Editor's note: Today we present the first in an occasional series of stories about hobbies. If you have a hobby you'd like to share, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a daytime phone number.
It's a Wednesday afternoon and five people are gathered around Merle Vastine's kitchen table in Davenport, sharing beers and talking history.
One of the topics today concerns a small card Vastine found recently that advertises a 1911 concert by the St. Joseph Maennerchor (men's choir) in Davenport's Schuetzen Park. The purpose was to raise money to build a school at the west side Catholic parish.
The five self-described history junkies, all from Davenport, don't need to be told that St. Joseph's was an 1800s church at 6th and Marquette streets that now is part of the One Eighty ministry.
They don't need an explanation for Schuetzen Park, a hot spot for German socializing from the late 1800s through the early 1900s located off Davenport's Waverly Road.
And they all likely know that the choir director, Ernst Otto, was a German immigrant who was superintendent of music for Davenport public schools as well as a composer and concert bandmaster.
The five know all this because they've been absorbing history from little on. All are from different backgrounds but, for one reason or another, all are drawn to the common topic of history.
The idea of meeting as a group had its genesis in long and spirited conversations between Vastine and his cousin, Colleen "Cokey" Powers, a retired librarian who had worked for St. Paul's Catholic School in Davenport and the Pleasant Valley School District.
As time went on, the two caught others in their web, including Jeff Buesing, of the former Buesing Automotive company near Davenport's 4th and Gaines streets where the Lafayette Square apartment building now stands. His passion is cemeteries.
Sitting across from him on this day is Frank Juarez, retired from the former J.I. Case Co. in Rock Island, whose key interest is collecting old maps.
Then there's Chad Coffman, a free spirit who is the youngest member of the group and who owns and writes the website westendtales.com, reporting stories that happened in west Davenport.
Vastine is an inveterate collector who is constantly — constantly! — on the prowl for any object — photo, bottle, piece of china, thermometer — related to Davenport history. He's seen thousands of pieces in his 43 years as an auctioneer, and he's collected the best of what he's found.
In addition to his auction business, he worked 36 years as an engineer for the former Iowa-Illinois Gas & Light Co. His specialty is Davenport's former beer and cigar industries, but he knows a lot about just about everything.
The five have been meeting for about a year now, every Wednesday. Yes, every Wednesday. Sometimes a few others join them.
"The moral of the story is that there are so many interesting stories in Davenport that we can occupy ourselves for hours," Powers said. "We never get tired and we never run out."
How they get their topics
Usually each person will bring a "show and share" item or two to trigger conversation, such as Vastine's concert advertisement. And Coffman, Juarez and Buesing always have their laptops so they can quickly search for information about any topic that pops up.
The group also goes on field trips, poking through old homes, the sites of long-gone businesses or the small museums in surrounding towns.
A favorite stop last year was to the underground caves at 5th and Taylor streets, the site of an old brewery. The caves actually are tunnels carved out by workmen for the purpose of chilling beer. The two largest are 75 feet long, 15 feet wide and 12 feet high, Vastine said.
Powers can talk her way into a lot of places by saying she's with "the Davenport history club," as though that is some widely recognized, long-established group. "Other places we went, we just barged in," she said with a laugh.
Another memorable outing was climbing to the top of the bell tower of St. Joseph's church, some 100 feet off the ground.
Another topic for this day is White Sulphur Springs, a business once located along Iowa 22 near the intersection of today's Utah Avenue in Davenport.
It was a place where people could stay to get healed by drinking the water that ran through the layers of limestone found in that part of the county.
It came to the group's attention after Vastine found an old glass bottle with the name printed in raised letters on the front. Thumbing through old city directories, members found an address, and poring through newspaper archives, found a photo and advertisement.
"We all like puzzles and mysteries," Powers said. Members pick up a thread of information, such as a name or location, and follow all leads to see where it goes.
"It was supposedly the nicest spot in the county," Coffman said of Sulphur Springs. "It closed during Prohibition. Supposedly Bix (Beiderbecke) played there."
In addition to the bottle, Vastine owns two stick pins — the kind men used to affix neckties to their shirts — that came from the business as advertising pieces. The fronts display stock face photos of pretty women and the backs are stamped with the business name.
These kinds of artifacts and the stories they represent light up the eyes of history buffs and they "should be shared," Powers said.
"That's right," Buesing replied, pulling on his coat as the meeting broke up. "If you have something, don't just hide it."