Published: June 8, 2021
By Madelia Hickman Ring
DEPOSIT, N.Y. – Richard Smith “Smitty” Axtell passed away unexpectedly on Thursday, May 27, at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton, N.Y. The cause of death was confirmed by his family as complications from congestive heart failure.
Born on October 13, 1947, in Deposit, N.Y., Axtell grew up on the family farm. He attended Deposit Central High School and the University of Albany, where he got a degree in economics and library science. He subsequently got an Associate’s degree in agriculture from Delhi Ag and Tech College in Delhi, N.Y.
Axtell developed his passion for antiques from his parents, particularly his mother, who helped him go to area flea markets in 1962 while he was still in school. In 1963, he opened a shop in his family home. After finishing school in 1968, he started to deal full time and purchased an Eighteenth Century tavern and inn in Deposit. This became the home of The Rookery Bookery and The House of Axtell Antiques, a business that specialized in Americana that was still in operation at the time of his passing. In an interview he gave with Joy Hanes in 2013, Axtell noted that one of the people who was most influential in his life was Jim Cain of Roscoe, N.Y., who Axtell met at the age of 15.
Axtell was the president and charter member of the Deposit Community Historical Society and served as past president of Deposit Rotary. He was a Master Mason of the Freemason’s Lodge in Deposit and a member of the First United Methodist Church of Deposit. His professional associations included the New Hampshire Antiques Dealers Association and the Early American Industries Association.
Antique show promoter and dealer, Frank Gaglio, heard the news of Axtell’s passing as he was setting up the May 29-30 Antiques At Rhinebeck show. “The sadness of hearing about Smitty Axtell’s passing stayed with me the whole show. He ranks among the icons of our industry, along with Roger and Ruth Bacon and Lillian Blankley Cogan. I first heard about him from several dealers and met him for the first time when I was a fledgling antique dealer. I remember that his mother would greet you at the door to his shop with a smile and elegance that stayed with her throughout her entire lifetime. As she walked me around the shop, she knew about whatever I looked at; it was easy to see that he got his knowledge and experience from his mom.
“As I got to know him better, I’d ask him to go upstairs and bring me something wonderful, which he did because that was where he kept some of his most prized possessions. One of the things I bought from him was a New York State stenciled Tree of Life bedspread, which is now in several books on textiles. Another piece was a tiger maple heart-shaped snuff box that I bought from him at the York show a few years ago, which was the last time I saw him.
“He was a wonderful addition to any antique show I was involved with. He had a volume of experience and knowledge that our business has lost. He was truly one-of-a kind, and I will personally miss him greatly.”
Newburgh, N.Y., dealers Daniel and Karen Olson shared the news of Axtell’s passing on social media. When we reached out to them, they said, “In 1971, when living in Ithaca, we discovered Axtell Antiques. We bought our first early piece from him at that time, a cherry butler’s desk that he provided a wonderful if somewhat fanciful story about the butler, the candle burns and use of the various drawers! The human element and history were given equal treatment to the object itself, a part often neglected completely. He continued to be a source for our collecting through the 1970s. When Dan went full time in antiques in the early 1980s, he was an important outlet to sell to for several years. Axtell continued to be possibly one of the few we could share ‘antique war stories’ with that for various reasons couldn’t be shared with a wider audience. In recent years we enjoyed being neighbors at the York shows, as well as several others.”
Joy Hanes took a break from moving to tell Antiques and The Arts Weekly, “he was a sweet man who was probably incapable of saying anything mean about anyone or anything. And he was generous with sharing his knowledge, which was encyclopedic. I learned many things from him. He also had a wonderful and dry sense of humor. He was a great dealer, and a great man.”
Fellow Mason and Otego, N.Y., dealer, Franklin “Buzz” Hesse shared some of his memories of a friend who he had known for more than 50 years.
“At the beginning, we were often very competitive at auctions if we both wanted the same thing, but over the years, that rivalry went away, and we developed a wonderful friendship. It also came about because both of us were born-again Christians; he was like a brother in Christ to me and he felt the same way. We could talk about all the material things we loved and felt very privileged to handle. He never took that lightly and appreciated the things that came his way.
“He was someone you admired, and you believed because he was honest and truthful and knowledgeable. His passing will leave a void for a lot of us.”
Heather and Wayne Graf of Norton, Mass., submitted a remembrance of Axtell in a letter to the editor. “Our first purchase from Smitty was an unusual early tin wall sconce with snuffer at the Rookery in 1985. It still hangs in the keeping room of our circa 1780 New England cape. Wayne and I have looked forward to seeing this very special man (in bright red blazer!) and his booth filled with fine early Americana at many shows over the years. Beyond Smitty’s knowledge and passion as an Antiquarian, it was his kind and gentle soul that will be remembered and sorely missed.”
Axtell was predeceased by his parents, Moses R. and Doris Smith Axtell and his wife, Sandra Axtell, who he met in 1986 and married in 1996. He is survived by his brothers Daniel and Sarah Axtell of Deposit and Peter Axtell and Alan Munson of Greene, N.Y., nephews Jesse and Joshua Axtell, niece Abigail Stevens, and other great-nieces and great-nephews.
A memorial service will be held at the First Methodist Church of Deposit, at 11 am on Saturday, June 19; calling hours are 9 to 11 am. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the First United Methodist Church of Deposit, 109 Second Street, Deposit, NY 13754.
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