Trip to yesteryear: Retired couple enjoys sharing their passion for memorabilia

ALUM BANK – For many years, people came to the first house located at the bottom of a mountain along Route 56 because they needed help.

Today, they’re stopping for a tour and some laughs with the owners of a feel-good collection of memorabilia.

Retirees Dennis and Barbara Bowser, both 69, have taken their love of collecting through flea markets, yard sales and elsewhere, and created an old-fashioned gas station, a church and a 1950s-era diner on their property.

Among the many items inside the gas station are a cash register for the grandchildren to play with, a restaurant booth and a special door.

The door, which is covered in signatures from those who have stopped to tour the collection, opens to a so-called bathroom. Behind it is a photo of their grandson using the potty. The joke is just an example of this fun-loving pair’s good nature.

“Because we enjoy it,” Dennis said of why they collect. “We enjoy looking at flea markets and it’s good exercise – walking.”

Their daughter, Jill Hamacek of Windber, is also a collector.

“They are retired, and they like to go to antique shops and auctions … so it keeps them busy and he likes to have people stop and visit him, I know that,” she said of her parents. “My dad has always liked the old cars and the gas station stuff and my mom likes just pretty things. We all kind of have our own little thing that we’re interested in.”

The Bowsers once belonged to the car club Rapid Relics in Altoona, and would travel around and take their kids riding.

Dennis, who worked as an autobody man and then for PennDOT, first started collecting toys and antique cars about 30 years ago, he said.

“It might be 50 [years],” he said with a laugh. “Well, my first collection was Barbara. First thing I collected.”

Barbara, who worked in a Chestnut Ridge School District cafeteria for 22 years, said they only collect and don’t sell items.

“We met a lot of interesting people stopping to look at this stuff. We had people from Canada on motorcycles and just everywhere. We’ve had doctors here, truck drivers, every walk of life,” Dennis said. “We enjoy showing them around.”

The couple, who have two other daughters – Tonya Miller of Bedford and Kristen Livingston of New Paris – and seven grandchildren, do not charge anything for people to look around.

They’re thinking of expanding so visitors have somewhere to have a picnic lunch, Hamacek said.

The diner was created in 2011. The gas station was erected in 2010, and the church was added in the winter of 2012-13. Dennis is not planning to put up any more buildings.

Dennis did the construction work for the projects, while Barbara focused more on the decorations. She also offered moral support, he said.

The diner is made from a stainless steel 1978 Great Dane trailer, Dennis said. He cut holes in the freight box to create windows for the diner.

The gas station and church are made by Shawnee Structures and enhanced by the couple. Inside the church are three pews, a pulpit and stained glass windows.

Delivering a realistic feel are small touches such as a pair of wire-rimmed glasses hanging from a pew’s Bible and hymnal storage rack and homemade church bulletins with family members names listed inside as those participating in the service. The interior was designed to resemble the church the Bowsers attend.

Most of the experiences with visitors have ended well. However, one incident did give Dennis a good story to tell, at least.

One day a car pulled up and six scantily-clad females got out. They looked around, took photos, some with Dennis, and went on their way. The next day, some items were missing, including the change they keep in a cash register for the kids to play store.

“And I don’t know, it was probably worth $1.50 to look them … over, but I hope they don’t come back.” he said joking.

Dennis also remembered a family from France who stopped. The father worked for a gas-pump company. The man, his wife and three teenage daughters were touring the United States.

“They were real nice people,” he said. Several weeks later, the Bowsers received a thank-you letter from them. “And I do get a lot of thank-yous from people.”

Visitors aren’t the only ones to enjoy the collection.

“Oh, yeah, I really like his collection,” said his brother-in-law, Gary Kerr of New Paris.

Hamacek described her parents as nice, kind people who enjoy others.

“Always when people would break down on the mountain, they would come down and our house was the first house they would stop at, so over the years truly they’ve helped a lot of people, just because we were the first house at the bottom of the mountain. … So, yeah, they’ve always been really kind and [helpful] but mostly through church and just being at the bottom of the mountain too,” she laughed.

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.