#stlstuff: It's a tree trunk, it's a planter...it's a work of art

In the back and side yards of St. Louis homes, usually in the city or the inner suburbs, clay planters that look like tree trunks sit there, doing their, um, clay tree trunk planter thing.

Greg Rhomberg loves them. He owns about 30 tree tile planters. His range from small ones about 4 inches in diameter to larger ones about 18 inches in diameter that weigh a couple hundred pounds.

The smaller ones can go for about $20 and the larger ones for $450 or more, he says.

Why are they so valuable? They’re considered a form of folk art.

Workers at clay pipe manufacturers from the late 19th century through the 1950s made them after a long day’s shift. They’d take a couple of feet of leftover, wet, clay pipe, carve it to make it look like tree bark, and maybe add smaller pipes to the side to look like tree branches. They’d fire them, take them home, stick them in their yards, plant a few flowers in them, and boom: yard décor.

“I just love the fact that they were handmade, and I’ve never seen more than two alike,” said Rhomberg. “Some have lines on them, some have knots, a lot have limbs cut off.”

One of his planters even has an imprint of a palm on it along the top edge — as if a worker picked up the wet pipe to move it and then just decided to not fix the print.

They’re known in auction circles as a form of sewer tile art. They’re not always stamped, and Rhomberg rarely sees a mark on them, except for a rare tree stump chair he once saw, stamped with “Laclede, St. Louis.” He said it was “very comfortable” to sit in. He picked up a large planter in the fall where a woman at an auction said her grandfather made it at work when he was at Laclede-Christy Clay Products Co. Only one in his collection has lettering on it, with the initials “C.K.” on it, perhaps the initials of the person who made it.

One sewer tile tree trunk umbrella stand that went up for auction at Rock Island Auction Co. was stamped St. Louis Sewer Pipe Co. and with an Anheuser-Busch logo. It went for $7,475 several years ago.

Jeff Jeffers, the principal auctioneer and CEO of Selkirk Auctioneers and Appraisers in St. Louis, says this type of folk art is more affordable right now, and pieces have come down in price.

“The outside planters are fabulous; they look like they’ve always been there,” said Jeffers. “Some people use them inside.”

He said they are most commonly seen in Ohio, where the pipe manufacturing companies were, as well as the Carolinas and Iowa.

Rhomberg thinks all but one in his collection was made in St. Louis, because of the darker clay he sees here compared to what’s produced in the Ohio valley.

He spots them at garage sales and estate sales, and looks out for them on online auction sites. He’ll walk up to people’s homes and ask about them, but usually he sends a letter. “It’s only taken me 20 years to get two dozen of them,” he quipped. He says he often sees them in the yards of homes that have a clay tile roof — so maybe, he muses, there’s a connection there.

He keeps most of his on display among taxidermied animals inside his and his wife Ann’s Antique Warehouse in south St. Louis County. They sit among what he calls the “Furs Department,” a collection of taxidermied animals with a neon sign from the long-shuttered Zenthoefer Fur Co. on South Grand Avenue. The warehouse is a private collection of signs, vehicles and other memorabilia, mostly from St. Louis-area businesses and institutions.

Collecting them all was an adventure. Rhomberg went to an estate sale in Affton at 5:45 one morning to snag a planter and brought in a 24-inch auger bit and a cordless drill. He needed that because it was winter, and the dirt inside the planter was frozen. It took a while, but he got his planter.

He used to go to a south side bar that has since closed and once spotted a planter in the yard adjacent to the bar. One day, he spotted a woman in the yard and decided to talk to her and offer to buy it. “Well, there used to be two,” the lady grumbled. “Now there’s only one. Somebody stole it.”

Rhomberg assured her he wasn’t the culprit, that he had been going to the bar for years and the owner could vouch for him. “If you ever want to sell it, I’d be interested in buying it,” he said.

The next week, he went back to the bar. And where was the planter?

“It was moved from a corner of her yard and back to her back porch,” said Rhomberg, laughing.

• To see more of Rhomberg’s collection, visit antiquewhs.com/Feature2006/feature-june06.htm

First published at http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/home-and-garden/stlstuff-it-s-a-tree-trunk-it-s-a-planter/article_0f148654-7489-5e75-83a6-f25605004152.html

”Valerie Schremp Hahn • 314-340-8246 @valeriehahn on Twitter vhahn@post-dispatch.com

#stlstuff is a regular monthly feature of the STL Life section. Keep sharing your historical St. Louis artifacts by using the #stlstuff hashtag on Twitter, uploading them in our album at stltoday.com/stlstuff, or mailing them to vhahn@post-dispatch.com.

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