Anna Safley Houston Collected Antiques and Husbands

Lots of people collect things: stamps, coins, toy soldiers, Fabergé eggs, antique pulleys.

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Anna Safley Houston collected everything—including husbands. Today, we would probably call her a hoarder, but the iron-willed Ms. Anna was no mere hoarder. She had a purpose, one she intended to outlive her, and to achieve it she wasn’t afraid to haggle, to use her good looks to attract helpful husbands, or even to engage in con games.

Trying to pin down her personal history is like trying to catch a will-o-the-wisp. Tom Williams, former reporter and editorial writer for the Chattanooga News-Free Press, made a valiant effort, but much that is said about the elusive Anna remains a tangled mass of contradictions, blank spaces and guesses. Williams’s book, Always Paddle Your Own Canoe: The Life, Legend and Legacy of Anna Safley Houston (Adams Lithographing Co., Chattanooga, 1994), is the source for most of what is written here.

She was probably born in 1876 in Arkansas at Evening Shade or around Jonesboro or possibly West Plains, Missouri. When her mother died after giving birth to the family’s 11th child, Anna, as the oldest though apparently not yet in her teens, dropped out of school after sixth grade and became caretaker of her siblings. Her formal education may have ended, but she practiced life-long learning through reading.

The Many Husbands of Anna Safley

She left home at 15 and supported herself by joining a troupe of other long-haired young women (she was attractive and had waist-length red hair) who traveled about publicly washing their voluminous tresses to promote a hair tonic. She reportedly also became a ladies’ clothing buyer for Marshall Field and Macy’s.

All that ended for a time when, in 1897, she wed O. C. Ashbaugh in Arkansas. The first of nine, possibly fifteen, husbands, he left her when she was pregnant with their second child (both offspring died in childhood). Some of her later husbands would be deadbeats; some had drinking problems. Her second one gifted her with gonorrhea, and she claimed he was physically abusive—but he was the reason she moved to Chattanooga, where she would remain. At first she was a partner with him and another man in a second-hand furniture store, but she would come to own her own millinery and dressmaking business and later an antique store. In the 1920s or earlier she began collecting houses, buying them to rent to University of Chattanooga (now University of Tennessee–Chattanooga) students.

Around 1920 she wed James W. Houston when he was in his mid-twenties and she in her mid-forties; she preferred younger men. The marriage dissolved in 1936, a record for Anna, whose attempts at matrimony sometimes lasted only a few weeks. She married the last of her nine documented husbands, George Winfield Scott Brown, in 1937. When she divorced him four years later she did not petition the court to restore her maiden name as she had always done before. Instead, she asked the court to let her revert to Anna Safley Houston, and so she remained.

She never wed the man who was very possibly the love of her life, Grover Cleveland Sherlin. He married her youngest sister instead. When he died Anna paid for his burial and tombstone—but she had the body shipped back to Chattanooga instead of interring him at West Plains, Missouri, where her sister lived.

The All-Consuming Antique Collection

From earliest childhood she loved colored glass and would glue pieces of it to pitchers, umbrella stands, and the like. Around the time she married James Houston she opened an antique store along the Dixie Highway in downtown Chattanooga. He would later tell a mutual friend she married him because she needed a plumber (for her rental properties) and he had a truck she could haul her antiques in. He also claimed he would often come home to find some new purchase blocking the bed so he had no place to sleep.

The Great Depression left Anna deeply in debt, but she continued to follow her great passion: buying antiques. Diminished income was no impediment. She could wheel and deal with the best of them, and she had educated herself on antiques and their values—so much so that in later years magazines and dealers would consult her on prices. She traveled the continental U.S. and into Canada and Mexico buying items from private owners who had no idea of their value. To avoid shipping costs she would have items shipped C.O.D. via Railway Express, then leave them sitting at the depot until the rail company was willing to accept a smaller fee for their services. She knew it would cost the company more to return the shipments than to accept whatever she offered in payment.

Physically strong through most of her life, she was often seen carrying bundles of new acquisitions. She’d lay down part of her burden and carry the rest a little distance, putting it down within sight of what she’d left behind. Then she’d go back for the rest and continue this game of leapfrog all the way home from the depot.

Whether she was truly impoverished or simply fanatical about not spending money on anything other than her collection is a matter of debate. Antiques were essential. Things like medicine, food, indoor toilets or even an outhouse were unnecessary expenses. She would show up at friends’ homes at breakfast time, cadge a few hours for sleep in someone else’s hotel room on buying trips, and use her yard as a toilet.

Around the time of her divorce from Houston, with creditors hovering all around, she began building a home outside of town. Although she was 60 or thereabouts she did all the work herself except for raising the beams, and she got a neighbor boy to help with that. The barn-like structure kept expanding like a Skid Row version of William Randolph Hearst’s grand manor. It had no plumbing or heat, but some 15,000 glass pitchers hung by ropes from the ceiling. Antique furniture, rare books and prints, guns, swords, pianos—anything that caught Anna’s fancy became part of her “pretties.” She kept several pitchers filled with water in case of fire; at least two of them had Paul Revere’s mark on them.

She used the rambling building as both home and shop, but the door was locked. She wouldn’t admit anyone unless she thought they would appreciate her pretties and buy some of them—but only what she was willing to sell. She had another purpose for her collection: to donate it to Chattanooga for a museum that would honor her and teach children history through the items it contained.

Unfortunately, she had acquired the name of “Crazy Annie,” and the city council decided her collection—valued today in the millions—was cheap junk. They turned it down. Anna died April 27, 1951, with her dream unrealized. Even her grave had no headstone until a friend learned of the situation and bought one for it.

Friends and antique enthusiasts kept the dream of a museum alive, however, and one opened on Chattanooga’s Bluff View a decade after Anna’s death. Later, the collection moved to an old home at 201 High Street on the Bluff, near the Hunter Museum of Art. Today at the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts visitors can stroll through a portion of the vast collection. There is too much to be displayed at any one time and, tragically, in an attempt to raise funds for a museum much of the collection was let go for pittances at sales and auctions.

Image above is “They don’t call them second-hand, they call them antiques,” by Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliott, ca. 1903. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-54787

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