BYGONES & OBSOLETE STORIES… by Clark Phelps, antique man and collector of dreams

INTRODUCTION by JIM STILES

Benge

Bill Benge was the best friend I’ve ever had. He came to Moab in the early 1970s and at 27, became the youngest elected county attorney in Utah history. He was a familiar face to all of us, and a brother to me, until his sudden death in October 2006. He was only 60 years old.

Bill was also an alcoholic and over the years, it took its toll on him, both physically and mentally. In the fall of 2005, he hit rock bottom and checked himself into a treatment center in Salt Lake City. He also joined AA and went to his first meeting soon after. It was at that meeting that he met Clark Phelps who became his sponsor. It was a friendship that would change Bill’s life.

When I next saw Bill, back home in Moab, he was different. He looked better and felt better than he had in years. He rented a small home above Pack Creek and spent many afternoons sipping tea and watching the world go by.

One day Bill called me up and said, “Hey Stiles. Do you know about this..uh…Nature thing?

“What?” I asked.

“You know…Nature. Trees and birds and creeks and stuff?”

“Yeah, Bill,” I chuckled. “I know about ‘Nature.”

Long pause….”Pretty cool.”

Bill always attributed his turnaround to his new friend Clark and he made plans for us all to meet. “You’re going to love this guy,” Bill would say again and again. “He’s one of us.”

The next year was the happiest time of Bill Benge’s life. When he died of a massive heart attack, on October 20, 2006, I was relieved that his last year had been so happy and serene, but angry and frustrated that he only got the one.

I finally met Clark the day before Bill’s funeral. It was not the grand barbeque Bill and I had imagined. But Clark and I became friends and have stayed in touch over the years. Tonya and I visited him at his antique warehouse in Midvale a couple years ago, and now I’m happy to include Clark’s ‘Bygones & Obsolete Stories” as a regular column in The Zephyr. He’s one of the ‘good guys’ and one of the most interesting men I’ve ever met. I’m grateful to him for his current and future contributions.

More than anything, I’m grateful that Clark helped give many of us the gift of another year with our buddy Bill Benge. Having the right friend at the right moment makes all the difference. Clark was there for Bill. JS

Midvale, Utah

I’m snug and warm in my home in the historical part of Salt Lake City. Today, in many ways, I’m housebound. Between legs that barely work, winter snow storms and obesity, I’m having a hard time getting around. The Internet, satellite TV, active memories, cooking, and home delivered groceries keep me going.

Midvale Utah was my home ’til I was 16. Back then it was an autonomous city surrounded by pastures, farms, and fields. Today it has been swallowed up by a population many times larger then when I was born. There are no longer farms, pastures, open canals, or wild places to explore. Even the expansive toxic slag dump, left over from the huge old smelter has been reclaimed at considerable effort to become more of the urban sprawl

As a youngster, in the small town, I knew the friendly policemen by name, I knew that it was 8:15 when the train steamed through town, and the adult who played Santa Claus. We rode bicycles to the Jordan River to kill carp and water-snakes or with some luck catch a few catfish. During the summer I could do anything I wanted with impunity as long as I was home for dinner. I relentlessly explored our small city, and her environs.

From the traffic light at Center and Main, you could be out of the city in less than a mile in any direction. The area was originally known as Bingham Junction. Railroad tracks ran east and west to the mining camps of Alta and Bingham Canyon and north and south on the main lines of the Union Pacific and Denver & Rio Grande Western. A large smelter was built at this convergence. Gondolas from the mines delivered low grade ore. Three large smokestacks pierced the sky and belched American prosperity until they went cold in 1956. There were acres of black slag, that to us kids looked like a moonscape. Main street was lined with two story buildings. The shoe store sold more Red Wing workboots than Florsheim dress shoes. Because of the smelter and the large open pit mine in Bingham Canyon, Midvale was a blue-collar town, with no real wealth. The doctor and the smelter superintendent lived in the largest houses. Midvale’s avenues were crowded with 800 to 1100 square foot homes kept near pristine by proud owners. The streets were somewhat divided by ethnicities, the Greeks, Italians, Mexicans, and Yugoslavian’s each had their areas. Midvale has an adorable hand built rock Catholic Church. The Serbs and Greeks shared at different times The Greek Orthodox Church. I myself, am a 5th generation Mormon with not much allegiance other than baptism. Mormons will understand when I say that I am still a deacon. Most of the Phelps’ enjoyed “word of wisdom” problems.

There were farms. Sugarbeet fields were so popular that the schools would close for a week to enlist the kids in the harvest. The local high school is still known is the Jordan “Beetdiggers”. U & I Sugar had a processing plant nearby. The Utah-Idaho Sugar Company was a large sugar beet processing company owned by the LDS church and its leaders with many processing plants in western states.. A celery co-op developed and had a processing building on a railroad spur on 9th Avenue. Irrigation canals ran through the valley. The canals were fun as they introduced me to frogs, ice skaters insects, watercress, cat tails, and asparagus.

I am merchant. I have a knack for a hustle. I tried delivering newspapers once but discovered money came easier with a buy and a sell. I found semi rare coins in change, I ran baseball pools in high school. Even before I could drive, I was salvaging curbside pick-ups and reselling things that had value. Since I was 13, I’ve always had at least a $20 bill in my pocket. I have a knack for the hustle.

At 16 I followed my parents when they moved to a new condominium apartment in Salt Lake. I was lost and removed from old friends and the town and I knew so well. I was a confused teenager. I picked up cigarettes, sneaky under age drinking, and a taste for marijuana. At 17, I lied about my age and started selling women’s shoes downtown Salt Lake. I bought a VW bug, and with my job, I was an affluent kid. I started to discover downtown Salt Lake in the ’60s. I introduced myself to merchants, explored the back alleys, drank bottled beer in the pool halls and sandwich shops, and became familiar with Main Street. Nevertheless I was confused.

In 1968 I could’ve used professional mental help. I had yet to bond any strong friendships with my peers, and was terrified of the future. I registered for the draft on the heels of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s assassinations. There was not a bone in me that wanted to join the army. I watched the news with fear. In June just weeks after graduation my friend and I ventured to Haight-Ashbury. Somehow the trip gave me purpose. I became political and decided I would fight conscription. My hair grew long. I applied to be a conscientious objector. The local draft board, had no problem filling their quota and found it to their convenience to give me an unearned physical deferment. I was able to use this until the lottery came along when I drew the free pass of number 360. I dodged the draft. I married a young woman and graduated from college with a B.A. in Philosophy, all the while hustling a few antiques for money.

My beloved father was in the coin machine business, you know: pinball machines jukeboxes, and where applicable slot machines on the QT. During the war he built a brick pool hall with a discreet card room In the back. The cardroom was furnished with green canvas covered industrial tables, proprietary gambling chips, and when the coast was clear, 3 slot machines.

He had me working for him as a youngster with a mop, rag and Windex as early as 7 years old. I was so lucky. I grew up with all the 45 rpm records I wanted, and to test/play all the pinball I wanted. I was enlisted to make fascinating deliveries to diners and bars. I took a real interest to the antique slot machines and they’re still one of my favorite things. I learned how to break them down restore and/or repair them. After dad sold his business I moved my antique business into his building on historic Midvale Main Street.

I have an eye for antiques, but to make a living, it was necessary to not only buy and sell treasures but to sell used secondhand. I was left with just my wits and the ability to hustle. My wife and I learned to love to camping. In our 1959 Ford panel truck we started traveling to small towns in ever enlarging concentric circles looking for treasures and beautiful places to sleep under the stars. It was kind of an poor man’s antique pickers lifestyle with camping gear instead of motels. We had hundreds of adventures and thousands of stories. I started writing articles for antique magazines, and became associate adviser for antique price guides. I was certified as an antiques appraiser.

Big life events happen fast. In 1983, I quit problem drinking, in 1984 after 15 years of marriage, we amicably divorced – and in 1985, I opened an antique store on Main Street Park City with partners. I worked smart and hard for the Park City store. It was a successful tourist trap.

When the Internet came along, I saw it as the future, took classes and established an Internet presence. I closed my interest in the Park City store after 8 years and turned my Midvale store into The Clark Phelps Antiques Warehouse. Public hours are no longer required.

The shift away from retail store to warehouse has had a pleasant change on the space. Now it is a gathering place of interesting characters. Collectors are interesting people with great stories. The gathering at the warehouse is more than just collectors. On any given day, visitors might include bar owners, retired politicians, car collectors, attorneys, a stake president, a priest before he passed on, the town drunk, and somehow a lot of counselors that come to the warehouse to unload. Conversation usually goes well beyond news weather and sports and into interesting historical tidbits, examining a new treasure, or personal histories and confessions that make the warehouse a wonderful place to be. With a satirical nod to my ample girth it is often referred to as Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

And so it goes – I have a bit of financial security and I can work as little or as much is I want. I can work at home in the middle of the night on the computer. I still find passion in a great old treasure or a personality. I do volunteer work for the recovery community. Personal histories get my attention, I reminisce – and sometimes write it down.

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8 comments for “BYGONES & OBSOLETE STORIES… by Clark Phelps, antique man and collector of dreams

  1. Susan
    February 1, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    Wonderful details and great introduction story, Clark!! And, I can attest to the fact that as Jim Stiles wrote, “The right friend at the right moment makes all the difference.” He was writing for your shared wonderful friend, ‘Socks’ but the sentence fits many others who are lucky enough to call you friend, including me. Looking forward to reading your future stories. Love the publication!

  2. February 1, 2017 at 4:29 pm

    Loved this, Clark.

  3. Vaughn Silcox
    February 1, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    Clark you are an encyclopedia of Midvale history. Good article.

  4. Dennis Hoyne
    February 1, 2017 at 8:36 pm

    what a fantastic article Clark. Its people like you that keep our old town memories alive. thank you!!

  5. Paul Cleary
    February 2, 2017 at 9:25 am

    Great stuff. Interesting view at how we adapt from the “old days” to the modern world and the lives we create for ourselves. Nice job.

  6. Don
    February 3, 2017 at 7:29 am

    Nice work, Clark. Congratulations and keep it up.. .as in more! Remember too, you CAN change the world with pen and paper. Kudos, bud.

  7. Vince
    February 3, 2017 at 11:10 am

    Great Story My Friend

  8. Richard Randall
    February 3, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    Loved this, Clark. Can’t wait for more.

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