Largest Vintage Cast Iron Cookware Collection in the United States: Larry and Marg O’Neil, Tacoma, WA
©The Pan Handler LLC 2016. All rights reserved. Photos by and ©Sarah Lamb of S.Lamb Photography, and ©Mary Theisen, The Pan Handler LLC. For information on how to purchase high-resolution reprints of any of the photos, please contact S.Lamb Photography at firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry and Marg O’Neil own what is reputed to be the largest collection of vintage and antique cast iron cookware in the United States; more than 13,000 pieces. The collection is displayed in their beautiful Tacoma Washington home overlooking Puget Sound, as well as at their private Cast Iron Museum located on their farmland on the outskirts of Tacoma. Larry and Marg collect cast iron with the same passion and enthusiasm that they devote to seemingly everything that they do.
Larry and Marg have been married almost 60 years. They met in grade school, were high school sweethearts, and married when Marg was 19 and Larry 21.
Larry and Marg are both very strong people. Larry is a bit reserved; Marg is a spitfire. They are partners in every respect – family, work, life. Marg became restless after the birth of their two sons, Mark and Jerry. As she puts it, “I wanted a job, so he [Larry] bought me a store.” In 1963 they bought a small “mom and pop” store. Marg ran the store, while Larry worked both at the store and at St. Regis Paper Company as head truck mechanic.
That “mom and pop” store eventually led to Larry and Marg owning and managing five grocery stores. Larry says, “We didn’t know anything, but we knew how to work.” Clearly, they did. The two worked alongside each other, learning as they went. When they realized their second store was losing money on meat cutting, Larry learned how to cut meat and purchased meat cutting equipment. He built that skill and eventually that store became the largest wild game processor in Western Washington State. Marg recalls their young boys standing on milk crates alongside Larry and helping to cut meat, while Marg wrapped and boned.
Larry was also active in the Washington State Grocer’s Association; at one time serving as its President. He also served on the Public Affairs Committee for the Food Marketing Institute. In 1990, he was named Washington State’s “Grocer of the Year.”
Larry says that Marg prefers that Larry make the major decisions in their partnership. Once made, Marg makes sure that the decision does not fail. Marg is certainly no shrinking violet, however. One story I was told involved Marg working the cash register at one of the stores. A young patron threw some coins at Marg after she refused to sell him beer when he and his companion could not produce proper identification. Larry stepped in. The young man hit Larry in the face, knocking off his glasses. Larry punched him in the nose, breaking it. While this was happening, Marg “jumped on the other guy’s back” and pulled his hair. The man was charged with an offense, and Larry was called as a witness at the trial. During Larry’s testimony, Marg was in the galley, animatedly nodding her head when she agreed with Larry, and shaking her head when she disagreed with Larry’s recitation of events. If you have ever met Marg, you can easily picture this entire scenario.
Even now after their supposed “retirement” after 38 years in the grocery business, Larry and Marg own properties in different states that are leased to many different businesses. They are also very engaged in many philanthropic and community activities; they are Life Members of Ducks Unlimited of USA Canada & Mexico, and Life Members of the Eatonville & Gig Harbor Gun Club.
Larry became interested in vintage cast iron some years back after he asked his mother if he could have the two cast iron skillets hanging on her kitchen wall. His mother said that his sister had already spoken for them, so Larry set out to get his own. He found a Griswold and a Wagner skillet for $8 at a thrift store. That small purchase ignited a spark and a passion for vintage cast iron in Larry. He ultimately set out to learn about and collect one of each and every piece and variation of vintage and antique cast iron cookware; both those manufactured by large well-known foundries, and those old pieces for which the maker is unknown. As she does, Marg supported Larry, and made Larry’s interest her own. Larry’s two pans became a collection, and the collection became a museum.
The O’Neil cast iron is the stuff of legends, and I was thrilled to be invited to profile the collection. On two beautiful sunny days in April 2016, Pan Apprentice Linda and I went to the O’Neil residence along with photographer Sarah Lamb of S. Lamb Photography. Our good friend Josh Miller, the delightful editor of Southern Cast Iron and Taste of the South magazines, joined us.
As we meandered up to the house, repurposed iron in the beautiful O’Neil gardens hinted at things to come.
When I stepped over the threshold to the house, I immediately realized that I was in the presence of cast iron greatness. I have seen my share of vintage cast iron cookware, but the O’Neil collection is the mother lode – the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Larry and Marg are not mere “collectors,” they are collectors. In addition to their thousands of pieces, Larry and Marg have a staggering amount of knowledge and information about vintage cast iron. They have studied and read and conferred with other long-time collectors. They are active members of the two national cast iron collecting groups – the Griswold and Cast Iron Cookware Association and the Wagner and Griswold Society. They have traveled across the United States looking at, learning about, and acquiring iron. Larry told us that he figures he has purchased iron in every single state. (Marg of course immediately challenged Larry on this statement, asking “what about Connecticut?” Larry responded by reminding Marg of some iron he had purchased from Connecticut).
Many exquisite and rare items are displayed throughout the home. While Marg originally told Larry that the cast iron had to stay in the lower level of the house, she eventually succumbed to the sheer volume and simple beauty of the pieces. The iron crept up to the main level and was worked into the décor. I saw iron in every room. I even saw an old cast iron double gas burner in use as a towel rack in the bathroom.
The kitchen holds many beautiful pieces. Some of Marg’s prized Griswold Quaker Ware hangs on the wall and flows over onto a high shelf. Small skillets adorn the wall over the kitchen sink, and rare iron hangs on other kitchen walls. Shelves are filled with cast iron pups, toy pieces, and different variations of Griswold Santa molds.
Beautiful small stoves line the circumference of the dining room, and toy waffle irons, teapots, and skillets sit upon their cooktops. Some of Larry’s very small and rare pieces are in a corner display case, and Larry and Marg had set many unusual small pieces out on the dining room table for us to see. They together and separately told us the story and origin of each piece; chiming in with additions and corrections as the other spoke.
The lower level of the house holds even more treasures. It is hard to do justice to the wide variety and rarity of the pieces that we saw. Thousands upon thousands of pieces are displayed in several rooms. Stacks of iron are piled on shelves and the floor, and hanging from the walls and ceiling. Black, chromed, nickel-plated and enameled iron, cast aluminum, old patterns used by foundries for cast iron sand casting, display stands, and oh so much more.
As we wound through the maze of iron in the rooms, Larry frequently stopped to point out various exceptional and rare pieces. We heard over and over about how a certain piece was the only known one, one of two or four known, a previously-unknown variation, and so on. Larry seeks out every different variation of every piece of vintage and antique cast iron cookware. It was as though we had walked into a treasure trove of vintage cast iron cookware and Larry and Marg were living encyclopedias of cast iron knowledge and history. I would find myself looking at one remarkable piece when Larry would call me to the other side of the room to show me something equally or even more remarkable and to tell me its story. I couldn’t take notes and photos fast enough to document everything that I was seeing, hearing, and experiencing. I saw so many pieces I had never seen before, and pieces I had never even known existed. It was mind-boggling.
After barely skimming the iron in the home, Linda, Josh, Sarah, and I piled into our rental car and followed Larry and Marg to their private cast iron museum located on their farmland in the outskirts of Tacoma. We were amazed, overwhelmed, and over-stimulated by all of the things we had seen, heard, and learned at the house. We didn’t then realize that we had seen only the tip of the O’Neil cast iron iceberg.
We pulled our car up alongside Larry’s truck in front of a large pole barn. Larry rolled open the door, as we silently watched. I swooned. I have never seen such a huge collection of iron. The two-level 4500 square foot building is filled to the brim with cast iron cookware that has been carefully sorted and organized. Iron sits on the floor, hangs on the wall, and dangles from the rafters. Rows upon rows of shelving sourced from the O’Neil grocery stores are stacked with iron.
Once inside the museum, Josh ran off looking for particular iron pieces, snapping photo after photo on his phone. Sarah darted around taking photographs. Linda and I walked through each row of the museum with Larry, who acted as our docent. Larry frequently stopped to pick up a special piece and tell us its history, or to show us an unusual feature on a piece. Occasionally I saw a piece that I thought was a duplicate of one I had seen earlier in the day, but Larry always pointed out a difference, however subtle. We saw huge displays of Griswold, Wagner, Martin, King Stove, Atlanta Stove Works, Favorite, Favorite Piqua Ware, Lodge, Mi-Pet, Ozark, Marietta, Sperry, G.F. Filley, Charter Oak, Mt. Penn., Barstow (a favorite of Marg and Larry’s), Findlay, McClary, old gate marked pieces from unknown foundries, and much more. While Larry’s favorite manufacturer is Griswold, he is also keenly interested in very old cast iron pieces from unknown manufacturers. Larry appreciates the beauty of the fine old iron casting. He is more intrigued by very unusual pieces and small differences between old pieces than he is by the “name” on the piece.
Midway through our tour of the main level, we stopped for lunch. It was a bucolic scene. Gentle cows grazed beneath the gaze of Mt. Rainier, standing stately on the horizon. We basked in the sunlight at a large table which Marg and Larry had set up outside the museum. Son Mark prepared a macaroni and ham and cheese dish served up in a number 10 cast iron skillet, with a number 5 skillet with a vegetarian version alongside. Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the O’Neils who had been playing and doing chores came by to say hello and to sample the macaroni and cheese.
After lunch we completed our tour of the main level, and moved to the mezzanine. There, Larry showed us gas waffle irons, aluminum pieces, hotplates, deep fryers, roasters, sad iron heaters, coffee grinders, teapots and teakettles, meat grinders, kettles, and bowls. Many small ovens and stoves sat on shelves. Awards and recognitions given to Larry and Marg individually and together – for their work within the grocery industry and their 40+ years of support of Ducks Unlimited – lined the walls behind the iron. A section of the mezzanine was devoted to pieces sourced from the original Wagner foundry in Sidney, Ohio. We saw signs and wood from the foundry, tampers, rouge, grinding stones used in the casting process, and the old employee time clock.
Larry spent hours walking us through both levels of the museum. He takes great pride in his pieces, and enjoys discussing and displaying them to visitors to the museum. He is especially happy when a visitor is able to help him to identify a previously unidentified piece. I was tickled when I was able to help identify an old unmarked Lodge Bundt pan!
I asked Larry how he and Marg had learned so much about the antique and vintage pieces. He and Marg both agreed that they learned the most from other cast iron collectors in the two national collecting groups. They have also studied the reference books written by David C. Smith and Chuck Wafford (commonly called the “blue” and “red” books), as well as the Griswold Muffin Pan book written by Jon B. Haussler. Larry also has a very large collection of cast iron ephemera including catalogues for many different companies, advertising, orders and price sheets, and much more. These old papers are a great source of information. I spent hours on my second day with Larry and Marg looking through boxes of ephemera, but didn’t even crack the surface of what they had.
At the end of our museum tour, Larry surprised us by showing us a very special piece – a rare 1940 Griswold store display called the “Mystery Display Table.” From a wooden box marked “Property of the Griswold Mfg. Co.,” Larry carefully removed a Griswold salesman’s old attaché case. From that case, he removed a square base with an attached sign marked “Griswold Cast Ware.” He then removed a sample Griswold skillet from the box and placed it onto the base. Marg plugged the cord of the base into an outlet. We caught our breath, and stood and watched as the Griswold skillet turned round and round displaying its simple beauty. As we silently watched the skillet turn, we reflected on it and all we had learned that day. We had come full circle. Our day was done and our tour was complete.
All told, we spent two full action-packed days with Larry and Marg looking at their collection, digging through ephemera, listening and learning, and taking photographs. Through it all Larry and Marg were patient, gracious, generous, and more than hospitable. I can’t thank them enough for taking the time to share their collection and knowledge with us. It was an amazing, educational, enlightening, and fascinating experience. The memories of the visit and all the iron I saw will stay with me.
Larry and Marg love to show their collection to enthusiasts, and welcome you to visit their cast iron museum. While the museum is not now open regular hours, you may arrange a visit to the museum by contacting Larry and Marg at email@example.com.
Most of the photos taken for this blog post were taken by the talented Sarah Lamb of S. Lamb Photography. Sarah is a hardworking young photographer who is also interested in vintage cast iron. Sarah travelled at her own expense with us to the O’Neil Cast Iron Museum, and took many of the photos you see in this blog post.
Sarah has created a beautiful 2017 vintage cast iron calendar with photos taken primarily from the O’Neil collection. If you enjoy vintage cast iron and you would like to help support a hardworking young entrepreneur (not to mention help to pay for some of her travel expenses incurred for this article), you may view and purchase the calendar at Sarah’s website, slambphoto.com. Here is the link to purchase.
Sarah has also created and is selling beautiful 4″ x 6″ postcards on heavy card stock of a few of the special pieces from the collection. You can find them here.