Legends galore surround the enigmatic life of the red-haired country girl who came to this city at the turn of the century and proceeded to put together what is considered one of the world’s finest collections of antique glass.
She was born Anna May Safley, in Evening Shade, Ark., in 1876, the oldest of 11 children, later moving to Missouri, where her father operated a blacksmith shop. Little is known about her childhood, except that she enjoyed gluing broken bits of colored glass together to make vases.
When her mother died in childbirth, Anna took over the responsibility of caring for her younger siblings. Her formal education stopped at the sixth grade.
From that point on until her death in 1951, legend and fact commingle to a frustrating degree. Even the people now alive who remember her disagree about many things.
But about one thing there seems to be no dispute: the woman whose almost lifelong dream has now become a reality in Chattanooga’s Anna Safley Houston Museum of Decorative Arts educated herself into the status of a nationally recognized expert on antiques.
And her collections — including some 15,000 antique pitchers as well as many other kinds of antiques numbering tens of thousands of individual items — attest to her uncanny ability to find and acquire rare pieces, many of which are now considered priceless.
Another thing those who remember her agree on is that she was “feisty” and not easy to get along with. And those whose recollections go far enough back say that as a young woman she was very attractive, with elegant, patrician features. Some even use the word beautiful.
Anna Safley’s waist-length red hair figured in some of her early employment. She and six other young women who called themselves the “Seven Sutherland Sisters,” appeared in medicine shows and in drug store windows all around the country demonstrating a brand of hair tonic on their beautiful long tresses.
Whether she was feisty all her life is open to debate. At 21, Anna married a man named Otto Ashbaugh, and the marriage, according to relatives and court records, must have been enough to sour anybody. She had two children by this marriage — the only ones she ever had. Both were girls, and both died, of typhoid or scarlet fever.
Ashbaugh, the reports indicate, was not the most loyal of husbands. After their first child died and Anna was pregnant with the second, he departed.
But the determination and persistence which were later to be important factors in the building of her collections made their appearance at this time. Anna followed her missing husband from Missouri to Colorado, tracking him down and, family tradition has it, “finding him with another woman.”
It would appear to be enough to turn any young woman against men, and maybe it did. But — and this is fact, not legend — Anna proceeded to marry nine or 10 more of them, perhaps as many as 15.
Courthouse records (in some cases marriage certificates and in others divorce papers) document the existence of at least eight husbands besides Ashbaugh and point to the probability of another. Correspondence and related information seem to indicate one or two additional men may also have joined the “club” of Anna’s husbands.
From Colorado, Anna went to California, where she met and married a man named Crisman, who worked picking fruit. After that, she and Crisman moved to Chattanooga, but she quickly divorced him, alleging, among other things, that he tried to kill her.
Why she came to Chattanooga remains a mystery, but there are several theories. One was that her father, who was originally from Tennessee, had spoken highly of this area. Another was that Ashbaugh brought her here to get medical treatment. And a third was that she came because of another man, one who lived in Chattanooga and eventually married Anna’s sister.
When she came here in 1904, long before women were readily accepted in the business world, she first acquired an interest in a used furniture business and then opened a hat shop and ladies’ ready-to-wear store. In that business, she reportedly was highly successful, and her hats, particularly, were much sought after, some having been imported from Paris.
Earlier, though there is no documentation, she had reportedly worked as a buyer for Macy’s and Marshall Field and traveled all over the United States.
But her real love was antiques, and in about 1920 she had managed to accumulate enough to go into business as a dealer. She kept them in a carriage houses of old houses she had acquired from a bank with large mortgages and was renting to students of the University of Chattanooga.
Somehow — some say she read everything and never forgot anything — she became an expert on antiques and was consulted by, and written up in national publications. It is questionable whether she mastered the art of making money. She would buy an item for $50 and resell it for only two or three dollars more.
Nevertheless, by trading and wheeling and dealing, she managed to build her collection. Along the way she had married a man named Houston, a plumber (she reportedly needed a plumber to put bathrooms in the old houses she was renting) and for reasons known only to her, his was the name she decided to keep, though she could have chosen any of the other eight or nine husbands’ names.
What makes this especially strange is the fact that Houston, after their divorce, got a court injunction to prohibit Anna from coming near his place of business because, he alleged, Anna had threatened to “hurt, lame, and kill” him.
When the depression came, Anna lost all her houses. So she built, with her own hands and the help of a neighbor’s boy, a huge barnlike structure in what was then a distant suburb of Chattanooga, and began to fill it with antiques.
Many people were interested and wanted to go to her place and see what she had. They couldn’t. She would not let them in unless they were among a select group of people that she knew and liked.
“You can’t come in unless you’re going to buy something,” is what most recall her as saying. And even people ready to buy were often turned away because they wanted to buy something she was saving for her “museum.”
A young man who had known her from the time she had rental houses near the university was not allowed to go in, even though he brought her food (which she gratefully accepted).
During the late 1930s and on until her death in 1951, she developed the image and reputation of being a “town character,” an eccentric old woman who walked the streets in ancient dirty clothing.
She slept in her place of business packed so full of things it was hard to move around, and she was so poor her few friends sent her meals regularly so she would not starve.
Behind her back she was called “Antique Annie” and sometimes “Crazy Annie.” Her “barn” had no running water and, of course, no indoor bathroom facilities, and her only heat in Chattanooga’s often near-zero winter weather was a wood stove.
She kept six silver pitchers full of water in case of fire, and once, when she was in her 70’s, a fire broke out and she extinguished it herself. She was assisted by a bucket brigade of neighbors using antique pitchers now known to have been priceless.
Most of her pitchers were hung from the ceiling by ropes, for lack of any other place to put them, and several hundred were destroyed in the blaze.
Anna often went out of town on trips, and legend had it that she really was not poor at all and would dress up in fine clothes before leaving, changing back to her “bag lady” garb when she returned to Chattanooga.
She went to Pennsylvania and other places where fine antiques could be found. She would buy the antiques and have them sent Railway Express COD. By the time they arrived, she would usually have sold something to get the money to pay for them, or else borrowed the money from friends.
But she also employed a slick way of getting the Railway Express to lower the price. She would simply tell them she didn’t have enough money, and to avoid the expense and trouble of sending the items back, they often let her have her shipments for whatever money she had (or said she had) available.
Why she married so many times is another part of the mystery that only she (if anyone) could have explained. Apparently she confided in no one about her earlier life.
It’s interesting to speculate, though. One husband was a railroad man, and as his wife she had an unlimited pass on all that railroad’s trains.
Another was a World War I veteran, hospitalized because of shell shock. He told her he was getting a pension of $150 per month — big money during the Depression — and she could have it if she married him. She divorced him when she discovered he had exaggerated somewhat and that the pension was only $10.
Though many people in Chattanooga, including the few she would sell to, Knew Mrs. Houston had some choice antiques, few had the slightest idea that her thousands of pitchers, glassware, china, silver, the antique beds, chests, corner cupboards and other items piled one on another so thick one could hardly move through her building were, in fact, items of tremendous value.
While tough on people she didn’t like or trust, she was loyal and generous to her friends, and often gave them various antique items, or sold them for far less than they were worth. And, of course, she gave her entire collection to the people of Chattanooga.
Many years ago a nationally known authority who reviewed the collection said that if anybody doubted her generosity he would simply ask, “when was the last time you gave away six million dollars?”
Today the value of the collection is so far up in the millions the board of trustees which oversees it will not even discuss a dollar figure.
One story has it that in the late 1940s when Mrs. Houston went to the Chattanooga City Commission to tell them she wanted to leave her collection to the city, they first laughed and then came up with political hemming and hawing about how the city could not afford the liability.
Whatever their reasoning, the fact is they turned her down cold, and it was not until 10 years after her death that a small group of local citizens who realized what was at stake finally rescued the collections from Mrs. Houston’s barn and put as much as possible on display in the first museum building.
Of all the mysteries and puzzles about the life of Antique Annie, one thing is certain: the collection she accumulated is something the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else in the United States and quite possibly the world.