Sandra Leyba is a picker — an antique lover who always wants to know the story behind the vintage pieces she buys. A piece she purchased at the Diamond Springs Flea Market in March gave her antique-picking heart a thrill.
“I was down on my hands and knees looking at doorknobs when I saw a silver badge on the legs of a bench in the booth next door,” said Leyba. “So I crawled over to look at it. ”
The bench was heaped with coats and blankets and Leyba asked Steve, the booth’s owner, if it was for sale. “He took all the stuff off the top and said it was — he’d just picked it up from a barn the day before,” said Leyba. “It was dirty, with mud all over it. ”
Steve Haron, owner of Horsefeathers in Georgetown, and Leyba haggled in true picking fashion, settling on a price of $70 for the wooden bench. The silver badge identified the bench as being by Milton Bradley of Springfield, Mass. The top of the bench has a grid of one-inch squares carved into it and the folding legs are supported with cast-iron struts, one of which has an “MB” on it and the other strut has “Patented Dec. 12, 1893, Milton Bradley.” The underside has the words “Bay Terrace School” stenciled on it.
Leyba went right to work, researching the table as soon as she brought it to her Shingle Springs home. “I was planning to strip it, sand it and stain it, but I always research first.” Online research took her to the Vienna, Maine, Historical Society, which has headquarters in the Waite House, the birthplace of Milton Bradley. Carol O’Connell is the president of the Vienna Historical Society and was immediately interested.
“She asked me to e-mail pictures of the bench and when she saw them, she told me that it wasn’t a bench at all,” said Leyba. “It was a kindergarten table and she had never seen one before. The museum didn’t even have one.”
Milton Bradley was not only the inventor of “The Checkered Game of Life,” the first real American board game in 1860, but he also developed other board games, including small travel-sized games for soldiers in the Civil War to play during their down time. Bradley’s passion, however, was kindergarten education. He was an advocate of Friedrich Frobel’s theories about experimental education for kindergarteners as opposed to the rote memorization and recitation common at the time. Bradley produced two educational magazines and a wide variety of educational games and teaching materials, which he often gave away to teachers, to the dismay of investors in his company. Forced to choose between satisfying his investors or promoting kindergarten education, Bradley chose the kindergarteners and lost control of his company.
The kindergarten table/desk was one of Bradley’s carefully thought out innovations, with leg braces to keep it sturdy, the grid of squares carved into the top for games, and filled with enamel to withstand years of use. Upon hearing that the museum at Bradley’s birthplace didn’t have an example of his kindergarten tables, Leyba decided to send them her find.
“Some people might have thought dollar signs, but I just wanted to find out more about it and send it to the museum,” said Leyba. Another Milton Bradley kindergarten table that had been stripped, sanded and painted was on Ebay for $1,500.
Leyba found that the “Bay Terrace School” stenciled on the underside of the table was on Staten Island, but then the trail went cold. Further research about how to protect the table led her to a gentleman on AllExperts.com who advised her to clean the table by hand with distilled water and then to protect it by using Toulen-free Briwax on all the surfaces every day for four weeks. No stripping, sanding or staining, at all or the table’s value would be less. The gentleman had only seen two of Bradley’s kindergarten tables and thought most of them were burned as firewood during the Great Depression.
The kindergarten table is now ready to be shipped to Maine where O’Connell said the Historical Society has dedicated an area in the Waite House to Milton Bradley. It will be placed there near some of Bradley’s oldest board games. Descendants of the Bradley family still live in and around Vienna, Maine.
“We want to do a presentation when it arrives and put it in our local paper,” said O’Connell.
Leyba plans to visit Vienna and make sure the table has a good home. It will be on indefinite loan to the museum. She knows all the local thrift store employees by name and the table isn’t her only amazing find. “My daughter tells me I have a lot of crap, but what I bring home is not crap,” she said.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.