Herald JournalHerald Journal, Sept. 20, 2004

Eden Prairie man has extensive collection of Humphrey buttons

By Jane Otto

One day in 1968, Paul Bengston, his two brothers, and their parents made the 30-mile or so journey from Minnetonka to Waverly.

The Democratic party’s presidential hopeful that year, Hubert Humphrey, was to speak before throngs on the Waverly Village Hall steps in a town he called home for almost 30 years.

Though Bengston was only 7, the trip sparked a lifetime hobby that has become probably the country’s largest private collection of Humphrey political memorabilia.

“I just kind of got hooked,” Bengston said.

The 43-year-old Eden Prairie man vividly recalled that day, the people, and the long walk from where the family car was parked. “The whole town was filled up with people,” he said.

Bengston came home that day with two Humphrey-Muskie buttons that he promptly pinned on his bedroom curtains. His mom added several political buttons that she had saved to Bengston’s minute drapery display.

His grandmother contributed a few more buttons, one of which was from William Howard Taft’s 1909 presidential bid.

When Bengston accompanied his mother to antique shops in her search for antique combs, he perused the political paraphernalia.

His infatuation has grown to more than 30,000 items from every presidential campaign dating back to 1840. One of his favorites is an early 1900s item featuring Socialist Eugene Debs, who ran his presidential bid from a prison cell.

His political collection includes tintypes embedded in elaborate jewelry, canes, umbrellas, earrings, ribbons, banners, ties, and yard signs. The first button surfaced in 1896.

“I really concentrate on anything Minnesota,” Bengston said.

His Humphrey collection is evidence of that.

Bengston has more than 1,200 items from every Humphrey campaign: his Minneapolis mayoral bids in 1945 and 1948, senate races in 1948, 1954, 1960, 1970, and 1976; the Johnson-Humphrey campaign in 1964; and the Humphrey-Muskie campaign in 1968.

Humphrey Museum

Bengston’s entire spread of Humphrey memorabilia once occupied Waverly’s own Humphrey Museum.

In early 1997, Bengston was perusing the Sunday paper when he read that a Humphrey museum would be opening in Waverly.

Almost 30 years after his first trip to Waverly, Bengston was back.

The new museum had a “pitiful” button collection, he recalled. Within a week, Bengston reached an agreement with the museum director and loaned a portion of his Humphrey collection.

Once “proper” display cases were built, museum visitors could view Bengston’s entire Humphrey exhibit in Waverly, where Bengston purchased his first buttons.

A short seven months later, fate took a tragic turn for the museum.

One August morning, an antique dealer phoned Bengston telling him he heard the Humphrey Museum was on fire.

Heart in his throat, Bengston raced westward to Waverly.

“The whole building was flattened by the time I got out there,” Bengston said. “It was nothing but smoldering ashes. My whole life collection was in that building.”

Fortunately for Bengston, one fireman had the wherewithal to grab Bengston’s collection and put it in the trunk of his car. With the exception of some cracked glass, the majority of his collection was intact.

“Thank goodness he saved them,” Bengston said.

He did, however, lose a few paper items regarding Humphrey’s mayoral bid, but has since replaced them.

Doesn’t have it all

Bengston exhibits his political memorabilia at various places such as political conventions or collector shows. A member of the American Political Items Collectors, Bengston typically attends three or four collector shows annually.

“We do buttons for three or four days,” he said. “And, we talk about our greatest find and the one that got away.”

With more than 30,000 items accumulated over the years, Bengston, like many collectors, insures his collection and stores the most valuable items in a safe deposit box.

Individually, the buttons aren’t worth a whole lot, he said, but collectively they add up. He has one 1954 re-elect Humphrey button, however, that could garner as much as $300.

Despite having one of the largest Humphrey button collections, he still doesn’t have it all.

“Just in the last year, I picked up more than 50 buttons I didn’t have ,and I have close to 1,200,” Bengston said. “I know of at least 50 others I don’t have that I’ve seen in other people’s collections. The Humphrey Institute has a wonderful collection. About 10 or 12 there are on my want list.”

“One big thing I’m looking for is a ‘Humphrey for mayor’ poster,” he said. Pointing to an 1940s-era photograph, he smiled and said, “I know they exist.”

In addition to antique dealers or other collectors, estate sales are often where Bengston finds items.

“As people die, things surface,” he said. “I’m not trying to get every one ever made. I’ll probably never achieve it. But, eventually, I’ll get to the point when I’m not finding any.”

Collection’s future

Bengston’s infatuation with political items probably stems from his childhood. “My dad made us watch the news every night,” he said. “It was Walter Cronkite, then dinner.”

Along with collecting political memorabilia comes knowledge about the campaigns, the issues they surround, and the people involved.

Bengston can talk quite extensively on Humphrey’s career. He has a great appreciation for Humphrey’s progressive stand on civil and human rights.

“He was such a force as mayor,” Bengston said. “He was on the cover of Time and spoke at the 1948 Democratic convention.”

When asked what will happen to his collection after he dies, he laughed and, shaking his head, said, “That’s a good question. Hopefully, it’ll get donated, possibly to the DFL headquarters.”

He recently donated a portion of his George McGovern collection to Dakota Wesleyan University, and itwill eventually become part of a planned George McGovern library in Mitchell, S.D.

He also has close to 1,000 Barry Goldwater buttons that will soon be headed for a Tucson, Ariz., museum.

As he glanced at the array of Humphrey buttons neatly stored in butterfly collector boxes, however, he smiled and said, “For now, I’m hanging on to it all.”

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