Some people might label Gerald Heisz as a packrat, but he believes he has an eye for treasure — and that eye for treasure has resulted in the expansion of the Donalda Lamp Museum’s exhibit by 60 lamps.
Heisz was in his 50s when the old lamps caught his eye at an estate auction, and he went home with the boxy, kerosene-burning Aladdin lamp. Heisz had never truly liked lamps before this; they hissed as they burned oil and were often not bright enough to suit his preferences.
“I collect pretty much anything,” Heisz, who grew up in Donalda, said. “I also collect toys and pocket watches. It started out with guns, then it was money.”
In the Aladdin lamp, though, he found the lamp he was meant to love. Its design and fuel, which is kerosene instead of lamp oil, burns without the telltale hiss of an oil lamp, and it’s high-mantle design enables the lamp to give off a bright, white light equivalent of a 60 watt lightbulb.
Over the years, Heisz collected Aladdin lamps, lining shelves in his basement near Forestburg with the delicate glass creations. Some were fairly rare and colourful and others were more run-of-the-mill colonial design, as the lamp was an inexpensive lamp available through order catalogues like Sears.
“There were all kinds of colonials in the country, because they were cheap,” Heisz said. “They ended up in a lot of homes.”
As the years went on, the basement filled up with lamps, with shelves hanging over the guest bedroom where his grandchildren would sleep in when the family visited. After one such visit, his family said they couldn’t come anymore — the lamps were giving the grandchildren nightmarish fears of accidentally breaking one of the many lamps hanging over the bed.
As both Heisz and his wife, Ruth, are members of the Donalda Lamp Museum’s board, the couple had in the past kept their eyes peeled for lamps not in the museum’s collection, purchasing them at auctions and sales to augment the museum’s exhibits. During the many years the wedded pair had spent with the board, they had become familiar with what the museum had and did not have.
So, when given the choice of his lamps or his family visiting, Heisz knew what he had to do. He started going through his lamps, setting aside ones he knew weren’t available in the museum’slong list of more than 1,000 lamps, and in 2013, he and Ruth donated 60 of his lamps, clearing out a sizable part of the collection — including those in the grandchildren’s guest room.
“I chose what they (the museum) didn’t have,” he said.
Staffing changes at the museum meant the collection of donated lamps went uncatalogued until 2015, but with a new manager and staff on hand, the 60 lamps were identified and their history researched. Earlier this year, the lamps went on display for the first time.
Heisz said he’ll be adding more to the museum’s collection as he continues to parse through his many, many lamps.
“He still has a lot,” Ruth Heisz said with a laugh.
Of all his lamps, it’s a cobalt-blue Lincoln Drape Aladdin lamp that holds the spot in his lamp-loving heart. Many of the lamps are squarish, boxy designs, with their base ornamented with designs. The Lincoln Drape is one of those designs, meant to look like hanging curtains.
But why that lamp, of all lamps?
“My favourite colour is purple,” Heisz elaborated. “Blue was the closest I could get.”
Ruth Heisz had a favourite, too; a little green lantern with a satin-like finish.
“I got it really cheap,” Heisz recalled. One day when he was at auction, the auctioneer advised him that the little green lamp with the satin-like finish would fetch a fair price, so he put it up for bid. The auctioneer was right, and the lamp added a little bid of width to Heisz’ wallet, though his wife said she would have preferred if the lamp had remained in the collection.
With the Heisz addition to the museum, there are now 1,127 lamps on display, with a few out “at the lamp doctor” for repair, board president Darlene Tantrum said.
With still at least 40 lamps — and that guess is likely way under, Ruth Heisz suggested — there’s quite the chance the lamp exhibit will expand more before Heisz is done paring down what he has. And, of course, he’s still buying lamps — he just added a rare standing Aladdin lamp to his personal collection.