Right on the Button

Thursday, June 27, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

BISHOPVILLE, South Carolina— Having checked South Carolina off our list of capitol buildings left to see, we set our sights for North Carolina's seat of government in Raleigh, a 200-mile drive northeast.  Seeking an excuse to break up the trip, we consulted our Roadside America app, a treasure trove of quirky museums, odd collections, and folksy monuments.  Our search was rewarded when we discovered not one but two must-see attractions in Bishopville (pop. 3,471), a quaint hamlet founded in 1790, just a few years after Columbia was established, 50 miles and a two-day wagon ride to the west.

Seven miles outside the town, along a narrow rural road, a faded sign announced that we were approaching the Button King Museum, our first stop.  Beside a cornfield, we led a cloud of dust down a sandy lane until we arrived at the site of two quonset huts, the near one identified as our target.  A tired mongrel dog ambled over to greet us with a half-hearted sniff.  Though no vehicles were in sight, a sign on the door indicated the museum was open, so in we went, switching on the lights as we entered.

Thousands of buttons await inside.
This tribute to the simple fastener is owned and operated by octogenarian Dalton Stevens, who blundered into button obsession in the 1980s when he was bleary-eyed with chronic insomnia.  With sleep as elusive as quicksilver and TV offering nothing but a test pattern, Mr. Stevens searched the far corners of his mind for some quiet activity to occupy himself.  There in the dusty reaches, he found a button.

While his wife slept soundly, Dalton pulled out an old denim jumpsuit and began sewing buttons on every square inch of the garment.  Where he obtained all those buttons is not clear, but he kept sewing for nearly three years until the suit was covered with 16,333 buttons and weighed more than 16 pounds.  Though Mr. Stevens considers this first work his masterpiece, he still couldn't sleep, so he rummaged around for other items that might be improved by the addition of a few buttons.

The first Button King creation
To relieve the calluses that must have been on his fingers from all that sewing, the Button King turned to contact cement and his nocturnal hobby kicked into high gear.  After covering a pair of shoes to go with his suit, he coated his guitar with 3,005 buttons, enveloped his banjo and piano with the plastic disks, and, ready to tackle ever larger projects, decorated his 1983 Chevy Chevette with 150,000 buttons.

Mr. Stevens buttoned up so his wife could sleep.
Eventually, the self-styled Button King's body of work expanded to include a button-encrusted hearse, bathtub, toilet, outhouse, grandfather clock, two coffins, and numerous small items.  After polishing off his first few items, Mr. Stevens wondered whether his hometown newspaper might like to report on his uncommon new hobby.  Publication of his story emboldened him to contact other newspapers and a television station in neighboring Florence.  After accounts of the insomniac Button King were picked up by wire services, invitations flooded in for appearances on the talk show circuit.

The vehicle for the Button King's final journey
Before his wife's illness grounded him in Bishopville, the affable hobbyist and amateur musician had modeled his button suit and plucked his banjo for Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Regis and Kathy Lee, Bill Cosby, Geraldo Rivera, Charles Kuralt, Ralph Emory, and others.  Ever the promoter, Mr. Stevens will sell today's visitors a DVD with footage documenting these historic performances.  All this publicity unleashed an avalanche of buttons, as viewers far and wide emptied their button jars and shipped their treasures to Bishopville.  By 1990, Guinness World Records certified that Stevens owned the world's largest collection of buttons without duplicates—some 439,900 of them.

The Button King
As we exited the museum, a car drove up next to ours, and the Button King himself emerged.  We chatted with our friendly host a few minutes though we declined to ask him to perform one of his signature songs—Insomniac Shuffle or Poppin' Buttons.  After all, he had assured us we could order a CD with all his music from his web site (www.scbuttonking.com).  He may not have the world's greatest voice, but he's had lots of practice and is an accomplished instrumentalist.  Since his wife died several years ago, he can now while away sleepless nights playing his banjo, as he, in fact, reported doing last night.

With a bit of marketing and a good dose of folksy charm, Dalton Stevens has parlayed a most unusual insomnia-generated pastime into a cause for acclaim.  Just think, if he had come along a few years later, TLC would have been knocking at his button-clad door with an offer for a reality television show. 

More Cute as a Button Photos

Hearse detail
Where the Button King will finally sleep uninterrupted
Newspaper and magazine articles about Mr. Stevens
Some of the Button King's celebrity memorabilia (Letterman advised:  "Dalton, cut down on salt!")
The Buttonmobile