Joe Zawadowski is a vintage cast iron pup collector. He is also a turtle champion, wood carver, bog hunter, dog judge, and skull seeker.
I had wanted to see, learn, and write about Joe’s vintage cast iron pup collection for quite some time. The visit that Linda and I made to Joe and Nancy Zawadowski’s home in Durham, North Carolina in September 2018, however, ended up being about much more than just Joe’s vintage cast iron pups.
Joe is interested in and curious about all kinds of things. It was amazing to talk with him and his wife Nancy and to see and learn about the varied assortment of things Joe has acquired over the years.
Some of Joe’s Interests and Hobbies
- Carves wood,
- Walks and searches in bogs for snakes and spotted turtles (and has since he was a child),
- Has a 29-year-old boa constrictor named “Julia Squeezer” that he keeps in a hutch in his “man cave” in the garage,
- Judges utility hunting dogs for the North America Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA),
- Trains his two Italian Spinoni dogs Hagrid and Boulder,
- Grows bonsai trees,
- Is educated about and has participated in archaeological digs of Native American sites in the Lower Illinois River Valley as well as for the Illinois State Museum, Northwestern University, and the University of Illinois,
- Is experienced in falconry,
- Knows how to build skeletons, and
- Has participated in fur trade reenactments for which he has made his own attire – including dyeing and sewing porcupine quills onto a buckskin jacket.
In addition to cast iron pups – the original reason for my visit – Joe collects:
- Cast iron combo cookers,
- Leon Whitton wood bird carvings,
- Snuggle Pups,
- Salt-glazed stoneware,
- Wooden spools,
- Ivory chess carvings, and
- Dancing raisins.
I am sure there are quite a few other things that Joe collects that I didn’t see on our visit. When I read the list of Joe’s collections to him as I finalized this article, I asked him if I missed anything else that he collects. Joe said, “let’s just say ‘no,'” and laughed.
Joe is quite an interesting fellow; I’ve never before met anyone quite like him. During our visit, he casually said to me, “I’ve always been into reptiles.”
Joe keeps turtles in a small aquarium in his house. There are more in a turtle sanctuary; a screened-in shed in his large backyard. The shed contains a small pond. When we went into the turtle sanctuary, the turtles came swimming up to Joe.
Joe and Nancy Zawadowski share a love of animals. They met in 1974 at the Brookfield Zoo outside of Chicago. Nancy worked in the children’s zoo caring for the animals (she says, “I raised baby elephants”). Joe took in sick and injured birds of prey. He held both Federal Fish & Wildlife breeding and rehabilitation permits for the birds.
Joe and Nancy moved to Iowa in 1978. Joe wanted to have adventures with “falconry” – trained hunting with birds of prey and hawks. He worked in construction as a means to support his interest and family. Son James was born in 1981.
When the construction business bottomed out, Joe took work at Iowa State University at the veterinary school. There, he cared for animals in the veterinary barns.
Eventually, Joe began working in the animal anatomy teaching labs at Iowa State. The school sent Joe to Germany for three months to learn “plastination,” a process used to preserve anatomical specimens.1
Joe was hired away from Iowa by Duke University. In 1985 Joe, Nancy, and James moved to North Carolina and settled in Durham.
Joe managed the anatomy labs at Duke. He retired in 2011, but retirement did not slow him down one bit. If anything, it gave him more time to pursue other interests and adventures.
Joe’s Vintage Cast Iron Pups
Joe’s interest in vintage cast iron pups has its origin in “Big Red.” Big Red is a painted cast iron pup that was made as an advertising giveaway by Mathews Steel Company.
Both of Nancy’s grandfathers worked for Mathews Steel. Big Red had its home on Nancy’s mother’s bedroom bureau as Nancy was growing up. About 5 years ago, Nancy’s mother gave the pup to Nancy. They fondly call that pup “Big Red, Our Founding Father.”
Big Red is the centerpiece of Joe’s vintage cast iron pup collection.
Joe was immediately taken with Big Red. He started picking up vintage cast iron pups here and there. One pup led to another and another, and soon enough Joe had a collection. He now has 213 of the little vintage cast iron pups.2
These charming small vintage cast iron pups were made by companies as novelty item giveaways to help advertise a business. Students also made the pups at schools to learn iron casting. Churches and schools gave them out as awards for good attendance. The names of companies or locations were commonly incised or cast onto the pups.
Joe enjoys researching the companies named on the vintage cast iron pups. He also likes to hunt for keepsakes related to those companies.
BUCKI CARBONS pups, for example, are relatively easy to find. Once Joe acquired some BUCKI CARBONS pups, he went on the hunt for the tins that originally contained the “Bucki Carbons” typewriter ribbons. The tins are displayed alongside his Bucki Carbons pups.
Other commonly-seen pups are those marked HINES. For a time it was unknown what company used the common HINES pups as an advertising tool. Joe was happy when he found a sign that provided the answer to that puzzle.
Joe is an active member of the Griswold and Cast Iron Cookware Association (“GCICA”).3 He posts about his vintage cast iron pups and other cast iron finds both on the GCICA forum4 and GCICA Facebook page.
Here are a few fun pics of Joe’s pups. Enjoy!
Joe hunts for vintage cast iron pups that he doesn’t already have in his collection. He only wants to keep one of each. He does not buy duplicates unless one is in better condition than one he already has, or he wants a duplicate to trade or sell.
Pricing of vintage cast iron pups
Joe follows vintage cast iron pup sales on eBay and keeps a journal of eBay’s selling prices. The highest price he has seen paid for a vintage cast iron pup was $904.74 (including shipping). That sale was for a pup marked “HERCULES.” The second HERCULES pup that Joe saw on eBay sold for over $500, and the third one sold for $260.85. Joe felt that the one that sold for $260.85 was in better condition than the one that sold for over $900!
The second-highest-priced vintage cast iron pup that Joe saw sell on eBay was one marked “McPUP.” That pup sold for $852.14. Joe also watched as a pup marked “ANDERSON INSURANCE CO” sold for $300.26.5
Collectors also hunt for hard-to-find vintage cast iron pups marked “OVALTUBE” and “KAISER FRAZER.” Authentic Griswold vintage cast iron pups are also highly sought-after, of course.
On the previous GCICA forum, fellow member and vintage cast iron pup collector Audrey Belden said: “For those of you that have no interest in pups but collect vintage cast iron cookware, let me put it this way… a Bucki Carbons Ribbons pup is like buying a #9 skillet and an Ovaltube pup is like buying a near mint #13 skillet with lid or a #8 Erie spider pan.” Not in the price paid, but in scarcity.
Accordingly, Joe was very happy when he found an OVALTUBE pup.
Joe’s advice for new pup collectors
I asked Joe what advice he had for the new collector of vintage cast iron pups. Here is what he wrote:
Pups turn up in unexpected places. Search everywhere: the internet, antique shops, auctions, estate sales, etc. Most of my pups have come from eBay, but some of the rarest were personal finds in other venues.
The more places one searches, the better the odds of finding pups. Keep a sharp eye when personally searching. Pups are easily passed over if one does not have a good eye for spotting them.
Don’t be afraid of fakes. The Griswold pup is the only faked, or copied pup. Learn how to spot the real ones, and you will be fine.
Once in a while one comes across a ‘backyard caster’ attempt using a Bucki Carbons Ribbons or other common pup as a pattern. These home projects are generally obvious and inexpensive. I consider them collectible for what they are.
If you can afford it, buy it when you find it. In over five years of collecting, there have been a number of pups that I have only found one example of. I’m happy now I was able to add them to my collection, even though I felt I paid an awful lot at the time.
Get involved with other collectors. They will help you find the pups you are searching for and might even part with some of their duplicates.Both the Griswold and Cast Iron Cookware Association and the Wagner and Griswold Society have knowledgeable pup collectors in their membership. Both organizations have valuable information about pups on their web sites that is only available to the membership.
Be patient and persistent and you will eventually find the pups you seek.
As I finish this writing, I want to share one personal story about Joe’s amazingly varied interests.
My 99-year-old stepfather Roy was recently in the hospital. He is a retired executive who has lived all over the world and managed large companies. Roy has been in the company of heads of state and kings.
I was sitting with him in the hospital, trying to keep him entertained. I pulled out my computer and started showing him photos from my visit with Joe and Nancy. Turns out I had almost 450 photos from the visit. Roy and I looked at every single one of them.
As we looked at the photos I described to Roy as best I could what we were seeing. Roy was very engaged when looking at the photos, often asking me to enlarge certain sections of a photo so that he could see details better.
When we were finished viewing every single photo, Roy turned to me with a smile on his face and said, “He must be a very interesting fellow!” That’s something, coming from Roy.
Even as I left the hospital room that day, Roy was still talking about Joe’s turtles.7
Note: This writing was originally posted on December 5, 2018.
- If you have seen the “Bodies in Motion” exhibit at your local museum, the bodies in the exhibit are an example of plastination.
- This article was written in 2018, shortly after our visit. Joe’s collection has undoubtedly grown!
- Joe is the editor of the “Cast Iron Quarterly” – the quarterly newsletter that the organization mails to its members.
- The GCICA website is currently down, but is planned to be back online soon.
- I asked Joe for an update on pup selling prices in March 2023. He said then that the highest price he saw on eBay was $1236.70 for a “Kaiser Frazer” pup. The second was still the Hercules at $904.74, then the “McPup” at $852.14. Joe believes that there was one marked O-F that probably sold in the $2000 range, but he said that there is not a solid, verifiable record.
- It is interesting that this is very similar to what John Clough also told me about collecting when I interviewed him – “if you are meant to have it, it will come.”
- My dear stepdad Roy Edward Nystrom passed away on April 27, 2019.