Extensive military memorabilia collection headed to auction

Set for Feb. through Cochran Auctioneers & Assoc.

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - The first thing that strikes the senses walking in the front door is the smell of mothballs.

Their presence is for the preservation of hundreds of military uniforms that stand on mannequins or hang on coat hangers jammed cheek to jowl in nearly every room in Bill Butt's house from the basement to the second floor.

"I've got so many that I don't even know how many. There's lots of them," said Butt, an 82-year-old retired scientist.

He said he has no idea of the value of his collections.

He is moving to a retirement home in Seattle early next year to be close to his daughters. His collections are not moving with him.

"There's no room there, and it would cost too much to move it all," he said.

Butt said he is busy these days trying to sort through a collection that took more than 40 years to assemble in preparation for a two-day auction in February or March at Cochran Auctioneers and Associates in Boonsboro, Md.

He said he expects a collection of this magnitude will draw hundreds of bidders including military memorabilia enthusiasts, museums, possibly the National Park Service and the just plain curious.

Butt's interest in collecting morphed into a passion that spread from military uniforms to a library of more than 1,000 books on history from the Civil War era onward that occupies shelves in nearly every room. There are dozens of framed prints, photographs and front pages of newspapers.

He collects helmets and flags, including a huge Nazi banner that covers much of one wall. There are trays of military insignia and medals, and shelves of trench art ashtrays and the like that soldiers on both sides crafted from brass shells while living in the trenches in World War I.

Trench art is growing in popularity among collectors, Butt said.

Most of his uniforms are American from World Wars I and II.

"They're the easiest to find," he said.

Uniforms from Korea and Vietnam also are in the collection.

His interest in uniforms began when he noticed how much U.S. Army uniforms had changed from the 1930s.

"The Navy hasn't changed its uniform much over the years, but the Army did," he said.

 His collection includes uniforms from Poland, Hungary, Austria, Russia, France, Egypt and Germany.

One that stands out is a full-length black leather overcoat that was worn by a Nazi SS officer. The coat had been part of a more extensive collection of Nazi memorabilia that Butt sold off long ago, he said.

One of his favorites is a dark blue wool uniform that was worn by a Marine who served aboard one of the 16 battleships that made up the "Great White Fleet." President Teddy Roosevelt sent the fleet around the world from 1907-09 to show off American sea power.

Butt also has the uniform of a good friend who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Tucked in a corner by the front door of his home is a mannequin dressed in a World War I nurse's uniform. Upstairs is one draped in a doughboy uniform. Butt found the uniforms, worn by a brother and sister during the war, at an auction in Indiana.

Butt provides a macabre, carnival hue to his mannequins by topping many of them off with ghoulish Halloween masks.

He spent years at auctions, antique stores and yard sales to fill out his collections.

Butt grew up in Indiana, earned a degree in entomology from Purdue University and spent two years in the Army before he was hired by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1955. He stayed with the agency on and off until 1988, during which time he opened the USDA Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville. He was its first director.

Butt moved from the USDA to the International Atomic Energy Agency. His work there took him to Austria and Southeast Asia. He also built a research station in Tennessee.

 Butt retired in the mid-1990s and has continued to work as a consultant.

Print this article Back to Top

Comments