a Griswold “ERIE” teapot and a G.F. Filley teapot. He was charmed by them and told us they were the first toy teapots he had purchased. Which is actually saying a lot, given that Harold has over 4,000 pieces. When I asked Harold if he kept an inventory, he smiled and tapped his temple.
Harold has shelves and racks in his living room that are stacked with many pieces of Lodge cast iron cookware. He admires the Lodge Manufacturing Company, and believes that they make the best cast iron pieces of modern-day cookware. Lodge has been in business since 1896, and generations of family members have been at the helm. Harold appreciates the “survival instinct” of the company. Harold has toured the Lodge factory (a tough ticket to get – I have tried!) and has seen how they make their iron. Harold was headed to a family birthday party later in the afternoon, and he was bringing his 5-year-old great-grandson Carter a new little Lodge #5 skillet with lid.
In Harold’s bedroom, he has shelving units filled with his collection of Mi-Pet, Favorite, Ozark, Martin, and some Sperry cast iron cookware. Harold took care to show us how to differentiate between a Mi-Pet and Ozark skillet lid.
Harold keeps a large portion of his collection in his basement family room. Oh, my, the Griswold! The pool table is covered with Griswold Dutch ovens, including the coveted #11 and #13 – both with trivets, of course. Shelves full to the brim line much of the family room. Harold’s favorite vintage pieces – his Griswold #14 bailed skillet with lid, and Griswold #13 skillet with lid – are kept here. He also has the Griswold small square fry skillets, the Griswold bicentennial George Washington lid, fruit/lard presses, the entire Iron Mountain collection, many gem and muffin pans, gobs of lids, Wagner Magnalite pieces, Griswold aluminum, and multiples of every Griswold size, logo, and handle imaginable. He displays beautiful red porcelain enameled Griswold pieces on his bar. His #2 skillets had been laid out on a table for us to admire, and Harold had an entire shelving unit filled with lovely chromed Griswold pieces.
The only Griswold piece that Harold does not have, that he wants, is the #1 ERIE skillet. Otherwise, he has what he wants. But he still continues to buy and to collect. When he sees a beautiful piece that can be used, he buys it.
In Harold’s garage, barn, and outbuildings, he stores yet more iron. He has more Lodge in the garage; some in its original box. Some pieces were hung on a Lodge rack; some sat on a large wooden table, and more was on shelves. I noticed that Harold had a few boxes of shelving units ready to assemble waiting in the garage, too. Despite what he might tell you, Harold is not done collecting.
In the barn, Harold has yet more iron. Some of the iron had clearly been undisturbed for years. Harold told me a story about a particular Griswold skillet that he had found out in one of the barns and brought inside to clean up; he figured that the skillet had been out there for 30 or 35 years.
Before we left, Harold took the time to drive us around his property. He pointed out to us the very spot where Mr. Penney’s childhood home had sat. We had the chance to see some of his cattle, a sweet calf, and goats came running to greet us.
Harold is a true gentleman, in every sense of the word. We very much appreciated the opportunity to visit him at his home, see the farm, and look at his vast cast iron collection. I am proud to call Harold my friend.
If you’re ever in Hamilton, Missouri, give Harold a call. He likes to show off his iron.
QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION WITH HAROLD:
- How do you feel about using soap to clean your vintage cast iron?
Harold’s mother and grandmother never spared the soap; in fact, they used lye soap to clean their iron. Harold uses soap when he wants to use soap.
- How do you clean the pans that you use to cook?
Harold has a scrub brush that he likes to use. He also will use chain mail and stainless steel scrubbers and SOS pads if he wants to. Harold says that if the seasoning comes off, it wasn’t seasoned right.
- How do you season your pans?
Harold is not picky. He uses oils that have a low smoke point. Harold has used lard, and points out that if you use lard to season, be sure the lard does not contain salt.
- How do you clean the vintage cast iron that you acquire?
Elbow grease, and lye when necessary. Harold keeps his lye bath outside, in what used to be his dog kennel (the lye bath is in the black bucket).
- Can you use cast iron on a glass cooktop?
Of course you can! Harold is baffled by the belief that some people hold, that you will scratch your glass cooktop if you cook with cast iron. Harold showed us his glass cooktop – nary a scratch. If you scratch your cooktop, Harold says it’s because the bottom of your pan was not smooth. Just be sure to cook on a burner at least as big as the bottom of your pan.
- What advice does Harold have for a new collector?
“Get someone to help you buy a piece and learn how to use it.” Harold did not learn to cook in his cast iron until he was 70.
- Cooking advice?
Make sure the skillet is hot before you put your food into it, but “don’t get it too damn hot.” How hot is too hot? “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to cook on an electric stove.”
- Do you have other collections?
Harold laughs. He collects pocket knives and hunting knives that were made in the United States. How many does he have? “Quite a few,” he says with a chuckle.