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Collector fills home with Christmas year round

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RUSKIN - There isn’t a room in Sylvia and Robert Graves’ Ruskin home that doesn’t contain some kind of collection. Even the kitchen and bathrooms.

While some of the rooms are devoted solely to the various collections, others are home to  smaller groups and pieces that enhance functional areas.collector1B

Pulling a can of soup or stew from a shelf also containing figurines would not be unusual.

A converted garage and two small rooms, however, are filled from floor-to-ceiling with nothing but collections of miniature cities and people, mostly replicas of buildings and scenes from Charles Dickens’s writings and British landmarks.

They’re all different, and most are beautiful. And they all have meaning for Sylvia, who has been collecting since childhood and accumulating the British replicas since 1993 when she first joined a local branch of a national club called the Orange Blossom ‘56ers.

The reference to “56ers” comes from the fact that the replicas were first made for sale as a Christmas-themed product at Buchanan’s Department Store in Minnesota. Sylvia said.

“All the major stores had their departments numbered, and the replicas were sold in Buchanan’s Department 56. They were amazed at how sales took off. People were crazy about them,” she said.

For awhile, Buchanan’s partnered with Disney to make the replicas but stopped after about two years, Sylvia said.collector2

Sylvia’s brother gave her the first piece of Dickens collectibles, a Tiny Tim house she now displays on her front porch, but since childhood she has been interested in collecting everything from Barbie dolls and Marilyn Monroe figurines to ceramic Easter bunnies.

Walking through her house, however, anyone can quickly see that her favorite theme is Christmas.

She also has inch-high skaters that move across an icy pond, and lighted taverns and libraries and newspaper offices. There’s Big Ben tower, and a complete replica of Dickens’s Village, complete with Scrooge’s home and the Cratchit’s; the home of the world-famous character, Tiny Tim.

Many miniature buildings are replicas of actual British structures.

“Take the Globe Theater, for instance,” she told me, pointing to a large round piece on a corner table. “Look down inside and you’ll see it’s made exactly like the theater where Shakespeare held his plays. The nobles had seats, and the rest of the audience stood.” The rounded pieces show exactly that, with some of the noble’s balconies shaded from the sun. Next to the theater is a replica of Shakespeare’s home.

More pieces about Dickens’s life are also displayed on a shelf of their own chronologically; starting with a replica of his birthplace and including his newspaper office and a hospital he started, as well as the chateau he ran to when he wanted to write.collector3

Some of the pieces in the Dickens Village are rare, including the gold-domed planetarium and the Queen’s Jewelry Shop. The Westminster Abbey and London Bridge are also impressive.     

Sylvia’s husband is included when it comes to her collecting. Besides making mountains, lakes, gardens and other types of backgrounds for Sylvia’s figurines, Robert has built the special lighted shelving for some of her collections.

Most are lighted when a switch is thrown. In one room are four shadow-boxes of 3-D scenes featuring tiny rats dressed as people, preparing pies and doing housework in frames resembling dollhouses.

The collection dearest to Sylvia’s heart is made of wood-carved figurines.

“My grandfather gave me the first pieces of this when I was just 19,” she told me, as she switched on a light that enveloped a built-in shadowbox shelf filled with figurines that when viewed together, added up to Bethlehem chaos; from people leading donkeys through crowded streets lined with palm trees to noble’s tents and of course, the stable scene complete with Mary and Joseph and everyone else mentioned in the story of Jesus’ birth.

“It must have looked very much like this at that time,” Sylvia said, referring to the fact that the first Christmas occurred when everyone living within the Roman District had to appear in their home city to be taxed. “It had to be very busy and very chaotic.”

But Sylvia’s love of Christmas doesn’t stop with religious scenes. collector4

“I’ve given myself rules about this next collection,” she said, opening another door. The room were now in was filled with Santa Clauses in different shapes and sizes, hand-made curio boxes on the walls filled with three-dimensional Christmas scenes, all surrounding a  Christmas tree covered with nothing but Santa Claus ornaments. Santas on horseback; in sleighs; putting presents under Christmas trees; and eating cookies. There were fat Santas and skinny Santas; Santas of all kinds, many of which are Hallmark collectables. “Everything in this room is from a yard or garage sale or second-hand shop. Except fot the Hallmark ornaments, I don’t allow myself to buy anything for this room new,” she said.

And, as I mentioned earlier, Sylvia’s passion for collecting doesn’t stop with Dickens or Christmas.

Family photographs are grouped by category, with “stations” of wedding and anniversary photographs; children and grandchildren in graduation caps and gowns; and assorted family gatherings and events.

I knew readers would be curious about the background of the couple that lives in this unusual house.

Born in Apalachicola and raised in Jacksonville, Sylvia is a true Floridian. Her father, Dan Suggs, ran an oyster house and was a deputy sheriff in Hillsborough County for many years and was well-known to the South County community.

She has been married for 53 years to Robert, who is a lifelong Ruskin resident.

“My family came from Washington State five generations ago,” Robert told me. “That was back when living here was kind of like the wild West.”

The couple has spent more than 50 years in the same house after being married in the First Baptist Church of Gibsonton.

“We had a very unusual wedding there,” Sylvia told me. “The carnival people were all in town and everyone who lived in the area was invited. The Giant and his wife, midgets, all kinds of people from the circus were there. We had a grand old time. Back then, everyone knew everyone else and was friendly.”

For many years Sylvia’s home was included on the Christmas Home Tour sponsored by the Ruskin Woman’s Club but lately she said she has not been up to hosting that function. 

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