Sam McManis

Discoveries: Lantrip Ashtray Museum in Oroville

Ironists, take note: An entire display case at the curiously compelling Lantrip Ashtray Museum here in the heartland of Butte County is devoted to examples of this functional art form that are shaped like coffins, most adorned with happy skeletons.

Don’t know whether Dean Lantrip, the former Oroville postal worker who collected those and nearly 8,000 other ashtrays, saw it as a commentary on smoking’s many health hazards.

My guess is not. Lantrip died in 2012 at age 77. Yes, he was a smoker. No, I don’t know if that contributed to his death. His obituary didn’t list a cause of death. But Freda Flint, family friend and curator of the museum, says that the coffin motif makes up only a small part of the vast collection, one that, until Lantrip’s passing, took up floor-to-ceiling space in a room of the home he shared with wife June.

Far more plentiful, and on display, are the non-morbid ashtrays – the whimsical and oddly shaped, the souvenirs from far-flung locales, the classic glass circles advertising bars and restaurants, the promotional offerings molded to look like tires or Bigfoot’s tracks, the midcentury modern ceramics meant to grace coffee tables of the finest homes, and the historic (such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s etched vice presidential tray, large as a Texas belt buckle). Heck, there’s even a tray featuring two taxidermied frogs.

Show up at the museum, temporarily housed at the Centennial Cultural Center until the city can build a suitable stand-alone home, and you’ll only see 10 percent of Lantrip’s treasures. Flint and friends rotate the ashtrays every few months and develop themes. The current one: “Travel, Transportation and Special Destinations.”

When broached with the question, “What are a bunch of ashtrays doing being displayed like objets d’art,” Flint nods instead of bristles. She’s an artist herself and helps run the Artists of River Town collective, so she knows of what she speaks when she rises to the defense of the humble ashtray.

“You think, ‘Ashtrays?’ Blech,” Flint said. “But, actually, it is (art). For one thing, it takes an artist to do a design and make it a good one. It takes an artist in ceramics to make some of the ashtrays we saw. Many are one of a kind. The one that really stays in my mind the most is a boomerang-shaped large ceramic with flecked turquoise. Beautiful.”

It takes a certain sensibility to find the sublime in the prosaic. But Oroville’s City Council knew enough to graciously accept the family’s offer to donate the stash of ash, as well as other souvenirs, such as a pack of Chesterfields from 1945, but with certain provisos.

One was that no city funds would go toward sustaining the museum – leaving donations and grants to cover costs – and the other, more important one, was that smoking not be glamourized in the display and present material detailing the health risks.

Was the family amenable to the conditions?

You bet your ash.

“They wanted to get it out of the house,” Flint said, referring to Lantrip’s family, “and it was his last wish to donate (the ashtrays) to the city. Part of the deal was (an anti-smoking) message. I’m a former smoker and I know the hold it can have on you. I haven’t smoked for 40 years now. It is a drug. That nicotine, it just wants to bore in on you.”

This, then, may be the only museum in America with a surgeon general’s warning.

One prominent wall is devoted to the evils of smoking. Displayed are photos of celebrities such as Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, captions noting they died of tobacco-related cancer, shots of the iconic (and emphysemic) Marlboro Man, and really hideous autopsy photos of lungs blackened by tar and nicotine.

Point made.

Still, it’s possible to be anti-smoking and appreciate the design and kitschy Americana quality of Lantrip’s collection. The current exhibition, featuring the travel theme, shows ceramic and glass offerings from nearly every state. Some are quite unusual – the coiled snake from Arizona, the oil drum from Alaska, the goofy offering from the Florida Everglades showing an alligator with the message: “Send more tourists. The last ones were delicious.”

Lantrip became quite the peripatetic traveler after retiring from the post office in 1994, but Flint admits he didn’t obtain all 8,000 himself.

“A lot of people knew him; he was very popular in town,” she said. “So when he started collecting after retiring, people’d started picking them up for him. We even have one that someone got him from Antarctica.”

Taking in this, just a small percentage of Lantrip’s collection, makes a visitor clamor for an intriguing backstory. There is such a story; you judge its level of intrigue.

“In August of 1994 while traveling in our motor home, I mentioned to my wife, June, that I was thinking of collecting them,” Lantrip wrote in his memoirs and was quoted by the Oroville Mercury Register after his death. “Her reply: ‘Why don’t you?’ ”

You yearn to delve deeper, unearth the pathology of extreme collecting. But the kindly Flint just shakes her head.

“Why anything?” she said. “Why do ladies collect spoons from the world? Why do people collect thimbles, marbles, fans? I love those things, but I’d rather see them in some else’s collection in a museum than have them in my house, know what I mean?

“I watch ‘American Pickers’ (a History Channel reality show) quite a bit, and one of their collections displayed was toilet seats. Toilet seats! That makes ashtrays look really good.”

Perhaps, but here’s hoping that, when the ashtray museum moves forward, it won’t be the butt of too many jokes – or terrible puns.