Thousands of miles from the westernmost Southern state, Larry and Marg O’Neil have amassed a collection of vintage cast iron exceeding 13,000 pieces, housed in an unassuming pole barn on the Pacific Northwest plains, leading up to the slopes of Mt. Rainier. And they want you to come see it for yourself.
Call it what you will—hobby, habit, or lifestyle—cast-iron collecting is a competitive sport. From eBay to estate sales to mass auctions, the most passionate and deep-pocketed collectors face off, vying against each other to assuage their cast-iron agendas. But none are more successful than the dynamic duo of Larry and Marg O’Neil, former grocery store owners-turned real estate gurus who have enlivened their “retirement” with the sport of cast-iron collecting. They graciously invited me, my friend Mary Theisen (known in cast-iron circles as The Pan Handler), her friend and assistant Linda Lamb, and our photographer Sarah Lamb to visit their home in Tacoma, Washington, to experience and document their massive collection, dubbed “The Cast Iron Museum.” Three days and more than 4,000 photographs later, our heads were reeling from the experience. Until you can see it for yourself, let our words and pictures take you there.
Mary: When we walked into Marg and Larry’s home, I felt like we had entered a treasure trove of vintage cast-iron cookware. Beautiful small stoves lined the dining room walls, along with toy waffle irons, teapots, and skillets perched upon their miniature cooktops. Small skillets and rare pieces bedecked the kitchen walls. I couldn’t take notes and photos fast enough; I saw so many pieces I had never seen before and pieces I had never even known existed.
Josh: Larry and Marg (pronounced “Marge”) welcomed us like family. While Mary and I stood in the kitchen of their home, our eyes wide with wonder at the mosaics of cast iron that covered the walls, Larry and Marg bustled about, pouring us cups of coffee, and pulling out more of their prized collection to show and tell.
Mary: Marg is a spitfire; Larry is more reserved. But I can see how these two have been partners in every sense of the word throughout 60 years of marriage. They collect cast iron with the same enthusiasm and passion that they devote to everything else they do.
Josh: I’m not sure there’s a word in the English language that adequately describes the level at which these two collect cast iron. They’re more intentional, methodical, and meticulous than hoarders (though they most definitely have a horde!); they’re too serious and dedicated to be called enthusiasts. I guess the closest I can get is that they are the most passionate curators of cast iron that I have ever encountered.
Mary: Like most collectors, Larry started small. When he was younger, Larry asked his mother if he could have the two cast-iron skillets hanging on her kitchen wall. She’d already promised them to his sister, but Larry was smitten with the pieces, so he set out to get his own. He found a Griswold and a Wagner skillet for $8 at a thrift store, and the spark had been lit. Larry’s two pans became a collection—and the collection became a museum. And we were just seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Josh: Larry beckoned us to follow him to the basement, so we all padded down the carpeted stairs, lining up behind him as he opened a door to a dark room and flipped the light switch. Under the sudden glare of fluorescent lights, a bounty of cast iron revealed itself. There were Dutch ovens, stacked like black iron replicas of the Eiffel Tower; skillets, nested from gargantuan to minuscule, spiraling like dark galaxies. And there was a wall of vintage enamel-coated cast-iron (Marg’s favorite), glowing amidst the dark iron, a vibrant rainbow
of untold weight. But it was nothing compared to what was to come.
Josh: “If you like this, wait ‘til you see the Farm,” Larry kept saying. It was hard to imagine anything more impressive than the bounty of the basement, but we knew better than to doubt Larry, so through the neighborhood we went, a mini caravan of cars. Over bridges spanning wide rivers we traveled, out of Tacoma proper and into the adjacent countryside. Finally, we came to the farm, our rental car crunched down the gravel road, past their farmhouse and a handful of mildly interested cows, coming to a stop in front of a sprawling metal barn. We got out, stretched our legs, and gaped at the beauty that was around us; amber grassy fields rolling to the horizon, the robin’s egg sky a backdrop with Mt. Ranier’s snowy profile painted across it. With all that beauty, you’d think the last place we’d have wanted to be was inside, but when Larry rolled open the barn doors to reveal their collection of cast iron, everything else disappeared.
Mary: It was breathtaking—I still get a little giddy remembering it. Thankfully, Larry was there to keep us focused, and served as the docent for our museum tour. Starting on the main level, he guided us through each row, stopping every now and then to pick up a special piece and share its history. Pieces were categorized by manufacturer: Griswold, Wagner, Martin Stove & Range, King Stove, Atlanta Stove Works, Favorite Piqua Ware, and many more I recognized, along with names I’d never seen before. And there were many old gate-marked pieces from unknown foundries.
Josh: I was a kid in a candy store. While Mary swooned over vintage Griswolds, I took off through the museum on my own in search of Southern-made cast iron. In addition to their impressive collection of Martin Stove & Range, Lodge, and Birmingham Stove and Range pieces, I came across several foundries I’d never heard of, including Renfrow Foundry in Louisiana and Dixie Foundry in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Mary: On the mezzanine (yes, this is a barn with a mezzanine), we saw gas waffle irons, hotplates, deep fryers, roasters, coffee grinders, teapots and teakettles, meat grinders and bowls. Many small ovens and stoves crowded the shelves. It was a joy hearing the details of all these pieces, and learning so much. Larry’s knowledge is so extensive; you can imagine how tickled I was to be able to help him identify an old unmarked Lodge Bundt pan!
Mary: At the end of our museum tour, Larry had a surprise to show us—a rare 1940s Griswold store display. From a wooden box marked “Property of the Griswold Mfg. Co.,” Larry carefully removed an old Griswold salesman’s attaché case. From the case, he took a square base with an attached sign marked “Griswold Cast Ware” and a sample skillet, and placed the skillet on the base. Marg plugged the cord into a power outlet, and we all stood silently as the Griswold skillet turned round and round displaying its simple beauty.
Josh: There was something poetic and a little poignant about that little rotating skillet; its very existence a nod to a more prosperous time for American cast iron manufacturing. As the plastic marquee with its missing letters rotated hypnotically, we finally stopped and absorbed the intensity of the day. Marg popped open a few Coronas and passed them around, and I looked down and noticed my hands. The day spent handling all that vintage cast iron had left them blackened and creased, like the hands of a mechanic. Mary and I shared a chuckle—a seasoned professional, she’d spent the day in gloves, and her hands were pristine. She had kindly offered me a pair, of course, but I declined. To be honest, I was proud of the grit and grime, the smudges of rust and seasoning. Sometimes, it just feels good to get your hands dirty.
Larry and Marg are living encyclopedias of cast-iron knowledge and history, and love to show their collection to enthusiasts. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a visit. To learn more about Larry and Marg and see even more pictures, visit Mary’s blog at thepan-handler.com.