published Monday, October 14th, 2013

King of collectibles: Meet Coffee County's purveyor of the past and mayor of memories (with video)

  • photo
    Coffee County, Tenn., Mayor David Pennington stands among his collection. Pennington, who owns the Jiffy Burger restaurant in Manchester, Tenn., stocks the eatery with all types of memorabilia. Pennington began collecting toy cap guns in 1989 and now has a collection numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The collection includes movie memorabilia, gas pumps, Coca-Cola machines, autographed guitars and classic signs.
    Photo by Patrick Smith.
    enlarge photo

  • photo
    A line of signed guitars from the bands Foghat, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, and many more are among the massive collection of Coffee County mayor David Pennington. Pennington, who owns the Jiffy Burger restaurant in Manchester, Tenn., stocks the eatery with all types of memorabilia. He began collecting toy cap guns in 1989 and now has a collection numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The collection includes movie memorabilia, gas pumps, Coca-Cola machines, autographed guitars and classic signs.
    Photo by Patrick Smith.
    enlarge photo

  • photo
    Coffee County, Tenn., Mayor David Pennington keeps his Jiffy Burger restaurant stocked with all types of memorabilia from his massive collection. Pennington began collecting toy cap guns in 1989 and now has a collection numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The collection includes movie memorabilia, gas pumps, Coca-Cola machines, autographed guitars and classic signs.
    Photo by Patrick Smith.
    enlarge photo

LINCOLN'S HAIR

So, the lock of Abraham Lincoln's hair?

"When he got assassinated, they couldn't see where the [bullet] was because it was such a small hole," David Pennington said. "They cut a piece of his hair out and when the doctor done that he kept it. The way I understand it, they gave it to Lincoln's wife and she didn't want it. So he kept it.

"It ended up in a foundation, so we bought a piece of his hair," Pennington said.

"Somebody said, 'Well, that's really strange.'

"But really is it? That is a piece of history," he said. "And besides that, if we ever get to cloning, I've got a piece of his hair. I'll grow Abraham Lincoln again."

MANCHESTER, Tenn. — It all started with a toy cap gun.

That's what Juanita Pierce says as she wipes down a table at the Jiffy Burger on Hillsboro Boulevard in Manchester, Tenn.

She's talking about nephew and Coffee County collector David Pennington's accumulation of thousands -- make that tens of thousands -- of vintage collectibles, much of it on display at the restaurant.

It's like a dine-in museum.

Pennington's assemblage of memorabilia and one-of-a-kind items ranges from what he says is a lock of Abraham Lincoln's hair, dozens of autographed guitars, old gas pumps and Manchester's first (1927) firetruck to movie and television scripts, hundreds of Gene Autry autographs, show bills, movie and concert posters, costumes, toys, autographed baseballs, Buck Rogers' ray gun prop from the TV show and about a zillion porcelain Coca-Cola signs.

The Jiffy Burger is the showplace for Pennington's collection he started around 1989 or 1990 after his brother suggested that he needed a hobby to give him something to do besides operate the family restaurant.

"I never had a hobby. I always worked. I never hunted, I never fished, I never did any of that kind of stuff. And I never collected," said Pennington, whose job these days is serving as the Coffee County mayor. His office is something of a display, as well.

"I collected about 500 cap guns and decided that maybe I wanted to collect some other stuff," said Pennington, 63, during an interview at the restaurant. "We had so many cap guns in here. I mean they was everywhere."

The restaurant's walls now are covered with an ever-changing selection of artifacts from the last century and beyond that he keeps stored nearby.

The Jiffy Burger, opened by the family in 1965, has had a decor theme intended to arouse customers' sense of nostalgia, even harking back to their own pasts, Pennington said. Group photos of little league baseball teams, contest and pageant winners and newspaper clippings still line the walls as they have from the beginning.

Some of those pictured in the photos now bring their grandchildren in for a burger and fries and to hear tales of yesteryear arising from the old pictures, the more recently added vintage decor or cases of "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" treasures that children of the 2000s won't allow to be switched out, he said.

Customers on a recent day were greeted by a vintage gas pump, scores of Coke signs, thermometers, license plates, a propeller from a P-38 Lightning plane and an old Hines Root Beer barrel.

After he was elected mayor about seven years ago, Pennington turned over operation of the Jiffy Burger to his wife, Nancy, and daughter, Tracy.

Nancy Pennington basically places an order with her super-collector husband for some new decor and he hauls it in.

"We don't have room to do as much as we'd like to," she said. "It's a family restaurant and everyone when they come in they can look around and see memories from their childhood.

"We give them good food, but they also come in because they feel like they're home," she said.

The restaurant and its collection were featured on "Tennessee Crossroads" a few years ago, and the cable television show "Personal FX: The Collectibles Show" from back in the 1990s used the Jiffy Burger for a live spot.

David Pennington said his next fascination after cap guns was old pedal cars -- that collection once numbered 200 or more -- and that passion put him in touch with then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

The pedal "cars," mostly from the early 1900s, were versions of cars, trains and airplanes, he said. But in the 1990s, reproduction pedal cars started to appear, causing a worried Pennington to sell off some of his.

Eisner contacted Pennington and picked out about 20 of the most desirable of the pedal cars to be shipped to Disney World in Florida, he said.

Eisner "was like a kid at Christmastime," Pennington said. "That's how he sounded. He was all excited about getting all these pedal cars."

Years of collecting created other connections to fuel Pennington's habit.

"I've met a lot of people all over the world, but especially all over the United States, from Florida to Maine, from Tennessee all the way to California -- collectors," said Pennington, sitting amid the chatter and clatter of the lunchtime crowd and dinner plates.

"It's all about networking," he said. "That's what I've done over the years. I've networked enough that I don't have to go to flea markets."

Pennington said his approach to his collection now is more as an investment, his retirement plan, a stress reliever. His love of and experience with collectibles led to the 14-year continuing run of his local radio show about antiques.

It's the fun of the hunt, he said, and that's something he wants to share with other people.

When he finishes his second term as county mayor next year -- he has no plans to run again -- he hopes to launch a television show aimed at educating people about how to start their own investment collection. The motivation comes from a desire to share the thrill of finding a treasure at a good price that can be turned into a profit, or even more collectibles.

Collecting sometimes seems like something Pennington struggles to control.

"I'm trying to get it down to only signs, gas pumps and Coke machines, but it's kind of hard," he said. "Like today, I bought railroad lanterns and yesterday I bought a [Coke] tray."

The passion he and other major collectors develop for their hobby might be reason "to go together to get a counselor and let them counsel us about this collecting," he said jokingly, but his love of collecting comes through.

Once you've shown an interest in a trip down memory lane, Pennington repeatedly sets his hook with, "I want to show you one more thing."

And then he shows you a couple hundred.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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