Based on what he had appraised at the last two “Wilkes Antiques Roadshows,” John Peter Bishop is a marked man.
All eyes will be on the Wilkesboro resident if he turns up at the Wilkes County Public Library for next year’s show as people wonder, “Which treasure will Pete bring this year?”
At last year’s Wilkes Antiques Roadshow, Bishop brought a baseball signed by Babe Ruth and other baseball legends. It was appraised for $20,000 then.
At this year’s event on Aug. 17, it was an immaculate glass bottle that held spirits distilled by the Yadkin Valley Liquor Co. in Wilkesboro in the late 19th century. It was appraised for at least $1,000 then.
In spite of those prized finds, the 76-year-old retiree insists he’s not a collector or antiques expert. “If I see something that could be rare, or if I don’t know what it is, I want it, is all,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’ve just happened to get a hold of some good stuff.”
Bishop bought the baseball about five years ago from George Evans, a former sports lawyer and agent who was friends with Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and other baseball legends. Evans has homes in Millers Creek and Florida.
Evans had the ball authenticated on Nov. 7, 2014, and sold it shortly thereafter to Bishop for $5,000. It’s now worth at least four times that amount, according to Don Schweikert of Taylorsville, who appraised it at last year’s Wilkes Antique Roadshow and has been doing this sort of thing for over 40 years.
Is the ball for sale? “If somebody asked me what I’d want for it, I’d say $7,000,” Bishop said without hesitation. “But I’d take $6,500,” he added with a grin.
The ball was signed in 1930 by 26 members of the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees, including six future Hall of Famers: Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Connie Mack, Al Simmons and Lefty Grove.
One of the signers coincidentally is Max Bishop, right below Ruth’s name on what appraisers call the “sweet spot” of a baseball. Pete isn’t related to Max, an A’s second baseman who was born and died in Waynesboro, Pa.
The baseball is likely the most valuable collectible he’s owned over the years, he said during an interview Tuesday. He’s sold an Honus Wagner autographed photo and a Mickey Mantle baseball card that were worth about $3,000 apiece.
Bishop owned and operated the Browns Ford Sportscards shop at the bottom of New Browns Ford Road from 1991 until the first day of 2017. The family store was formerly called Browns Ford Grocery, but Bishop said he changed the name because the Upper Deck sports card company wouldn’t recognize him as a legitimate dealer until the name more clearly identified his business as a retailer of sports cards.
Bishop has seen only two other similar Yadkin Valley Liquor Co. bottles. One had a chipped rim and had turned a milky white color before being sold years ago for $550. The other was owned by Charlie Hulcher, who ran a feed store in North Wilkesboro in the 1940s. “Winston-Salem” was etched into that bottle instead of “Wilkesboro.”
Schweikert estimated that Bishop’s bottle was made in the 1880s or 1890s. Based on its pristine condition—the original cork is intact, too—he said it was worth upwards of $1,000.
Bishop says it’s worth much more to him because it’s a family heirloom. He found it in an old shed near the house of his grandfather, Charles Turner Bishop, a few years ago. Charles Bishop’s father-in-law was John Elam McEwen, who was Wilkes County sheriff.
McEwen was born Oct. 28, 1842, in Iredell County, and served in the Confederate Army under Gen. James B. Gordon of Wilkes.
He and wife, Sallie S. Kimball McEwen, moved to Wilkes from Iredell County in 1866 and settled along the Yadkin River about four miles west of Wilkesboro, near where Bishop lives today.
In 1885, McEwen was appointed U.S. gauger and deputy collector of Internal Revenue. He sold stamps that were placed on liquor bottles to denote they were legal to sell.
He remained an Internal Revenue officer until 1886, when he was elected Wilkes sheriff. The Democrat won the race despite the county being predominately Republican.
McEwen carried out the last legal execution in Wilkes in 1887, when he brought condemned murderer James Byers from the jail in Statesville and hanged him in Wilkesboro. Prior to the hanging, he allowed Byers to be baptized as the prisoner requested.
“My daddy said that after (McEwen) hung that man, it wasn’t long before he went to bed (became bed-ridden),” said Bishop. “It worried him the rest of his life.”
Bishop also owns McEwen’s hand-carved walking cane, which “he’d warp on the wall when he wanted somebody to bring him something (in bed). He’d beat on the wall with it.”
After serving as sheriff for two years, McEwen was reappointed deputy collector and held that position until 1893. He died on March 10, 1931, and is buried in the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Wilkesboro.
Not much is known about the Yadkin Valley Liquor Co., except that it was one of several hundred bonded fruit distillers in Wilkes County. In the late 1800s, the U.S. Internal Revenue Act required all alcohol distillers to purchase a deferral license and pay a tax on all liquor sold. The agency McEwen worked for, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, enforced these measures locally.
All that changed on May 26, 1908, when North Carolina voters approved a prohibition on the sale of alcoholic beverages statewide. North Carolina was the first state in the nation to approve such a measure, backed by 62% of voters.
The next “Wilkes Antiques Roadshow” is scheduled for August 2020. It’s been held the past two years at the Wilkes County Public Library in North Wilkesboro, and every year it sells out of $15 appraisal tickets, which are capped at 40.
The event is a benefit for the Friends of the Library, which is a major supporter of the library, its programs, services and staff. Roadshow organizer Kendall Forester said this year’s event was well-attended and was another success.
You can bet Pete Bishop is already making plans to attend the next roadshow—as are others who enjoy knocking the dust off of long-forgotten artifacts of old and discovering whether they are trash or treasure.