Reflections of the Old West

Saturday, March 3, 2012 Teton Home and Living Magazine

By Molly Loomis

At an age when most young boys are busy with sports, their friends, or trying to figure out girls, Terry Winchell, owner of Jackson’s Fighting Bear Antiques, was getting started on a lifelong journey into the world of all things old.

“From the time I was little, I always loved finding stuff and cleaning it up,” says Winchell, now age sixty-two. As a child, he recalls that each spring he would anxiously trawl his uncle’s recently plowed fields to see what was unearthed from the land that pioneers on the Oregon Trail had once traversed. From his first sale, made in a parking lot at the age of twelve, Winchell was struck with what he describes as “the fever.”

Fifty years later, that fever is still burning. Winchell not only continues to run the area’s most enduring antiques store but has also become a world-class expert on rustic furniture maker Thomas Molesworth.

From the way he runs his business to the manner in which he and his wife Claudia Bonnist live (on the second floor of their store), Winchell is truly a man with one foot in the past and one foot (or maybe just a toe?) in the present.

Winchell first came to Jackson in 1978, keen to ski and looking for an escape from the fast pace of development in Crested Butte, Colorado. His business started off on rocky footing. The space he and his former wife, the late Sandy Winchell, had rented for a holiday show here caught on fire, literally burning them out of operation. Undeterred, the couple relocated to Jackson’s East Simpson Street, which would be the home of Fighting Bear Antiques for the next twenty-plus years.

Initially, Fighting Bear housed an eclectic collection of antiques from different eras and regions, much of which had found its way to Jackson over Teton Pass from Victor, Idaho’s train depot. But as local dude ranches began selling their furniture (known as rustic antiques in the industry), Winchell began to realize the untapped opportunity right in his own backyard.

Throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and even into the ’50s, area craftsmen had spent long Wyoming winters building furniture with local supplies like lodgepole, fir, and animal hide. Much of this furniture, with its durable frames, comfortable dimensions, and strong materials, ended up in use at dude ranches. The style’s rugged practicality appealed to Winchell. As luck would have it, he was in the right place at the right time, as rustic antiques were about to make a resurgence in markets around the country.

In 1995, Winchell received what would turn out to be the call of a lifetime from the Hunter Hereford Ranch, located on Antelope Flats in Grand Teton National Park. The contents of the ranch had been left to the Teton County School District, with the items to be auctioned off. Was Winchell interested? He had no idea where he might sell the goods, but he knew he wanted in and he scrambled to pull enough money together to purchase all thirty-five hundred pieces.

The majority of the haul turned out to be by Molesworth—one of the West’s iconic furniture designers. The transaction proved to be an impetus that elevated Fighting Bear Antiques and Winchell to a new level in the industry.

Winchell, who barely knew of Molesworth prior to the phone call, began combing the West for more of the designer’s elegant and whimsical pieces; he gradually grew into one of the world’s experts on the man and his designs. Soon he began speaking at conferences, appearing on television, and even penned a book called Molesworth: The Pioneer of Western Design (Gibbs Smith, 2005).

“I’m always excited about going to an old ranch, but I had no idea what I was walking into,” says Winchell. “To find something where you can step in and virtually control the market, that only happens once in a career.”

Since that first experience, Winchell has been involved in the transfer of several other Molesworth collections—another highlight coming three and a half years after the Hunter Hereford Ranch auction. It involved the Brandeis collection, that of a couple who owned a high-end department store in Omaha, Nebraska, and lived in a penthouse apartment above the store.
Although E. John Brandeis had been dead since 1974, no one had touched the apartment since his passing in a gesture of respect.

“It was like walking into a time warp,” says Winchell, who bought the entire contents of the apartment on the spot.

Best of all, just days later, Winchell was able to sell everything to a single person who was just as excited as he was about keeping the collection together in its entirety.     
But not all sales are such a slam-dunk. Winchell says he’s learned his lessons through the school of hard knocks, which has meant sometimes paying too much for something or ending up with something unexpected. For example, a skeleton used for rituals by the Knights of Pythias came out of a lodge in Riverton, Wyoming; Winchell admits to being so frustrated with trying to figure out the logistics of its disposal, he was tempted to burn it.

Winchell has learned to do his homework and trust his instincts. Forays into “latest trends” like Warhol and Nakashima have not paid off. As Winchell has grown more experienced, he’s found himself avoiding potential mistakes that might have cost him dearly. For instance, at a sale in 2003 in Denver, paying attention to hairs rising on the back of his neck kept him from spending $75,000 on three tobacco bags; they turned out to be expertly crafted reproductions.

Tom Towner, owner of American Indian Art Restoration in Denver and one of Winchell’s mentors, remembers advising Winchell early on that for every piece purchased, he should also buy two or three books. Winchell’s hard work and course of study has paid off. “He’s really acquired a great eye for the material,” Towner says.

By the late-1990s, Winchell was ready for a new lair for Fighting Bear. Discouraged by so many modern buildings sprouting up around Jackson, he enlisted the help of builder Mike Beauchemin and architect Danny Williams to create a store with a living space appropriate for a business selling western antiques.

“People really expect the western, ranching feeling when they come to visit [Jackson],” Winchell says. “I think we’ve lost a lot by going so modern.” One of the biggest compliments he can get is when customers ask what the Fighting Bear building used to be. “If we’re going to act like we’re the last of the old West, then we should look like it.”

Like store owners in Europe or during another era in America, living above Fighting Bear made perfect sense to Winchell. It was the only way he could afford to build a nice store and own a home. But some neighbors were opposed to the zone change, so he embarked on an arduous process with the town council and planning department to gain permission for his building. “I think they were nervous about what it would look like,” Winchell says.

Ironically, fourteen years later, the town of Jackson is now promoting the idea of developing South Cache, the street where Fighting Bear is located, into an area of storefronts with living space above. Winchell laughs, describing how a town planner recently called Fighting Bear a “poster child” for South Cache development.

“Hopefully, this will give people the opportunity to own their own spaces,” he says. “I have a lot of friends in town with other stores and all they have to show for it is some merchandise.”
With Fighting Bear’s combined shop and living space, Winchell and Bonnist are able to show clients how antiques can be used in a home, and not just be reserved as show pieces.
Another advantage is sharing ways in which old and new styles can be effectively combined. Modern paintings hang on the Winchells’ walls next to intricately beaded artifacts crafted by Plains Indians; Roche Bobois chairs face a big-screen TV; vintage art books share shelf space with modern favorites.

Winchell says people often expect that it’ll be like “walking into a museum,” but the difference is that everything is meant to be used and touched.
Making antiques livable ties directly into Winchell’s goal of getting the next generation interested in antiques.

“The disinterest of youth is discouraging. A lot seem more interested in buying a new phone rather than something with residual value. But unless you stimulate interest, young people won’t find it interesting,” he says.

Winchell attributes his own passion for antiques to his grandfather and numerous trips to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska, where the Winchell boys—Terry and his twin brother Barry—would look for agate. Then they’d all stop at the Harold Cook Ranch, where the youngsters would play for hours with Sioux and Cheyenne artifacts

Fighting Bear Antiques does have some younger patrons, a few of whom began coming to the store as children with their parents. Winchell suggests that younger, budget-conscious shoppers who are interested in starting their own collections should keep an eye out for auctions in the surrounding areas. There, they will often find a quality item for much less than they’d pay at Crate & Barrel or Pottery Barn.

“Buy practical things you’re going to use,” he cautions. “I learned a long time ago not to buy things that aren’t comfortable or functional.”

Winchell’s dedication to scouring the country for the highest quality goods, his knowledge about western antiques, and a reputation for honesty and fair transactions have earned him a long list of return customers, including celebrities like Harrison Ford (who, Winchell mentioned, had stopped into Fighting Bear the day before our interview).

The best part of the business, he says, is the relationships they’ve developed with clients over the years. “Some of our best friends are our customers,” Winchell says. “It’s kind of the old way of doing business, but I find it the most satisfying.”

It seems nothing could be more appropriate for someone whose life revolves around celebrating the best of a bygone world.