DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald
Among the things you’re probably not expecting to see when you venture into the Main Mall:
A Civil War promotion signed by Abraham Lincoln.
A Lee Harvey Oswald savings account withdrawal receipt.
A baseball signed in 1968 by rookie of the year Johnny Bench.
The items are located in a ground-floor business. But why? What is this place, you ask yourself as you gawk at the framed pictures and signatures in the window.
Is this a business? A museum? A traveling road show?
Come inside and meet Rusty Crossland. He has the answers.
“As you see, we’re still unpacking,” he says in the hallway that leads to offices in the back of the business.
A box on a hallway countertop holds dozens of baseballs randomly mixed. He holds up the one signed by Boston Braves shortstop Al Dark, the 1948 rookie of the year. The box, Crossland explains, contains balls signed by every rookie of the year, both American and National leaguers, from 1948-2006.
He has a couple hundred baseballs in his collection – not all here – including a lemon-peel ball used in the 1850s.
This is stuff from just one room of his home, he explains as we venture into the large display area, where he begins a tour. I find myself looking at a few short black hairs, inset behind the glass of a framed display.
“This is the most-documented fragment hair from Abraham Lincoln’s death bed,” Crossland says.
A slight chuckle escapes me. Not just because of the macabre nature of the hair, but at the term he used. “Most-documented” – what does that mean?
“It’s been passed down through three generations,” he says. Attending surgeon Dr. Charles Taft procured the hairs at the death bed and began a chain of documented history.
The tour continues, and most displays are merely fascinating, without a touch of bizarre.
One of his most prized possessions is a Naval cadet’s requisition book from the 1850s. The book contains 38 signatures or initials from the then-superintendent at West Point: Robert E. Lee. His oldest document (not here) is from Spain’s Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand from 1495.
He has signatures on an arrest warrant issued by both Wyatt and Virgil Earp, who were constable and sheriff, respectively, in Barton County, Mo., before they obtained greater fame in Tombstone, Ariz.
He has autographed documents from George Washington, Geronimo, golfer Bobby Jones, Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart. The list goes on.
Sometimes people wander in, marvel at the framed and plastic-coated documents, and ask where the price tags are, says Kalisha Crossland, Rusty’s daughter-in-law who works in the office. It’s not really a shop, she tells them.
OK, so there’s cool stuff here. But why? Why in Durango? Who is Rusty Crossland?
The tour ends, and we face each other in his office, where he sits behind an 1861 law partners desk he acquired in Atlanta. It’s a huge desk, big enough for law partners to share. He’s a little blurry, but he’s within shouting distance.
Crossland grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s and ’60s, not far from Yankee Stadium. His first collectibles were baseball cards.
In college, a professor made history “come alive,” and he was hooked. The founding of America, the Civil War, cowboys and Indians – he found it all fascinating.
It was in the mid-1980s, while he was buying an antebellum (pre-Civil War) home outside Atlanta, that his historical collectible obsession began. The seller had documents mounted on the wall.
“Are those real?” he asked.
“I had no idea you could buy something that Abraham Lincoln had signed, or Thomas Jefferson,” he says now.
He studied more about historical documents and began to collect, finding most at auctions. When he moved to Aspen in 1994 a dealer helped him bolster the collection enormously. By 1996 he had several hundred documents. Now he has several thousand.
His collection also includes several guitars and other memorabilia related to John Denver, the singer who, for better or worse, Pied Pipered many a music lover to Colorado. Crossland is a guitarist who “played my way through college” at Troy State in Alabama.
The money to accumulate such a booty came from Crossland’s business ventures. After a stint as high school science teacher and basketball coach, he partnered with six others in 1977 to found Primerica, which he describes as a financial planning services company for middle-income families.
Primerica, based in Duluth, Ga., has offices scattered across the U.S. and Canada. It now has one in the Main Mall in Durango.
Crossland was successful enough that he took $1 million and created a nonprofit in honor of his father, Ralph Crossland. The R.H. Crossland Foundation has helped a variety of causes, most notably the Challenge Aspen program, which provides outdoor opportunities for the physically challenged. He is still in the process of moving here, and is anxious to support Durango-area charities.
Crossland, who turns 65 this month, says although he grew up poor, “My dad would give you the last nickel out of his pocket. ... I learned from him there’s a lot more reward in giving something than receiving something.”
And to answer the final piece in the puzzle: Why Durango? It was a son and grandkids. Russ and Kalisha Crossland, who met in the ’90s while students at Fort Lewis College, have three children.
“I just fell in love with Durango and the people,” Rusty Crossland says. “It’s vibrant. It’s got stuff happening. It’s got culture. It’s got politics. It’s got everything I wanted in my life.”
Crossland has found a home. His documents have found a home.
And if you’re into history, that home is worth a visit.
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.