By Nancy Carver Singleton
NEWTON – People almost always have something to say when they spot Kelly Hayes’ collection of old lunch boxes. “The conversation, it brings back old memories,” Hayes said. “That is the biggest thing, people get a kick out of it.”
Hayes has collected about 250 metal lunch boxes made in the 1950s through the 1970s. He displays many overhead at his Furniture Warehouse Inc. store in downtown Newton. One, featuring the cartoon character “Underdog,” is considered so rare that a man came from Tulsa to take a photo of it.
His collection began at a garage sale more than 30 years ago when he bought “Bonanza” and “Popeye” lunch boxes. “I thought they were pretty cool. They brought back a lot of memories. It went from there.”
He picked up more at auctions, estate sales and flea markets and even added some as part of furniture trades.
Hayes has six or seven Roy Rogers lunch boxes, along with others from Westerns such as “Gunsmoke” and “Hopalong Cassidy.” Musical groups spawned their own lines. Hayes has boxes featuring the Monkeys, the Bee Gees, the Osmonds and the Beatles. One, carrying the likeness of Evel Knievel, has been known to shift when a gust of wind makes its way into the store.
Interestingly, the only box Hayes recalls carrying to school himself was a dome-topped yellow school bus with Disney characters.
“I am sure I had others, but that is the one I remember.” He has that Disney box, though not his original one from childhood. Holding the box upside down. he pointed out its detailed graphics. “You can see the wheels, the axles, the driveshaft.”
Hayes said old boxes were plentiful when he began collecting, but not so now. “I started before the craze really hit.”. Lunch box manufacturers switched to plastic and other softer materials in the 1980s. Hayes said he does not look for boxes as avidly as he used to, but still buys occasionally.
Hayes had some of his collection displayed for several months at the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka. It’s actually one of two collections in the store; the other consists of hundreds of prints and paintings lining the walls. Hayes’ father Walter, now deceased, started collecting them and Hayes has continued to do so.
Because the glass lining in thermoses broke easily, some are worth more than their boxes. One of Hayes’ favorite stories is when a man told him a cousin purchased a “Yellow Submarine” thermos for 50 cents at a garage sale. He asked if Hayes was interested. “I said ‘Tell her I will give her $50 sight unseen.’” She came in the next day and he bought the “like brand new” thermos.
His “Dukes of Hazard” lunch box bears the signature from one of its actors, John Schneider. Hayes has a friend who was neighbors with Schneider in Birmingham, Ala. Hayes sent his friend two boxes and told him to keep one. The classmate got both autographed when he saw Schneider washing his car.
Then there was a man who came in with a “Star Track: The Motion Picture” lunch box from 1979. The man received it as as a child and put the box away because he was uninterested in the movie. “When I took it out of the bag I thought it was fake. It’s the best one I have condition wise. It had never seen the light of day,” Hayes said.
Hayes declined to put a value on any of his lunch boxes. He has turned down offers to sell boxes, although he has traded a few for other items. If he does sell the collection, he would like to do so as a whole.
Contact Nancy Carver Singleton at email@example.com