Meet the 'Lantern Man': Jerry Nelson
Tim Swartz looks like an ordinary Midwestern guy. But appearances can be deceiving because Tim is a magician when it comes to gas lanterns.
Tim grew up on an acreage at New Carlisle, Indiana. His life changed in sixth grade when he befriended a pair of schoolmates who lived on a neighboring 125-cow dairy farm.
“Scott and Jerry and their parents became like a second family to me,” Tim recalled. “I spent all of my spare time at their farm. I helped with everything from milking cows to baling hay to chisel plowing. I loved being outdoors. Some of my happiest memories are of going out into the woods with Scott and Jerry to hunt and trap.”
Shortly after finishing high school, Tim began to take auto body repair classes at Southeast Community College in Milford, Nebraska.
“I lived in an old farmhouse that my grandparents owned,” Tim said. “I ran a trapline to help pay for school, which sometimes caused me to miss classes. One day, I got word that the local game warden wanted to talk to me about my trapping license. I had heard about him and was scared to death. He turned out to be a really nice guy. He exercised discretion regarding my trapping license, and we became good friends. That’s how I got interested in law enforcement.”
Tim enrolled in the Jefferson County, Colorado Police Academy. After graduation, he became a deputy with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. Over the next 33 years, Tim served as a training officer and a crime scene investigator, eventually attaining the rank of sergeant.
“I was monitoring traffic during one graveyard shift when a carload of shady-looking guys pulled up and asked where the nearest convenience store was,” Tim said. “I told them that it was about nine miles up the road. Soon afterwards, I got a call from dispatch saying that the convenience store had been robbed. We caught the robbers, but I took a lot of flak from my fellow officers. They would say, ‘Hey, do you know where there’s a nearby convenience store I can rob?’”
Tim and his wife, Jen, who was also a sergeant with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, retired about two years ago. They purchased the former Warnes farm, which sits just a few rods west of our place.
“I wanted to live on a farm again because of all the good memories I have from spending time on our neighbor’s dairy,” Tim said.
Tim’s world was transmogrified some years ago when Jen’s stepfather gave Tim a 1937 American Gas Machine lantern.
“American Gas Machine lanterns were made in Albert Lea, Minnesota and were ahead of their time,” Tim said. “I began to collect AGM lanterns and learned how to repair and restore them. My family owns a primitive cabin in Ontario that my grandfather built in the 1950s. I have fond memories of spending time in that cabin and enjoying the cheery glow of Coleman gas lanterns.”
Some months ago, one of Tim and Jen’s friends contacted Tim about electrifying an old Coleman gas lantern.
“I fitted the lantern with LED lights, and it turned out pretty nice,” Tim said.
This past summer Tim and Jen attended the Annual Steam Threshing Jamboree at Prairie Village in Madison, South Dakota.
“I saw all of those classic tractor collectors and was struck by an idea,” Tim said. “I thought there might be a market for gas lanterns that have been electrified, repainted, and embossed with classic farm machinery logos.”
Tim set about to doing just that, magically transforming outdated Coleman gas lanterns into heirloom works of art.
“When you electrify a gas lantern, you’re changing it forever,” Tim said. “On the other hand, I’m giving new life to lanterns that might have otherwise ended up on the scrapheap.”
Tim, who has always enjoyed working with his hands, estimates that it takes him at least ten hours to electrify and repaint a gas lantern. Jen often helps.
“We polish all of the brass and steel parts inside the lantern and clearcoat them,” Tim said. “I de-rust the frame and have the enamel sandblasted off the ventilator. I’ve learned that 90% of a good paint job is in the preparation.”
While Tim has mostly painted lanterns that embody time-honored farm machinery, he’s open to other ideas.
“I can paint lanterns to represent such things as a college or a sports team,” he said. “It’s just a matter of matching the paint and finding the proper logo.”
“I love finding a lantern that’s been neglected for decades and getting it to throw a shadow again.”
You can contact Tim’s new business, Camp Lamps, at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you'd like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at email@example.com. His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.