ELKHART — Arden Stickel is worried.
He’s getting on in years and won’t be around forever, so he’s got to figure out what to do with all his Miles Laboratories bottles and pills. And promotional Frisbees. And company newsletters. And Speedy dolls, Speedy being the Alka-Seltzer pitchman of yesteryear.
It’s a lot of stuff, packed on a jumble of shelves in the basement of his Elkhart home, a shrine to his former employer, which, most notably, developed Alka-Seltzer. In its heyday, Miles employed thousands of workers, was a real institution in Elkhart, and Stickel, in deference to that, wants to keep the collection together.
Here he is, inspecting the items — outdated bottles of Flintstone chewable vitamins, Alka-Seltzer boxes, Bactine bottles — dreaming of a museum to house the old pharmaceuticals. They tell the Miles story, give the former Elkhart employer its proper due, he thinks. Three rooms of exhibit space would be sufficient to properly display the items quite nicely.
“Everybody says they’d like to see a museum, but they’re not offering any solutions,” he laments. “They seem interested to a point, but not to offer any concrete solutions.”
As such, he’s on a mission, wringing his hands nervously, hoping to find someone who shares his zeal. Would you like to buy the collection, 2,000 to 2,500 items, create a space to house it all? If so, Stickel is game to sell and he’s open to offers. Otherwise, he might auction it off.
Given the right creative minds, he thinks the bottles and Fred Flintstone promotional toys and vintage Alka-Seltzer advertisements could be fashioned into a museum that would draw them in. He gestures to a kid-sized Alka-Seltzer car, some sort of promotional thing.
“It’d be great for kids, to sit in that seat and have their picture taken,” he says.
‘A LIMITED AUDIENCE’
Here are a few of the basics on Miles: Elkhart physician Franklin Miles launched the firm in 1884, developing, famously, Alka-Seltzer, the acid indigestion reliever that goes plop, plop, fizz, fizz, and many other pharmaceutical products. Germany’s Bayer Corp. bought the company in 1979, scrapped the Miles name in 1995 and gradually phased out production in Elkhart.
Stickel, now 77 and recovering from a bout with lymphoma that partially prompted his search for a new home for his collection, worked there from 1965 to 1997. If you haven’t already figured it out, he loved the place, he’s passionate. Very passionate. He loved being part of a company that, as he sees it, helped make Elkhart.
Speedy, the red-headed pitchman with the body of an Alka-Seltzer tablet, “put Elkhart on the map,” Stickel says. “It was a big player in Elkhart. In fact, one of the largest employers in Elkhart.”
No one disputes that. But in running a museum, there are certain realities to consider, notes Paul Thomas, operator of the Time Was Museum here, focused on the history of Elkhart.
Those employed by Miles are quickly aging and “fast disappearing,” limiting the pool of people who most logically would be drawn to a museum focused on the business. Moreover, Miles, while important in its day, isn’t the only company that had a significant imprint.
“I think it would be a limited audience,” said Thomas, whose crowded museum has a section dedicated to Miles.
Matthew Schuld, manager of the Elkhart County Historical Museum in Bristol, notes that starting and running a museum takes a lot of community support and volunteers. The Bristol museum, too, has a collection dedicated to Miles.
‘I’VE GOT TO STOP’
Sure, it’s no simple task.
That doesn’t dilute Stickel’s passion any. Ivy Tech Community College here would be a great home, though he’s not gotten any sort of indication from school officials that they’d take his collection off his hands. Stickel visited once and there seemed to be plenty of space in the school, opened in new digs in 2010.
“I like to see people enjoy Miles history. Just to see it go by the wayside is sad,” he says.
In particular, he doesn’t like the idea of breaking it apart, one piece going here, another piece over there. It belongs together — the apothecary jars, the picture of Miles’ 1942 girls basketball team, the Bugs Bunny Vitamins promotional toys — to properly tell the Miles story.
Plus, the bottom line? He can’t take it with him when he goes to meet his maker. He has to do something with the collection.
Given the lymphoma scare, he’d probably install a treadmill and some other exercise equipment in his cluttered basement were he to clear it of all the Miles stuff, helping him stay in shape.
Either way, his 30-plus years of collecting Miles paraphernalia are winding down. Wife Elsa notes they may move to a retirement community some day.
“I’ve told my wife — I’ve got to stop. I can’t take anymore,” says Stickel.