BEDFORD, Ind. – Lonnie Graves most often finds his old-time treasures at auctions, flea markets and resale shops. Like the vintage leather jacket he picked up for five bucks and sold for $75. Or the 1950s metal toy truck he paid $10 for as the lone auction bidder that just sold for $125.
I like the unusual, and my passion is collecting and picking, the Lawrence County resident told The Herald-Times. It’s kind of my hobby, but also has become a way to make a living. I’m really a contractor, and I’ve been in the tree business for a long time.
He grew up poor, surrounded by items from the past. I’ve always been around old stuff, your butter churns, your crocks, things like that. I like old houses and what’s in them. Old cars. I’ve always picked and hoarded and collected and sold.
In recent years, much of his selling has been done on eBay, the international Internet marketplace. And he recently made a purchase there that led him to possibly the best deal he has ever come across: more than 2,400 illegal casino chips from the Prohibition days, when drinking and gambling were banned and went underground.
The fancy crest-and-seal clay chips likely were manufactured by the U.S. Playing Card Co. They date back to the 1920s and were used at the illicit casino inside the old Brown Hotel in French Lick. The rich, famous and notorious traveled there by train to drink, gamble and socialize.
Since casinos were illegal, they called them clubs,’ and Brown’s was one of those places where the politicians and people turned their eyes away, Graves said.
The Brown Hotel casino thrived until the government shut it down in 1949.
Graves has long kept an eye out for old casino chips, especially illegal ones. Searching eBay one day not long ago, he saw some listed for sale that originated in French Lick. He bought 100 from the site, then called the seller to arrange to get them.
Turns out he did not have to go far, just to Paoli. When I got there, I asked if he had any more, and he said yes – and came back around the corner with a whole big box full. Graves bought them.
The man was selling the chips for Shauna Burton, the granddaughter of Floyd Earl and Mary Emily Burton. Back in the 1960s, when the Brown Hotel was being demolished, the couple ran the Star Store on Maple Street in downtown French Lick. The Burtons collected items from the rubble, including the cache of gambling chips, which they stored in their attic.
After her grandparents died, Shauna Burton inherited the chips. Graves bought them all. He would not say how much he paid, but said they could be worth as much as $100 each to the right buyer.
It was by chance and luck that I got them, Graves said.
Graves has a special interest in casino-related items and said he benefited by knowing the value of the chips others might not be aware of. In this business, you always hope to find that certain item nobody else knows about, he said.
Even though he collects such things to sell for a profit, he intends to hang on his stash of illegal gambling tokens for a while.
These are a treasure, artifacts from the old illegal gambling days when the Ballards owned the casino and it was the place everyone went, Graves said.