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The Country Life: Antique store near Colorado Springs contributed to mayor's downfall, brought touch of Hollywood

May 2, 2016 Updated: May 2, 2016 at 12:25 pm
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Part of a movie set can be seen outside Cadillac Jack's. Bill Radford, The Gazette

In its nearly 30-year history, Cadillac Jack's has contributed to the downfall of a mayor, brought a touch of Hollywood to the Colorado prairie and amassed a staggering amount of stuff.

The store, east of Colorado Springs in Calhan, boasts "an inventory of over 100,000 collectible, one-of-a-kind items and antiques."

"I'd say probably double that, but we're conservative," co-owner Jack Johnson says.

There's enough to keep you wandering through the aisles for hours. With jammed floor displays, overflowing shelves and items hanging from the ceiling, it's hard to know where to look first.

"If we ain't got it, it don't exist," the store's website promises. The store is home to a wealth of antique toys - Cadillac Jack's touts itself as a toy museum as well. There's jewelry. Tools. Glassware. A jukebox. Arcade games. Neon signs. Comic book memorabilia. A tangle of rotary phones.

And lots of nautical items, as evidenced by the pelicans standing guard outside.

"We just happened on a deal 10 years ago where we bought out a nautical store down in the Gulf and we dragged all that stuff up here," Johnson explained. "People really like the nautical stuff here. That's been a big factor for us."

Whether it's a treasure trove or a "kitschy calamity," as one online post calls it, depends on your perspective. Back in the 1990s, The Gazette ranked it as the No. 1 antique store in the area.

Shop is nationally known

Johnson and his partners launched the business about 28 years ago. Cadillac Jack's - which includes an RV park and campground - opened for the season last month; it's closed from October through March.

"It's a tourist business more than anything else," Johnson said. Most of the business is "people just driving through."

This rare barber's child chair is among the items at Cadillac Jack's. Bill Radford, The Gazette 

"Nationally known," a sign proclaims. And there's evidence of that - though in unusual ways.

Certainly Cadillac Jack's was known to Stephen Reed, the former mayor of Harrisburg, Pa. As mayor, Reed quietly spent millions of dollars in public money for an Old West museum that never materialized; that spending spree included Cadillac Jack's - and came to light after Johnson and others started raising questions.

"Money's not an object for your mayor," Johnson told the Harrisburg Patriot-News in 2003. "He's buying stuff all over. I've never seen this in 20 years here." Reed subsequently canceled his $3,248 purchase at Cadillac Jack's.

Reed, who was mayor from 1982 to 2010, was charged last year with 499 criminal counts, including theft, bribery and dealing in proceeds of unlawful activities. He was accused of secretly diverting funds not only for the Old West museum but other attractions as well, buying such curiosities as a suit of armor and "a vampire hunting kit."

Johnson wasn't trying to ignite a political firestorm in 2003; he simply was looking for answers.

"He had bought some stuff here - quite a lot of stuff," he said of Reed. "He said a crew was going to come by and pick it up, but nobody ever did. We had it all piled up in boxes, and it sat there and it sat there. We were just trying to find someone who knew something about it."

Cadillac Jack's also is a part of cinematic history. It's home to a movie set and "The Summer Intern," a straight-to-video movie, was filmed in part there in the late 1990s.

"Film producers and still photographers welcome to shoot at the old town movie set," a past list of resources by the Colorado Springs Film Commission stated. "The old town setting has a livery stable, dance hall, grocery and meat market, general store, Wells Fargo station with a 1940s post office, a '40s era service station and saloon."

Barry James Hickey, a Colorado Springs author who was a producer and one of the stars of "The Summer Intern" - billed as "a turbo-paced comedy about a handful of slackers pitted against corporate America, the FBI and the world!" - found Cadillac Jack's while location scouting. The story features a young genius inventor, and Cadillac Jack's struck Hickey as a place where someone might look for rare components. Hickey also seized on a high-wheel bicycle on the campground - hailed as "the world's largest high-wheel bicycle" at worldslargestthings.com - for a scene.

A few scenes were shot inside Cadillac Jack's. "You had to turn your shoulders to get down the aisles even then," Hickey said. "It's a wonderful collection."

An oddity on the prairie

That collection isn't growing like it did in the past. In the early years, like the guys on TV's "American Pickers," "we were on the road and looking for stuff constantly," Johnson said. "We've gotten to a point where we're not buying like we used to."

In the antique toy category, the supply appears to have dried up, Johnson said. "You can't find them anymore. ... There's a lot of collectors who have picked this stuff up."

Cadillac Jack's is overflowing with antiques and collectibles. Bill Radford, The Gazette 

What toy treasures does he have? "Oh, gosh, there's a little kid's sewing machine that the Internet says is priceless; we don't know what it's worth. There's a lot of 1910 to 1920 toys that are on display that you just don't see."

I asked about the store's name. Johnson said a handful were considered before settling on Cadillac Jack's, which seemed distinctive. "Now when you look on the Internet, there's like 4,400 companies with that name."

I didn't find that many, but there are plenty, from Cadillac Jack's Gaming Resort in Deadwood, S.D., to Cadillac Jack's Restaurant in Ellicottville, N.Y.

This Cadillac Jack's still stands out, though. "It's just kind of an unusual thing for being out on the prairie, I suppose," Johnson says.

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