The sweetly sad story behind 3,000 beer cans up for auction

by Doug Maccash, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate

PEARL RIVER, LA (AP) – Luverne Kahl sometimes tears up as she talks about her late husband’s beer can collection.

It was more than just a hobby. It was his passion, and the memories it prompts rise up in her unexpectedly. But she’s resolved to let it go.

“Catfish” John Kahl died two years ago, at age 85, and his 3,000 beer cans belong with somebody who appreciates them like he did, Luverne said. So the cans are up for auction.

Whoever buys them better have a lot of space. John’s beer cans line the walls of an entire room of the house he and Luverne shared, in a shady patch of woods near the town of Pearl River. From floor to ceiling, and corner to corner, the room is striped with narrow shelves that hold his trove.

The variety of brands is bewildering, from bygone local brews such as Jax and Dixie, to beers from across the globe, like Suntory from Japan and Foster’s from Australia. Dutch Treat, Durango, Olde Frothingslosh, Cloud Nine, Andy’s Beer and Strong White Bear Beer are all represented. As are the deliberately unbranded, cost-cutting generic beers from 40 years ago, with nondescript labels that simply read Beer or Lite Beer.

Over the years, breweries adorned their cans with all sorts of images: Pittsburgh Steelers stars, African animals, German castles, voluptuous women, historical hot air balloons, golfers, bowlers, leatherback turtles and Bela Lugosi.

George Washington and John Adams have their own cans, as does presidential brother and beer proponent Billy Carter.

Industrially produced canned beer may be the most American of all beverages. John’s collection is like an endless pop art collage that touches on innumerable aspects of 20th century collective culture. His “beer cave,” as Luverne calls it, is a homemade museum mostly dedicated to tin and aluminum Americana.

In the 1980s, John owned a little bar at the edge of a bayou near Slidell, his wife said. It was a modest joint where people going fishing would stop by to grab a quick beer or a six-pack to go. Luverne used to visit the place with her sister. It was the custom among the clientele to finish a beer and toss the empty can out the window onto “a big huge pile,” Luverne said.

Little did she know that accumulations of beer cans would figure into her future life. Eventually, Luverne and John became a couple. The bar didn’t last much longer, but their marriage did – for 34 years.

John was a plumber and air conditioner repairman by trade, an outdoorsman by temperament. He was a fur trapper and an expert catfish angler, hence his nickname.

“I miss the fish,” Luverne said, “and I miss my honey.”

She thinks her husband began collecting beer cans sometime in the 1970s, which Ted Larsen said was one of the prime times for the hobby. For 30 years, Larsen has made a business of buying and selling collectible beer cans. Larsen, whose company Steel Canvas is located in Des Moines, Iowa, said that canned beer hit the market in the 1930s, and by the 1970s people had begun to recognize the value of discarded cans as collectibles.

Larsen, who was a teenager at the time, scoured dumps for old cans that he arranged in pyramids in his room. Over the years, collectors like Larsen began forming clubs and gathering at beer can conventions. Luverne still has her late husband’s small library of Beer Can Collectors News Report magazines.

Beer can collecting became so popular in the following decades that breweries regularly issued specialty and commemorative cans, in part to fuel the hobby. For the most part, it wasn’t about the beer. Larsen said he doesn’t even drink the stuff. Luverne said John liked his Schlitz, but he never overindulged.

Larsen said that his business is absolutely booming these days. His theory is that the teens who became collectors back in the disco era are now reaching retirement age and rediscovering their past passions. They now have the wherewithal to pay big bucks for prime cans, particularly from the 1930s. Cans in perfect condition that were manufactured during the Great Depression can go for $20,000, he said, even more sometimes. But they’re very rare. Larsen points out that beer cans were never meant to last very long – and most haven’t.

Luverne remembers how she used to make fun of her husband for purchasing some “old, rusty can” on eBay for as much as $50. UPS packages would arrive almost every day. Sometimes, he’d try to sneak them in, to avoid her chastisements.

The couple made pilgrimages to beer can collector festivals where “we would go in with nothing and come out with a lot,” she said. Sometimes other collectors would call John to discuss the finer points of this or that can.

After his retirement, Luverne said John enclosed the back porch to produce his museum of nostalgic suds containers. The sign on the door reads “Catfish John.” Sometimes he’d give “little tours” to visitors.

In his last years, John’s world narrowed. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder that can limit physical activity. But he could still plunge into his hobby. Sometimes, his wife said, he’d become so absorbed in hunting for new treasures that he’d spend the whole day at his computer “scrolling and scrolling,” as he traveled from country to country, decade to decade, site to site.

Luverne said she gave certain cans from the collection to the kids from John’s first marriage. She has no idea what the whole collection could be worth. A survey of just one eBay page turned up individual vintage cans selling from 99 cents to $200. It all depends on finding a buyer who’s been bitten by the beer-can collecting bug.

Luverne, who is now retired from her home cleaning business, said Hurricane Ida did enough damage to her roof that she needed to have it tarped. But the damage didn’t exceed her insurance deductible, so she’ll be replacing the shingles out of pocket. Maybe selling the collection will cover the cost.

“I kind of hate to sell them,” she said, “but John said, ‘If you ever need to sell them, go ahead.’”

To view the online auction of 2,500 of Catfish John’s cans, search for “Life Time Beer Can Collection,” located in Pearl River on the EstateSales.net website. The starting value is $3,000 and the auction continues until Dec. 11.

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