Hidden Treasures

Photo courtesy of American Public Television

Jaime learns the history of women in beer advertising.

Jamie Ebanks learns the history of women in beer advertising.

Matt Paxton helps people downsize their homes and shares the stories on PBS television.

Lillian Lambert and her husband were getting ready to downsize their home and belongings when a friend urged them to call Matt Paxton, host of Legacy List With Matt Paxton on public television. The one-hour series follows Paxton as he goes into people’s homes and finds hidden treasures included on their Legacy List. Each treasure has a story and memories that are shared on the show. 

Photo courtesy of American Public Television

Lillian and Johny Lambert discuss their Legacy List with Matt over tea.

Lillian Lambert discusses her Legacy List with Matt Paxton over tea.

“When Matt came we had no idea what this is all about,” Lambert says of the show. “He asked us if there was anything in particular we wanted to find or learn about. I have my grandmother’s old pump organ, and I wanted to know more about it. I failed to get that information from my mother and grandmother when they were alive. They did some research and found out it was manufactured in 1865, and how and why my grandmother may have acquired it.”

Lambert, a successful entrepreneur and author, and the first African-American woman to earn a Harvard MBA, found the experience “fascinating,” she says. “I enjoyed the filming. Matt’s crew was great to work with. They did a good job of taking care of our place.”

Paxton, the former host of A&E’s Hoarders series, started cleaning out homes 20 years ago after losing his father, stepfather, and grandfather in a span of two years. “I had to clean out all of their houses,” he says. “When I started, I talked with my grandma’s friends and started getting interested in the stories they would sit around and tell me.”

Photo courtesy of American Public Television

Matt Paxton sorting through piles of clutter on Hoarders.

Paxton had the opportunity to host Hoarders in 2009 and completed 11 seasons of the series. About five years ago he noticed his business, Clutter Cleaner and later Legacy Navigators, moving away from hoarding situations to working with families to downsize or move into assisted living. “Those people were not hoarders. They had been living in their houses for 30 to 40 years,” he says. “I would help them go through their things.”

What he most enjoyed were the stories he heard from the families. “I knew about five years ago that I wanted to pitch a TV show about downsizing and tell really cool stories,” he says. “I would go through people’s pictures with them, and they would show me pictures when they were kids or when they were in the war or dancing at the Tantilla Garden ballroom in Richmond, where my grandparents went to dance.”

It took Paxton about a year to formulate a show he could pitch to television stations. He found that most of the stations he talked with weren’t interested in a show about older Americans sharing stories about their past. “Television stations wanted drama,” Paxton says. “They wanted people to fight. They didn’t want legacy stories.”

Not one to give up, Paxton got the go-ahead to pitch the show to VPM, Richmond’s PBS and NPR station. “They viewed it as a way to see history,” he says. “I thought of it as a way to talk about the items I found. They said, let’s tell the story. They were very visionary to get my idea.”

Photo courtesy of Matt Paxton

matt paxton

Matt Paxton.

Steve Humble, chief content officer for VPM, liked the show’s focus on the positive side of humanity rather than the negative. “I thought it was interesting to look at people’s families and how people are connected,” he says. “Not looking at the value of things but the emotional value of things, which is more important in a lot of ways. I was excited.”

The fact that Paxton had hosted a show was a plus as well. “Matt is a wonderful guy. We knew he could carry a show that is fun and engaging,” Humble says. “We gave the show a green light last spring. We thought it was great.”

The show process is collaborative, with Paxton finding the people and the homes to feature. The first six episodes of the series have already aired, featuring homes in several states, including Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. “VPM is in Virginia, and it’s important that some of the shows happen in Virginia,” Humble says. “We are planning on doing a second season with eight to 10 shows and have from two to four shows in Virginia. The rest can be other places.”

VPM has had a positive response to the shows, which are distributed through American Public Television. “It’s doing really well on PBS,” Humble says. “Eighty percent of PBS stations around the country have picked up the show.”

Many PBS programmers throughout the system say the show did as well or better than the show in the slot before. “That’s really good, especially for a first-time show,” Humble adds. 

In the first six episodes, as Paxton went through attics, basements, and closets, he found that historical items varied in different areas of the country. “I always find fascinating stories. Grandmothers’ stories are the strongest we see on the show,” he says. 

He found a 44-star American flag from 1889 in the home of a 73-year-old woman. It had belonged to her grandfather. “They didn’t have a flag store back then, so somebody had to make it,” Paxton says. “We found out how it was made, what state was the 44th, and which six had not been made states yet.”

Another woman had him look for a jade Chinese ceptor from the Ming Dynasty. “Her great aunt bought it from the estate of one of the governors of Massachusetts, who got it from the Chinese emperor,” Paxton says. 

He discovered a number of fascinating items at the home of a man who had collected beer memorabilia, including a beer tray handpainted by Dr. Seuss. “It was a pre-prohibition commercial beer tray, and it was beautiful. It survived through prohibition,” Paxton says. “We wanted to know why Dr. Seuss would make a beer tray. We brought in experts in folklore who said that Dr. Seuss was trying to date the brewmaster’s sister.”

Some items that Paxton is asked to find are purely sentimental. One woman in New Jersey had an old perfume bottle that belonged to her sister. The woman broke into a wide smile when Paxton gave it to her. She told him, “It smells like my sister. She was so pretty. All these young boys wanted to date her.” 

The perfume in the bottle wasn’t a designer brand; it was Avon. “When I saw it I remembered my grandfather who used to wear Avon,” Paxton says.

Sharing these stories is an emotional boost for people getting ready to downsize. “What’s holding them back is their stuff,” Paxton says. “I argue it’s because no one listened to their stories. Once you share the stories or family members want the item, people are able to let it go. Everybody has a story. Everybody has a history.” 

For some tips on downsizing, please see our story Sort It Out.

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