Ma-Maw’s Basement: Betty Culp welcomes you to a picker’s paradise

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 25, 2017

EAST SPENCER — Visit Betty Culp and you meet a vibrant 94-year-old woman who has loved life, is proud of her big family and still spends a lot of time in her beautifully flowered yard pulling weeds.

But you’ll also learn quickly that Culp, who used to have an antiques shop here, has always had an appreciation for older things and collecting them.

Culp might possess one of the largest hatpin collections in the world — she has more than 4,000 of them. Many of the hatpins and some original hatpin holders make up an attractive display in her bedroom.

But Culp’s habit for collecting and eye for old furniture, housewares and much more exceeded hobby status quickly. What she has now would easily qualify for an episode of the “American Pickers” television show.

Granddaughter Julie Trexler has, in fact, tried to contact the show’s producers and tell them about “Ma-Maw’s Basement” and the world beyond.

You see, Betty Culp has not just filled her basement. The items she has collected on trips across the country spill over into a neighboring house that she and her late husband, Hardin, purchased in the late 1970s just for storage. And there’s more tucked away in a weathered shed and an old garage.

“I try to tell people about it,” Julie says, “but I can’t explain it. I can’t do it justice, in other words.”

Betty recognizes it’s time — if only to make it easier on her family years down the road — to try to part with many of the things now.

“I know I’ve got to get rid of this stuff,” she says.

To that end, Julie has started advertising hours when Ma-Maw’s Basement is open. “It’s not a business,” Julie says for clarification. “We’re just getting rid of her personal items.”

This summer, Julie and Betty typically have made themselves available from 4 to 7 p.m. Mondays and 1:30 to 4 p.m. Wednesdays. They open the outside basement door in front of Betty’s house at 911 N. Long St., East Spencer. Concrete steps lead down to the old door.

Inside, Betty sits on the stairs coming down from her living quarters, while Julie serves as a guide, answers questions and consults Betty on prices. Betty still knows where everything is, and she often remembers what she originally paid for the items.

“I’ll never get my money out of it, but it’s been worth it,” she says.

Julie also opens the house next door and its outbuildings if people want to look through those. Much of the extra house is devoted to old furniture, stacked and crammed into every room. A visitor could spend considerable time perusing one room devoted to ornate picture frames.

Even though it’s difficult to walk through the collections without bumping into things, Julie says Betty has a system of organization that groups like items together. All the lamps are in one section of the basement, not far from Betty’s washer and dryer.

All the vintage pots, pans and buckets are hanging close to Betty’s big freezer. Take a look around a corner and you might see antique duck decoys, an old cash register and a Singer sewing machine in its wooden carrying case.

Betty apologizes for the haphazard appearance of the basement. “Everything’s not like I had it when I first opened,” she says. “It’s not neat like it used to be.”

Betty acknowledges a sentimental attachment to the things she has collected, and it’s hard at times to see things go out the door. She appreciates the help Julie, who just retired from teaching, is giving her.

“I couldn’t do it without her,” Betty says. “It is kind of nice, very nice.”

Julie is one of nine grandchildren, and the big family always came to Hardin and Betty Culp’s home over Christmas. That remains a tradition, and Julie says it also is a tradition among the Culp grandchildren to visit the basement.

“It’s a thing — ‘I’m going to look in Ma-Maw’s basement,'” she says.

Family members have always liked to bring friends to see Ma-Maw’s basement, too.

Betty Elium Culp graduated from East Spencer High School in 1940 and married Hardin, a career railroad man, in 1941. They had four children — Diane, Sharon, Jerry and Benny — and built their brick home on North Long Street in 1947 after Hardin had served in the Army during World War II.

Whenever they could, Betty and Hardin traveled. Betty started buying and collecting things as a way to furnish their home. “It was more or less a hobby,” she says.

The family did a lot of tent camping — both boys were Eagle Scouts — and the Culps eventually graduated to a truck and camper, parking at campgrounds throughout the country. Betty says she has been to every state except Colorado.

Many of the antiques and glassware items she collected over the years came from East Coast excursions into states from Florida to Maine.

When the kids were young, the full basement of their home was a giant playroom. By the time Jerry was in college and Benny was in high school, that had to change.

“I just pushed Benny out of the basement and started filling it,” Betty says. Then came the chance to buy the house next door to store more things.

“Hardin was very agreeable,” Betty says.

Betty said her hobby of collecting things gave her something to do while Hardin was on his frequent freight runs. He worked for the railroad 43 years.

As the years went by, Betty helped furnish the homes of her children and some of her grandchildren. But other things just kept accumulating.

Katherine Noles and Mary Davis were good antiquing friends who had neighboring shops on Long Ferry Road. “That got me really started,” Betty says of their influence. “I really started collecting, well, things I didn’t need.”

Noles and Davis encouraged Betty to have her own shop, which she called Culp’s Antiques. She obtained a license allowing her to buy things at wholesale prices. There used to be a sign for Culp’s Antiques you could see from the East Spencer side of Burdette Bridge, Julie says.

Kathryn and Mary had a sign for their own businesses on the interstate, and they often would send their customers to see Betty. Betty returned the favor for them. Betty’s antiques shop closed about 20 years ago.

Hardin died in 1999, and sister Ruth Elium, a retired optometrist from Wadesboro, has been a treasured companion for Betty in recent years.

Julie has learned Ma-Maw’s Basement doesn’t have a lot of jewelry. Except for her hatpins, which aren’t for sale, Betty stayed away from jewelry. In addition, she never collected fishing lures or pocketknives, if you are looking for those.

And among her glassware, she does not have any milk bottles from Rowan Dairy. Betty says her collections don’t include much railroad stuff, either, because she gave those items to family members.

“The interesting thing is what people are looking for,” Betty says. “Everyone has their own thing.”

What was it that drove her to travel, scrounge, investigate and collect all these things over the years?

“You don’t know what you’re going to find,” Betty says. “You might find that one thing you’re looking for. … It’s been fun for me, this whole thing. And I love it.”

Julie thinks she should mention her grandmother remains on the prowl. Betty travels to the Webb Road Flea Market every Saturday to see what the vendors are selling.

“I’m afraid to go anywhere now, because I still buy,” Betty says, a hint of confession in her voice.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or