TRAER, Iowa — It all began with a trip to the Brookfield Zoo. As she was getting ready to leave, Ruth Rasmussen eyed a salt and pepper shaker set, shaped like coffeepots, but with a bear and the zoo's name embossed on the front.
"I just picked it up for a souvenir," Rasmussen recalled of the first shakers she ever bought, back in 1946. Over the years, buying more and more shakers became a hobby — maybe even an obsession — for the Traer woman.
"In 1973, I had 10,000, and you can go on from there," she said. "I'd go to Goodwill; I'd go to auctions when I was younger."
As her collection eventually grew to 14,500 sets, Rasmussen had far too many to display in her rural home. They also filled two outbuildings behind the house.
Last April, she found a home for her collection in one of Iowa's most unusual attractions: the Traer Salt and Pepper Shaker Gallery.
It was a process to get all of Rasmussen's salt and pepper shakers in one place.
Rasmussen was always happy to show off her collection to friends — and friends of friends — in her home. For several years, a group of local ladies led by Ellen Young tried to convince Rasmussen that her astonishing collection belonged in a museum. In 2007 — at age 83 — the collector agreed. Last year they proudly opened the doors of the Traer Salt and Pepper Shaker Gallery.
"There're 318 pairs of dogs in this one case, from floor to ceiling," Young pointed out as she showed a visitor through the gallery.
The shakers are organized by subject. Next to the dogs is a case containing 213 pairs of cats. Nearby are displays featuring all 50 states, children, politicians, farm animals and even a wide selection of ceramic ears of corn.
There isn't room to display Rasmussen's entire collection, let alone another 4,000 pairs that have been donated by other people. The basement's full of those sets, some of which are being cleaned in preparation for display during the museum's 2012 season.
"We try very hard not to have duplicates," Young noted.
Rasmussen diligently kept track of her purchases.
"She gave every pair a number," Ellen Young explained. "She wrote the number down on these recipe cards with a brief description of the shakers and where she got them, when she got them, and how much she paid for them. We have six boxes of these cards of hers."
Young's team of volunteers has since computerized Rasmussen's records, including photographs of each set. The earliest date to the 1930s, and the most valuable pair is valued at about $1,000.
There are, however, about 20 sets of salt and pepper shakers with which Rasmussen refuses to part. Her absolute favorite pair depicts Princess Diana and Prince Charles.
"The museum gets them when I leave (this earth)," the 88-year-old said with a chuckle.
If you go
The Traer Salt and Pepper Shaker Gallery, 411 Second St., is open from March 1 through Nov. 30. Traer is about 25 miles south of Waterloo, Iowa, and about 280 miles west of Chicago. 319-231-7654; traer.com. Admission is $3, $1 for children 5-12.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times