Relatively priceless, that is. Porcelain devotees would consider the dishes charming, perhaps, and worth several hundred altogether. But it's their sentimental and historical value that make them precious to friends of SHSU. The reason becomes clear when viewing the 18 pieces, almost every one of which bears an image of Old Main and the anachronistic legend, "Sam Houston Normal Institute."
The collection of wayward porcelain took almost half a century and a roundabout route in returning to its Huntsville origins. How the dishes found their way home is a story in itself, but a little background history is needed first.
The story begins in Huntsville, either shortly before or after the turn of the century, when Chester Arthur Randolph commissioned commemorative china dishes for sale at his jewelry store. While questions remain about the age of these dishes, it's known they were made by a firm called "Wheelock," which was likely based in Austria, but may have had German connections, or could even have been American.
Robert Ernst, owner of Ernst Jewelers, may know more than anyone about the "Old Main" dishes. He has a personal interest because his grandfather, also named Robert Ernst, became partners with Chester Randolph in the 1920s when the latter went blind.
"They're commemorative plates and we sold them in the store for many years," the younger Ernst said. "There could have been more than one supplier. Back in those days (turn of the century) there was no such thing as fine china made in the United States. Almost all the old families in Huntsville own one of these plates - they weren't that expensive at the time."
They were at least affordable to Sarah Herndon, who owned a boarding house adjoining Sam Houston Normal Institute from before the 20th century until 1950 when she sold her house to the university. Herndon moved to Oklahoma, taking the commemorative dishes with her. The dishes would probably still be in Oklahoma but for an incident that shows what a small world we live in.
Jerry Snow is director of residence life at East Central University in Ada, Okla. and he sells antiques on the side. Snow went to an estate sale in Ada recently and bought a table there. While waiting for several dishes to be cleared off the table so he could load it, he saw what seemed to be a picture of a castle on a serving dish.
"When I looked closer, I saw 'Sam Houston Normal Institute' written below the castle," Snow said. "I immediately thought of E. Thayne (King), and wondered if he would be interested in the dishes, or 'china,' as my wife corrected me."
Snow and King, who is SHSU's director of residence life, know each other from their mutual involvement in a regional student housing association of universities.
Snow was hesitant to spend his own money on a partial set of dishes that SHSU might have rejected. But owner Jim Herndon, Sarah's great-grandson, agreed to hold the dishes until Snow could check with King.
When King heard the asking price of $150 for the pieces, which are in excellent shape, he gave Snow the OK to make the buy.
"I think it's wonderful that something going so far back in our history would come back to us," King said. "I think it was remarkable that it just happened to come to the attention of someone who knew me and something about Sam Houston."
Jim Herndon believes the china was bought by Sarah prior to 1900 from someone in the Huntsville area, either second-hand or from Chester Randolph. The china was passed from Sarah Herndon to her grandson, Renfro Herndon, then to Jim Herndon Sr., who passed it on to Jim Herndon Jr., who sold it to Snow.
"There seems to be a great mystery about this set," said James Patton, president of the Walker County Historical Commission. "It could have been a promotion by a company - it could possibly have been a promotion for Sam Houston Normal Institute's first homecoming in 1910."
The dishes displayed in Austin Hall apparently come from two or more sets. One theory is that Sarah Herndon acquired more than one set during her decades of running the boarding house. Another possibility is that boarders acquired sets or pieces of the commemorative china over the decades, and as anyone who has ever moved knows, things get lost during moves.
All the pieces displayed in Austin Hall are primarily white, and all were made or imported by the Wheelock company. The fanciest pieces boast a dark, green ribbon of color interlaced with gold patterns and surrounding an image of Old Main. A serving dish with the above-mentioned design is the showpiece of the collection. It has been appraised at $400 - almost three times what the university spent for the entire collection.
A company crest on the back of one saucer gives a clue as to the date of manufacture. The crest is of a double-headed eagle denoting the Hapsburg dynasty which ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I. In addition, a crown above the eagle's head bears the words, "Imperial Austria."
Nicholas Pappas, a history professor at SHSU, had some ideas regarding when the dishes were made and who made them.
"If it says Imperial Austria, more than likely it was made after 1866 and before 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved," Pappas said. The professor noted "Wheelock" isn't Germanic-sounding and suggested the firm may have been an American importer that commissioned porcelain from Europe.
Just to confuse matters further, an antique dealer doing business on the Internet recently offered a commemorative china plate from the turn of the century. On the back of the plate is written, "Wheelock, Made in Germany for The Up-to-Date Pharmacy, Canton, S.D." Perhaps it was made by another company called Wheelock, or maybe Wheelock manufactured in Germany, as well.
Wherever the Old Main dishes came from, one thing's for certain: they've found a home.
May 1, 1996