It has been more than an hour since a train left Union Station, but a crowd remains. About 100 people are gathered in front of the Kansas City Power & Light gallery. They give off the disjointed thrum of folks waiting for a train that has been too long coming.
From De Soto, Kansas, and DeKalb County, Missouri, and parts farther away, they've driven in for the day, joining residents of Kansas City in the hope that their own artifact is the one picked from 40 objects being shot for America's Lost Treasures, a new show that begins airing in April on the National Geographic channel. They sit and listen to instructions from the crew about the day's schedule for the program, which provides a historical take on the Antiques Roadshow model. Of course, they also want the money — the owner of the chosen object wins $10,000, a prize handed out at a follow-up taping at the Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall three days after this second Wednesday in January.
This is like the moment before forking over $5 to get into the swap meet, before the first Power Ball number is called, before getting all the way up the driveway to the estate sale. This moment is still full of promise — the promise that the object you're holding in your hands could turn someone's past into your future. The contestants have all been screened through National Geographic's website, where each has submitted a description and a picture of his or her item and verified ownership of it.
"There's only so much you can get from a photograph," production coordinator Alexis Schwerin explains as she stands outside the roped-off holding area in the side hall. "Today, we're really seeing people's personalities."
It's only 10 a.m., but Schwerin has been at Union Station for close to four hours getting the crew of 15 set up on the lower level and making sure every contestant has filled out a digital release on an iPad. The treasure seekers and amateur genealogists sit on blue stools attached to portable folding tables on wheels, a layout reminiscent of a middle school cafeteria.
Like any other production — reality or narrative — America's Lost Treasures needs extras. The "movers," as they're called here, are told to mill around in the background to make the goings-on look more interesting. A few of them have brought their own items, and they sit in folding chairs, ready to watch the people waiting to be featured on this episode. One mover, an elderly woman, unintentionally makes a marionette with fiery red hair dance as she listens to a producer. Another, a man in a peach-colored sweatshirt, clutches a document tube tightly in his right hand.
Among the contestants is a white-haired man in a plaid vest. "It's amazing the stuff you keep. You just can't quite throw it away," he explains as he leans over an old wooden rail cart. One of the show's appraisers asks him how he's doing. "What more could I ever want? I'm so good I can hardly speak," he answers.
This is the sixth location shoot for America's Lost Treasures, sandwiched between stops in Austin, Texas, and Philadelphia. Supervising producer Adam Flacks says, "It's beautiful. This is exactly the kind of place we like because it's got beautiful architecture and a lot of history." Flacks' credits include Ice Road Truckers and Swords. He pauses to speak into a Secret Service-style coiled earpiece, giving instructions.
It's 10:33 a.m., and the first cluster of people is headed to the lower level for the initial shoots of the day. Downstairs, people walk slowly through the station's exhibits as crew members tinker with the lighting and the sound.
On the main floor, the waiting continues. TV crews approach crowd management much as the airlines do. When a large group of people is facing an indeterminate waiting period, keeping them fed is a good strategy for keeping the peace. To that end, a table in the holding area has plenty of fruit and Frito-Lay products. Later, a production assistant will watch the crowd at lunch. His job is to make sure everyone gets a sandwich.
The show's participants receive further instructions: Don't look into the camera, stand here, face this way. The show's stars, Curt Doussett (host of the Discovery Channel's Hazard Pay and sometime actor; he did an episode of Touched by an Angel) and Kinga Philipps (Current TV, Austin Powers in Goldmember), are taped as they walk beneath the giant American flag that hangs from the rafters. They feign casual conversation, the kind you might have while waiting on a train platform, and ignore the stares of the few early morning coffee drinkers in the Parisi Café.
Flacks keeps one eye on his hosts and the other on the holding area. "This is our chance to dig deeper and pick one lost treasure from Kansas City," he says. "It's always one of my favorites when I don't have a sense of whether something is valuable. We take it to the experts, and it could go either way."
It takes 22 minutes to get the first shot set up. When the crew is ready, empty coffee cups are taken out of camera range, and someone says four words: "OK, we are rolling."
Doussett listens to a woman in a denim jacket. He's telling her that the item before them is a railroad key. This bit of exposition is for the audience.
"We're here in Union Station. It's one of the oldest and largest in the United States," he says. "It's kind of coming back to the museum. Think they can get you to leave it here?"
The woman demurs, and the segment ends on an up note as Doussett expresses excitement about the piece. The cameras then zoom in for a series of shots known as "pickups," in which Doussett or an artifact owner holds the object up for the lens to inspect. Flacks watches on a wireless monitor as snippets from other conversations echo through the hall.
A woman in a bedazzled jacket points to a clear plastic sleeve that she's holding. Inside, there appears to be a strand of brown human hair. "We can touch that hair," she says. "That's the only part of another human being that is still there."
The reveals have started. People are learning whether their family's heirlooms are worth inheriting. Those finished taping walk back into the hall at Union Station like teens returning home after blowing a driver's-license test. The morning's camaraderie has given way to uncertainty — not many objects are going to make it to National Geographic's planned history-exhibit tour.
"I guess I'm just like everybody else here, just trying out for it," William Win says when asked why he has come to the taping.
The Navy veteran sits with his arm around a stuffed penguin — not some county-fair stuffed toy but an actual Adélie penguin, about 2 feet tall, mounted to a plaster base. The penguin took its last breath in Antarctica, but he has been a resident of the Midwest for the past 54 years. His journey is only slightly less incredible than Win's own.
Win was the personal driver for Adm. Richard Byrd and Adm. George Dufek. From the base in Norfolk, Virginia, he sailed through the Panama Canal and on to New Zealand, where he caught a ride on the world's biggest ice breaker in 1953. This was 25 years after Byrd's famous exploration of the continent, and Win arrived on the ice-covered surface where temperatures fluctuated from 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 65 below — sometimes in one day.
Win's job during Operation Deep Freeze was to help establish the camp at Little America Five on the Ross Ice Shelf, in preparation for an international committee of scientists. He hauled freight from supply ships to the base in a Caterpillar D8 tractor, a bulldozer with 4-foot-wide treads and an insulated cab.
"The way was staked with red flags," he says. "And you didn't want to stray because you would crash through the ice."
Win made two seven-and-a-half-mile round trips a day. Each took eight hours to complete. The bulldozer didn't come equipped with brakes; there was no way to stop the two 20-foot-long sleds attached to the cab. If he got off track, he had a steering clutch and a 35-ton winch to pull the machine out of jeopardy.
In a land that is too cold for polar bears, Win became fascinated by a smaller species that watched his tracks slowly crunch through the snow. Emperor penguins (the 4-foot stars of March of the Penguins with a distinctive yellow ring around their necks) and Adélie penguins were surprisingly unfazed by the diesel-belching bulldozer.
"They weren't really scared of us," he says. "I think they just thought of us as overgrown penguins."
Near the end of Win's seven months in Antarctica, Dufek asked him if he had any special requests. Win took a weekend to ponder the question, and his answer remains a mystery to himself even today.
"I wanted a penguin. I said I'd been down in Antarctica, and I've gotten used to them. Why did I want one? I don't know. They just fascinated me. I'd been out of the service for six months when I came home one day to find a wooden box outside my door. I didn't really think he could do it."
The penguin has accompanied him on dozens of trips to area schools and been with him for more than five decades, but Win isn't especially sentimental about this remembrance of his time at the South Pole.
"I never did give him a name," he says. "I just call him the penguin."
Keil Heilman, a sandy-haired man with glasses, is sharing the table with Win's family. He smiles as Win shares his tale of polar exploration. "This is living history, and we're losing the stories of thousands of veterans like this every day," he says.
Heilman, 42, is a teacher. He works with middle and high school students in Shawnee, using what he calls his "classroom museum." Over a 17-year career, Heilman has amassed what he estimates is a collection of 20,000 pieces. It began when his grandmother mailed him her own collection of Civil War artifacts.
"It's a different connection to history. I'm just a large, sweaty man who talks too fast, but you can't help but see the past when you actually see these," Heilman says, holding up a clay ball a little smaller than a grapefruit.
It's one of the 11 deactivated World War II-era ceramic hand grenades in his collection. Heilman explains that they were distributed in Japan to be used by Japanese citizens for either defense or ritual suicide. In a few hours, he'll learn that they're worth $200 to $400 each. But that's not why he's here. He made a promise to his grandmother nearly two decades ago that he would never sell the historical items that he uses for teaching.
The sorting continues downstairs, where Kevin Hummer is resting both hands lightly on an etched silver platter and waiting for Philipps to enter the shot. The platter, standing upright on a wooden pedestal, begins to slide. Hummer's grin fades as he grips it more securely. After the piece has been secured, Hummer tells the story of his find. It's a tale that sounds oft-told and that has among its characters an older woman bringing the platter to a St. Joseph antique mall, intending to have it melted for scrap.
"I knew then it was something unique because I'd never seen anything like it," Hummer says. And this is a key component of nearly every discovery mythology. The owner, able to see something that others have clearly missed, has rescued or preserved a piece. Philipps leans in to hear more, and Hummer's smile returns. It grows even wider when the appraiser assigns the item a value: $8,000.
John Tunks was born and raised in the house where he still lives, about 10 miles outside Maysville, Missouri, a rural town with a population of 1,234, according to the 2010 census. A brooch rests in an open jewelry box before him. About the size of a clementine orange, the brooch is inlaid with swirls of diamonds.
"Fifty-three mine-cut diamonds," Tunks says. "And I believe this brooch belonged to Pearl Warner." As in the mother of Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack, the brothers who formed the Hollywood studio Warner Bros. Tunks' grandfather was Pearl Warner's chauffeur, and his grandmother read daily correspondence and books to the Polish immigrant. In return for his grandparents' service, Tunks believes, Warner gave them this piece from her personal jewelry collection.
Tunks, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says his interest in genealogy is part of his faith. The retired H&R Block employee is a devotee of the Midwest Genealogical Center in Independence. He opens a squared-off leather briefcase and takes out printed-off Wikipedia pages and newspaper articles with passages marked in ink and paper-clipped together. He punctuates the stories of his grandparents' 1920s travels with Warner with black-and-white photos inside a black photo album, its pages thinned with age.
Even with all of his evidence splayed out on the table, Tunks feels that he is still missing an important part of the puzzle: proof that Warner owned this brooch. "If this does belong to the Warners, I'd just like to reconnect them with a piece of their family history," he says.
Kent Dicus, an accountant at Children's Mercy Hospital, has brought a daguerreotype of his great-great-grandfather. Thomas Jefferson Dobyns not only was the portrait's subject but also owned a chain of photography studios along the Mississippi River.
Dicus' research has taken him from Canal Street in New Orleans to New York City. But there's only so much the Kansas City native has been able to uncover. Dobyns was 53 years old when the photo was taken and was less than five years from selling the Dobyns and Harrington studios and picking up a rifle in the name of the Confederacy.
"I've seen these go for several thousands on eBay. I could never part with it. I would just like to know if he was well-known for his day, known beyond our family," he says.
Twenty feet from Dicus, an oblong wooden box sits atop a handcart. It's a prairie organ, a portable pump organ that's well over a century old. It likely traveled by steamship from Edinburgh, Scotland, to Warsaw, Missouri, where Lee Hydeman and her husband, Scott, purchased it at auction. The Kansas City nurse and bricklayer have spent the past decade shopping for pieces to take up residence alongside her grandmother's 1925 baby grand piano.
"We're running out of room in our house," Lee Hydeman admits. "But I love going to estate sales and seeing a person's history, their life, told through what's there."
It's that curiosity and the potential for financial reward that have driven a slate of reality shows featuring people who hope to find lost treasures in suburbia. The word antique sounds stuffy, European, PBS-ready, so cable channels give their shows such names as Storage Wars and Auction Hunters. Programmers and cable executives are looking for their own treasures, hoping to tap into the streak of American individualism expressed by collectors. One generation's Manifest Destiny ends up in another generation's footlocker.
The collectors at Union Station have brought their items to find out whether they've been wise to keep what others have sold or discarded. But whatever they hear today, they will have added something new to their story by the time this episode of America's Lost Treasures airs, sometime in April.
As contestants and movers continue to file downstairs late into the morning, they can't help but see the raw feed of the taping displayed across three monitors. With a well-timed glimpse, someone might get a look at Doussett on the center screen, examining what might be a Dunlap Broadside, the name given to the copies of the Declaration of Independence produced by printer John Dunlap.
"There's only 26 known copies in the world, the last being discovered four years ago. Do you think this could be the 27th?" Doussett asks a man in a red sweater, as they stand to the side of a framed document.
The man's body language betrays some doubt. His back is locked tight, and he's squeezing his hands together until the fingers whiten.
"I think anything is possible," he says.