The Hundred Year Old Button Collection of
Louis Leopold Unmack


by Connie Becker Lawrence



"Carrie"; Frank, Louis,

Charles, and Carl Unmack


Louis, the athlete


11-8-1913, Lou writes:

"A picture of the cabinet I made and my collections.  That tin hat on top Carl wore when he marched on Labor Day".  Among misc. items, are his arrowheads, buttons, and guns.



Louis and Grace


The House That Lou Built

Manhattan Road

Joliet, Illinois


The Ranch – 1946

In the beginning


For a better view of the ranch as it appeared in 1968, click on the photo above.


Lou, Ed Kline, Bob Patterson, and Ed's father at Feather River in the summer of 1934



Click on the picture for

popcorn cake recipes.




Showing off some of the collection


Dad, Mom, Grandma, Me, and Grandpa


Victor Valley Memorial Park

Victorville, CA


The Glass Garden, at its peak, displayed many & various glass pieces: jugs, door knobs, vases, bowls, sugar, creamers, plates, whatever old glass thing they had found or been given.  The interesting thing was to see what happened to the pieces as they were exposed to the hot desert sun.  My favorite were the ones that turned a beautiful shade of lavender.  A set of doorknobs and a sugar/creamer set are currently on display in my home.


Click on the ribbon to see the winning tray


Coat Button

Link to the wonderful world of Popeye’s buttons

Louis Leopold Unmack was my grandfather.  In person, he was "Grandpa", but in our cards & letters he was "Popeye".  He came by the nickname honestly.  He had an old corncob-type pipe and, with his teeth out, he could look just like the spinach-eating hero.  I don't know if grandpa ate spinach or not, but I can tell you for sure, he was my hero.

Grandpa was born November 1, 1889, in Joliet, Illinois, the second of eight children.  On his father's side, he was a 2nd generation American and on his mother's side, he was the first.  His mother, Caroline Dorothea Kiehnass, immigrated from Germany as a teenager and was a bondservant.  His father, Charles Frederick Unmack, was born in Joliet, too, to German immigrants.  Grandpa was bilingual, but spoke primarily German until around age 12.  Sadly, I didn't have enough sense to learn the German grace that he said at mealtime.  I am living proof of the old German saying "We are too soon old and too late smart".

He was formally educated only to the 8th grade but he was "life-educated" way beyond.  At an early age (I seem to recall around age 8 or 9), his grandmother got him started collecting buttons.  His interest in collections multiplied over the years by leaps & bounds. There wasn't much he didn't collect or have some interest in.

As a young man, he was very athletic and belonged to "Health Club" and various sports & athletic organizations.  He was a gymnast.  He was a professional wrestler and boxer.  He also played baseball on various teams.  Mom says he was an excellent ballroom dancer, too.

Sometime, during the early part of the 1900s, part or all of the Unmack family moved to Winfield, Kansas, probably in search of work.  There Louis met a beautiful young woman, Grace Matilda Patterson.  How they met and courted is not known for sure.  Grace was a school teacher in the Cowley County area.  Louis had a lot to offer.  He was a very gifted carpenter, whereby he could not only earn a living but build them a dream home.  He returned to Joliet and did just that.  He then returned to Kansas to get his bride.  They married June 14, 1916, in Winfield and left for "home" to Joliet.  Their first born, Louis Leroy Unmack, was born there in April 1917.  In 1919, they headed to sunny southern California, where their 2nd child, my mom, Dorothea Mary Unmack, was born in September 1920 in Long Beach.  They lived in many places in the Los Angeles and Long Beach area and finally settled in Apple Valley , California in about 1946.  There, he started building his own place, adding rooms here & there over the years until it became "the ranch" that I knew & loved.

Grandpa's primary occupation was carpenter but he also worked as a sheet metal worker, a policeman, a handyman, and he even went to Mexico to work on the American Canal.  In 1932 the family moved to Oklahoma for about 9 months and lived with relatives in Stillwater because jobs in California were scarce.  After moving to the desert, he helped build the Apple Valley Inn and the Post Office, among other things.  Over the years, he belonged to various unions, fraternal, & community organizations including Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F) and Grange.  As I said, he took an interest in just about anything, from panning for gold in the California hills with friends to making friends with the resident chickadee.  (By the way, a family friend still has the pan and it still gets used on fun backpacking trips.)  Grandpa collected buttons, stamps, coins, rocks, gems, some guns, and various old glass items, to name a few.  He made his own root beer, had his own special "popcorn cake" recipe for which he was known far & wide, and there was nothing more special than to get up early, pad down to the kitchen & "help" Grandpa make his delicious "from scratch" pancakes.  I never got in on the homemade root beer but mom tells about making herself sick on it, it was so good.  Still, I looked forward to the A &W Root Beer Floats that I was sure nobody but Grandpa could make.  Everyone looked forward to Christmas because they knew they'd be getting one of Grandpa's Popcorn Cakes.  The best part about being family is that you also got them when you went to visit for summer vacation.  He was also quite a farmer and it was pretty amazing what he could grow in that desert dirt...bamboo, peanuts, corn, currants, besides the usual "garden variety" things.  There were other one-of-a-kind plants, such as a Bird-of-Paradise and a creosote bush.

He would trade or barter for many of the buttons he collected.  Once people learned of his hobby, they would often give him unique buttons that they found or had laying around.  He had them sorted, categorized, mounted, or otherwise specially displayed. He entered or displayed his button collection at various fairs and shows over the years and delighted in showing them to any visitor who showed the slightest interest in seeing them.  He had at least 2 custom-built cabinets to house & display the bulk of this collection.  Those cabinets were among the first things I would gravitate to upon arriving at the ranch. I am still sad that we were unable to keep the cabinets and get them transported back to Kansas after his death.

Some of the notable people to cross Grandpa's path were actress Gloria Swanson and famed Polish pianist, composer, & statesman Ignace Jan Paderewski.

Grandpa was laying a hardwood floor in the home of Ms. Swanson and over the course of the job, they became acquainted.  After watching him work awhile, she was intrigued by his special knee pads, ask if she could try them on, then got down on her hands & knees to help.  She learned of his button collection and gave him some to add to it.

I'm not sure how he became acquainted with the Paderewskis or if he even actually met the pianist himself, but he did know Mrs. Paderewski who gave him a button that her husband had worn on his lapel when he played at a Poland theatre in 1918.

I certainly wish I had listened more or encouraged him to write more about the history of these buttons but more of the people & experiences behind the buttons.  I would love to hear from anyone who recognizes any of the names or places found within the rows of buttons.

One of the most meaningful finds within the buttons was the one identified as "Grandmother Wilhelmina Unmack - 1849 - gave me this waist button in 1900"  It was how I discovered another generation back in my genealogy search.

After Grandpa retired, he continued to do odd carpentry or handy-man jobs for people in and around the Apple Valley/Victorville area.  As full or partial payment, he would accept buttons to add to his collection, which did not exactly please my grandmother.

He died of cancer in September 1970.  This photo is the last one taken of Popeye & I together.  He died about a month later.  He cried, saying he hated me having to see him like that but to me he didn't seem any different...just a little more frail, a little more weak, but my little-girl-eyes only saw the dearest Grandpa a girl could ever have.

After his death, his various collections were given to the grandchild to which they had been promised.  The boys got the stamps and coins and rocks and guns.  I got the buttons and some of the glass pieces that had survived the "Glass Garden" AND I got the pancake if I just had the recipe he carried around in his head.

After many years in storage and much prodding by my husband, in 1995/1996, we got the buttons out & tried to find a way to show them, find out what they were worth, and just have some fun with them.  We found there are still active local & state societies and a national button society, although the hobby does not enjoy the popularity it once did.  We joined the Kansas state group and had fun learning & going to meetings and participating in the State Competition.

There was great fear and trepidation in removing some of the buttons from the original displays to make up the competition "trays" but I finally decided Grandpa would be glad I was finally doing something with the buttons.  I was warned not to get my hopes up because the judges are ruthless when judging the displays and rookies can only hope to gain experience in the competition.  As I wrote in my scrapbook, "The first 3 (trays) were summarily dismissed by the judges as not having the uniqueness required for competitive button showing.  The fourth, however, was awarded a First Place ribbon.  This was mostly issued by the process of elimination.  Most of the other entries were disqualified for one reason or another and it came down to two cards.  They finally decided on mine because there was a slight controversy over the legitimacy of one button on the other tray.  When joking about winning by default, the veteran fibulatalists said that the fact it was given a ribbon meant that is was competition quality.  If it weren't, there would have been no ribbon awarded".  I think Grandpa would approve.

Grandpa mounted and labeled for display about 1,900 of the approximately 7,400 buttons in his collection so come now, click your mouse on the coat button at left and enter the wonderful world of Popeye's buttons.







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