Man and his cabin mug for the cameras
You have to really want to see Avery Sisk's cabin to follow the directions for getting there.
But plenty of people do.
Collettsville Road, which takes you to the northwest corner of Caldwell County, is a series of hair-pin turns for about 12 miles as you travel from Lenoir. About a mile past the Collettsville General Store, you turn left on to Old Johns River Road. Follow it for about three miles, past where the pavement ends, and you can’t miss it.
“I’m at the fifth bridge either way,” says Sisk, 71, owner and creator of the self-proclaimed Johns River House of Mugs.
The wood frame structure -- covered, as its name suggests, top-to-bottom in coffee mugs -- sits practically on the banks of the Johns River. In fact, when Hurricane Frances blew through the Carolinas in 2004, causing major flooding, more than 100 of Sisk’s mugs wound up floating away in the swollen river.
Sisk stopped counting how many mugs hang from 30-penny nails imbedded on the rough-hewn landscape timbers framing his 300-square-foot summer retreat. His best estimate is 20,000 to 25,000. His wife, Doris, stopped counting years ago.
“I liked the cabin the way it was,” she mused.
The original idea was to build a summer cabin for the couple, who live in Lincoln County. Since 1980, Sisk had been bringing his camper to a site he rented there, but he got tired of paying the landowner rent.
“In 1994, I quit renting and talked him out of a half-acre for $3,000,” Sisk said.
It took him only four months to build the cabin, which sits on a trailer frame. Everything was fine until his sister, Ruby Shook, who displays hubcaps around her Conover home, chimed in with decorating ideas. Sisk and Shook were at a flea market on Interstate 40 and noticed 750 coffee mugs on sale for $15, and an idea was born. They split the cost and returned with the mugs.
“She started the mugs. She said, 'We’re going to put cups in here,'” Sisk said. “My wife said, 'No you’re not.' But me and my sister talked (Doris) into it.”
Sisk says that before long it got out of hand. He would go to thrift stores all over the state -- Forest City, Spindale, Hickory, Charlotte, anywhere there were mugs to be had. Usually he brought back 50 mugs at a time. Sometimes many more.
“I’ve bought as many as 1,500 at a time and brought them back on a truck,” Sisk said.
Word spread about the mug house on Old Johns River Road. Soon, visitors were bringing mugs to add to his collection. A guest book sits on the porch near the chair where he and his Chihuahua, Ace, spend countess hours shooting the breeze with anybody who stops by. Folks from South America, Europe and as far away as Australia have found the tiny cabin.
“One woman drove all the way from Wild Horse Plains, Montana, to see the mugs,” Sisk said proudly.
Often, cars pass by slowly, occupants with cameras at the ready, while Sisk smiles and waves.
He has his favorite mugs, and knows exactly where they hang. There’s one with John and Caroline Kennedy. He quickly finds a mug with Ronald Reagan emblazoned on the side.
“A guy offered $100 for it,” Sisk recalls. “I said no, and he started cussing.”
The Sisks don’t come to the cabin as often as they used to. As winter gives way to spring, they come up on weekends, cleaning and hanging mugs. Often, their two grandchildren, Indiana and Tyler Sisk, 8 and 9, come up from Lincoln County to dip their toes in the cool water, or to fish.
Space to hang mugs is quickly running out -- mugs cover a neighboring trailer and the fence lining the driveway -- but there are still close to 8,000 mugs remaining in boxes. Doris Sisk knows eventually each will find a 30-penny nail on a wall. Over the years, she has accepted her husband’s eccentricities.
“I don’t let it bother me any more. I enjoy them now,” she said.
Avery Sisk enjoys the publicity. A man who spent a lifetime working odd jobs, dabbling in furniture, laying cable or running dozers, he reckons he has come a long way.
“I’m just an old country boy having fun with my mugs,” he said with that wry grin of his.