by Dee Lander and Tom Chegash
This story begins in 1980 in a drafty Howard Johnson’s hotel in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Fortunately, this story does not have an ending, because The Blue & Gray Show is an annual event and its popularity with collectors guarantees many more shows in the years to come. The 2009 show marked 30 years of Blue & Gray and this story tells the long history of this much anticipated event.
There have been many changes through the years as the show progressed: dozens of Chapter Presidents, Officers and Newsletter Editors, dozens of show helpers, thousands of show participants and four different show locations. However, throughout the past 30 years there has been one constant, and that is the show host and coordinator, Ray Johnson.
Ray has worked tirelessly for over 30 years to grow and develop the Blue & Gray from very humble beginnings. Today, this event is one of the largest, most popular and most successful shows in the United States and is attended by collectors from across the country as well as across our U.S. borders.
As the years pass and the memories fade some of the details of the earliest shows become lost with time. However, let me take you back to those humble beginnings in a drafty Howard Johnson’s Hotel in 1980 and then we’ll progress through the next 30 years.
Setting up part of the trade floor in 2006.
Back in 1980, collectors from the Capitol City Chapter and the Richbrau Chapter decided to meet and host a beer can collector show together for the first time. This was a new and innovative approach at the time because often there was intense competition between BCCA (BEER CAN COLLECTORS OF AMERICA) Chapters for show dates and the collectors who attended them. The two chapters found neutral ground between Washington, DC and Richmond, Virginia. Fredericksburg, Virginia made an ideal location because it is between the two cities and an easy drive north or south along Route 95.
The first show was held on February 17, 1980 and was only a one-day event. The turnout was larger than expected, there were not enough tables and many collectors had to set up in a hallway. When the outside door was opened the wind would rush through the hallway and beer cans and breweriana would begin to fly across the floor. There was plenty of beer cans, breweriana and “free beer”, which has become a constant theme through the years. It can be said the a good time was had by all.
Based on the success of the first show, plans for the second show were significantly expanded. The location was moved to a Sheraton Hotel a few exits north but still in Fredericksburg. This was the first time, for either Chapter, an overnight weekend show was planned. In 1981, collectors would arrive Friday evening for room-to-room trading. Then on Saturday and Sunday there would be a large trade floor with enough tables to accommodate all collectors.
The “Blue & Gray” name was coined in 1981 and accurately described this meeting of collectors from North and South. Civil War soldiers and cannon were placed on the show flyers to represent this meeting, as well as to compliment the rich civil war history of Fredericksburg, VA.
The second show was an unqualified success! Collectors came to the show from as far away as Massachusetts and Ohio! There was a great excitement about the booming breweriana hobby and the opportunity to acquire new beer cans and brewery collectibles gave the show immediate recognition. The hotel was ideal for the show, nice rooms and a large banquet hall with plenty of space for trade tables and people. This is where the infamous hospitality room was born! A sizeable raffle was also held and most importantly everyone had a great time. The blueprint for future Blue & Gray shows had now been established.
he first banquet was held during the1982 show. The feast featured several guest speakers. At this show a large, colorful Blue & Gray Banner was unfurled which has become a mainstay at all subsequent shows. A Blue & Gray Commemorative Can was designed, manufactured and distributed to all in attendance. Consistent show dates were scheduled to coincide with the Presidents holiday weekend. Word of mouth began to spread far and wide that the Blue & Gray was the show that you would regret missing for any reason! From 1982 -1984, a series of increasingly successful shows were held at the Sheraton. Several Blue & Gray traditions were established during this period. Including great beer, great fellowship, and great cans.
BCCA Presidents and spouses began to attend, Herb & Gerry Schwarz, Gregg Kreyling and Dave & Linda Ohlendorf just to name a few. And a consistent show date was scheduled to coincide with the Presidents holiday weekend. So, as early as 1984 these Blue & Gray traditions were well established and would be a trademark of the show for years to come.
The hospitality room became the central gathering place, new friendships were established, old acquaintances renewed, jokes were told and pranks were played. A few of the early highlights include John Vetter impersonating an inebriated 16oz beer can trader; the Big Beer Brotherhood members placing a collect call to Premium Bill Mugrage at 4am; and Don Dinsmore appearing in an authentic Civil War uniform. Memorable events happen yearly now and 2009 was no different. At the most anticipated raffle event ever, Jim Dixon was the winner of an incredible Knickerbocker Bock O/I can in grade 1 condition. If you weren’t there you missed a truly historic event.
Plans began as early as 1983 for a show to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the beer can. The plan was to move the 1985 Blue & Gray show to Richmond, the birthplace of the beer can, and then return to Fredericksburg the following year. Both the Capitol City and Richbrau Chapters aggressively promoted the show. Ray Johnson and Bob Gould were Co-Chairmen of the event, which was promoted as “The party, where it all started”. The BCCA actively supported the show; Jim Thole and Marcia Butterbaugh headed the BCCA’s 50th Anniversary Committee. Raffle tickets were sold months in advance to promote “The Party” and offered the first Krueger’s Beer & Ale cans as prizes.
Held at the John Marshall Hotel, the result of the hard work and planning was a show that rivaled a National Canvention. More than 350 traders and 175 guests were in attendance. They came from 25 states and 3 Provinces in Canada. The trade floor was jammed on both Saturday and Sunday and 285 collectors listened to keynote speaker Charlie Scruggs from American Can Company. BCCA President Marcia Butterbaugh and many other BCCA Board Members attended the banquet. Stroh and Chesapeake Bay Brewing companies donated beer for the thirsty attendees. Displays included: Krueger, National Bohemian and beer cans from 1935. Ray, Jeff Bentley, Dick Caughey, Bill Christensen, The Garden State Chapter and other collectors contributed to the displays. Gerry Gaebel and Bruce Gregg won the Krueger’s raffle cans. There were many collectors in attendance that had been absent from the hobby for awhile and stated that their interest in the hobby had been renewed. Clearly, “The Party” was a giant success!!
Throughout the years of the Blue & Gray there have been many people who have helped Ray and contributed to the show. Capitol City members included: Dick Kopp, Charlie Bacon, Don Dinsmore, Tom Stemetski, Bruce Remick, Robert Costenbader, Win Leach, Jim Dixon, Larry Manley, Jim Wolfe, Hank Spalinger, Jeff Bentley, John Embrey and Bill Tomlinson. Richbrau Chapter contributors included Chris Eib, Mike Daniels, Bob Gould, Jimmy Street and many others. Today there are many contributors and “helpers” that make this show happen. Many work behind the scene’s and many can be seen around the show, doing their small part to make the show an unbelievable experience.
In 1986 it was back to Fredericksburg. There was some mention of a lingering hangover from “The Party” in 1985. However, the 1986 and 1987 shows were well attended attracting well over 100 collectors each year.
In 1987 at the Capitol City Chapter meeting, Dee Lander was elected Chapter President after he left the room to go to the bathroom. This is a Chapter tradition given the absence of volunteers for the positions of stature. In November 1987, Dee received a call from Ray informing him that the Sheraton was under new management and had raised their room rates plus wanted $1500 to rent the room for the trade floor. The price increase was a deal breaker and the chapter could not afford to return to the Sheraton. This created the prospect of not having a Blue & Gray show in 1988!
In December 1987, Ray, Tom Stemetski and Dee joined forces with Chris Eib and Mike Daniels from the Richbrau Chapter to search for a new location for the show. Ray, Tom and Dee started in Northern Virginia and headed south on Route 95. Chris and Mike started in Richmond and headed north on Route 95. Stopping at dozens of hotels along the interstate not one of the fabled explorers could find a location with a banquet room big enough to accommodate a large trade floor. We did find a nice hotel in Fredericksburg with an indoor swimming pool, hot tub, Jacuzzi, sauna, game room and indoor putting green located in the lobby of the hotel. However, the banquet room was far too small to accommodate the 100+ tables we needed for a trade floor. Depressed, we decided it was time to leave the indoor swimming pool, hot tub, Jacuzzi, sauna, game room and indoor putting green located in the lobby and search again, but to no avail.
On the way home, we decided to stop at that nice hotel in Fredericksburg again. You know the one with the indoor swimming pool, hot tub, Jacuzzi, sauna, game room and indoor putting green located in the lobby! Once inside the Holiday Inn “Holidome”, we agreed, it was such a beautiful facility that we needed to find a way to make the Blue & Gray show work in this hotel. As a result of our discussions, the concept of a “Dealer Room” was born. We needed to convince the larger collectors and dealers who normally need 3 or 4 table to stay in their rooms for the weekend. Then we might be able to fit enough tables on the four terraces located around the lobby to accommodate the other collectors. The dealer rooms were ideally located since their large windowed rooms and the doors opened directly to these terraces. The concept worked and the rest, as they say, is history.
The first show in this new location was held on February 27, 1988. This date was a few weeks later than normal due to late arrangements with the hotel and late notification to collectors. Never the less, the new location and trade floor concept was extremely well received by everyone. In fact, collectors loved the new location! The subsequent Richbrau Newsletter issued a “heart-felt thank you to the Sheraton for kicking us out”.
The “Friday Night Fights” legend began at the 1988 show. There is a bar in the hotel that doubles as a hot Fredericksburg nightspot. Late one evening, two or three locals came bursting out of the bar ready to fight each other. One of the girlfriends yelled, “Don’t hit him Bubba”! Bubba was about 6’ 5” tall and weighed over 300 pounds. Several collectors yelled back, from the terraces overlooking the scene, “Hit Him Bubba, Hit Him”. Finally, a Rent-A-Cop came to the rescue and threw them all out of the hotel.
The “World Series of Poker” also began at that first Holiday Inn show. That first game began rather innocently with a few players gathered around a single table. In the following years, you could always find at least one or two tables with poker players in a smoke filled room after midnight. In recent years, there are usually two or three tables being played with dozens of players moving in and out. Many a participant has missed the next day’s trade session due to an all night poker game. Over the years, these Blue & Gray poker games have become legendary.
In 1989, Gary Heurich was invited to the show as a guest speaker. The craft brewing industry was in its infancy. Gary had recently formed his brewery and began brewing Heurich Lager. Prior to Gary’s speech, Ray Johnson and a few others took Gary out for dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. In addition to dinner, we managed to consume several large cocktails with the cute little umbrellas on the top. Needless to say, when we returned to the show, none of us were feeling any pain. In spite of our condition, Gary gave a very eloquent speech on the brewing industry and his brewery. At the end, he offered a few cases of cold Heurich Lager to the audience, a lager never tasted so good!
The banquet tradition was renewed in the early 1990’s and has been an annual event every year since. This was a great opportunity for collectors to gather socially on Saturday night for a good meal and good company. Ray would give a nice speech recapping the show, recognizing special guests and thanking show helpers. A guest speaker, usually from a craft brewery, has become a banquet tradition. After speaking, the guest normally offers a keg of a special beer or ale to the audience.
From 1990 to 1995, show attendance increased steadily every year. Positive word of mouth began to spread across the country. The Blue & Gray show became synonymous with rare cans, unbelievable brewerania, great beer, and good times. Many collectors began flying in from California, Colorado, Texas and other states to attend the show. In 1988 we booked about 35 rooms and by 1993 that number was well over 100 rooms. Trade tables were sold out each year and collectors began to set up in the hotel lobby on furniture, the floor or anywhere else they could find.
There was a noticeable trend towards Breweriana during this time. Slowly but surely, more brewery collectibles were being displayed at the show. Beer cans were still the primary focus but the trend was clearly shifting. The list of quality beer cans and breweriana that surfaced at the Blue & Gray is legendary. On the beer can side: Krueger’s Bock, Trumps Ale, Cab Cream Ale, Senate Bocks (red & green versions), Senate Ales (red & yellow versions), Gunther’s Beer Instructional, Rare 12oz and Quart Cones just to name a few. The Brewery Collectible list includes: rare Reverse On Glass Signs, Tin Signs, Oval Trays, Lithographs, Calendars and other Breweriana that is too numerous to list individually. The fact that everyone in attendance is able to add quality items to their collections each year is a significant draw for the show.
The high quality of items began to attract “Early Birds” to the Show. Collectors began to arrive “unofficially” on Thursday night for room-to-room trading. Room to room would continue on Friday and the trade floor would be set up for Saturday and Sunday. The hospitality room was also open on Thursday. The trend towards craft beers and ales was exploding and so was consumption at the Blue & Gray. In 1988 there were 3 kegs, in the mid 1990’s there were about 20 and in 2009 there were at least 45 kegs. In addition, the show has grown to the point where collectors now occupy the entire hotel, and the surrounding hotels within walking distance. The estimated number in attendance last year was over 800 collectors and guests. This rivals even CANvention in scope and intensity. The diversity and quality of the beers offered is unparalleled; thanks to Ray calling collectors from around the country to bring in specialty beers from their area.
Pizza Night became a tradition in the early 1990’s. That first time, we decided to order about 10 pies as a surprise bonus for the attendee’s because we were finally a few dollars in the black. The gesture was extremely well received and appreciated by all the collectors. As a result, Pizza Night has become an annual event at the Blue & Gray. What started out as a 10-pie surprise has grown into a monster event of over 100 pizzas in order to feed the mass of attendees on Friday night. Estimates were around 600 collectors and guests that imbibed on pizza last year.
The BCCA’s support of the Blue & Gray has continued throughout the years. BCCA Presidents, past Presidents and Board Members continue to regularly attend the Show. In addition to those previously mentioned, the President’s list includes: Chuck Schwend, Bruce Gregg, Don & Tobi Hicks, Jerry Trowbridge, Art Zerby, Rusty Wyar, Jack Isacson, Jerry Glader, Jerry Gann, Jr., Ken Flemmons, Bob Campbell and Alan Paschedag. That’s an impressive list and each President spoke at the banquet and was accessible to the membership. In 2003, Alan Paschedag, held a BCCA Board Meeting at the Blue & Gray which offered an excellent opportunity for collectors to see the BCCA in action. Today the BCCA Board meeting is regularly scheduled event.
During the mid to late 1990’s, attendance continued to grow. Collectors continued to make special arrangements to be sure they were able to attend the Blue & Gray. It was during this period that the Show was able to book all 202 rooms in the Holiday Inn. In fact, the overflow crowd was beginning to stay at other area hotels. The early bird trend continued with some collectors arriving as early as Tuesday. Managing the Show became more demanding and a core group of Show Helpers emerged.
Robert and Ann Fondren would coordinate the morning doughnuts, which now numbered over 1000. Charlie and Ann Bacon were handling flyers, mailings and registrations. Jon Fisher became Hospitality Room Coordinator (aka the guy in charge of keeping the beer on tap). A number of other Capitol City and Richbrau Chapter members also contributed by running registration tables, assisting with set up, coordinating raffles and helping Ray as needed. Of course, Kathy Johnson, Ray’s wife has always been very supportive. Somehow, along the way they found time to add Charlie and Matthew to the family and they too have been regular attendees.
In 2000, the hotel owners changed their franchise agreement and name from Holiday Inn to Ramada. Fortunately, the hotel ownership and management did not change and the Blue Gray contract did not change either. Ray has an outstanding relationship with hotel management, which ensures our return each year. As Ray will tell you, “every year, is the first year, of our new 5 year contract”.
Blue & Gray success continued to grow over the last decade. Ray Johnson has finally entered the computer age, and traded in his yellow legal pads for an excel spreadsheet to track room assignments. The show’s continued growth was a bit surprising considering the hotel has been sold out and filled exclusively with collectors for many years. What started as a weekend overnight show has developed into “Blue & Gray Week” as because many collectors now arrive on Tuesday and stay through the Banquet on Saturday night before departing on Sunday. The trade floor now consumes the entire lobby of the hotel in addition to the original terraces. Tables are actually butted up against the hotel’s front desk leaving only a very narrow path. The trade floor is absolutely packed for at least three days and the room-to-room action is outstanding. It’s quite a scene, which every collector needs to experience at least once in his or her lifetime!
Well, I guess that brings us to the upcoming show. The 30th Anniversary of the Blue & Gray has now passed and we move into the next decade. It’s hard to believe that it’s been (over) 30 years since that first show in a drafty Howard Johnson’s. It’s impossible to measure the friendships, collectibles and good times. Whether you are a regular at the Show, maybe have not attended the Show in a few years or have never attended the Blue & Gray, I encourage each of you to be in Fredericksburg, Virginia Presidents Day Weekend. If you make the effort to attend, be sure to make your reservations early. It’s guaranteed that you will not be disappointed. See you next year!