‘Other’ Sheets built collections from lifetime of seeing the world

Brenda Knepper stands with some of the carved ivory collected by her late aunt, Cosette Sheets. The collection is on temporary exhibit at the Sheets Wildlife Museum, where wildlife taken by Sheets’ brother, Sumner Sheets, is showcased.
Brenda Knepper stands with some of the carved ivory collected by her late aunt, Cosette Sheets. The collection is on temporary exhibit at the Sheets Wildlife Museum, where wildlife taken by Sheets’ brother, Sumner Sheets, is showcased. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Cosette Sheets wasted no time getting off the farm.
"She wanted to see the world," says her niece, Brenda Knepper.

And see the world she did. Sheets visited all seven continents, meticulously documenting each journey - dates and miles traveled, highlights of the trip and details of the items she brought back with her.

She filled her home with mementoes of those travels, but never once did a shot glass labeled "Niagara Falls" cross her threshold.

"She bought nice, quality things," says Knepper, of Roanoke, who found herself in charge of her aunt's collections after Sheets' death last month.

She has offered to display one of the collections, a group of carvings made of African ivory, at the Sheets Wildlife Museum. The Huntington museum was built to showcase wildlife taken by Sumner Sheets, Knepper's father and Cosette Sheets' brother, during his travels around the world.

Both Cosette and Sumner grew up on a Huntington County farm, but Cosette knew she wasn't cut out for farm living.

"She moved to Fort Wayne in the early 1940s, as soon as she got out of high school," Knepper says. "She could see there was no future on the farm. She hated bugs, she hated to get her hands dirty, and she liked to wear skirts."

Sheets studied at International Business College and worked in the secretarial field all her life, Knepper says. With no husband and no children, her schedule was free for travel - sometimes with friends, sometimes with family.

"She worked hard; she saved her money so she could do all that," Knepper says. "She lived very frugally and just traveled."

Sheets generally took an overseas trip every other year.
Other times, Knepper says, "she would get in her car and put thousands of miles on it with her friends."

The last trip she recorded was in 1991, a 7,800-mile jaunt through the American northwest and Canadian southwest, retracing a trip she had taken in 1948 with family.

During her travels, she collected.

Her journal records her first purchase - a vase, acquired in 1940 in the Smoky Mountains for 67 cents.

"She developed a taste for the rare and unique early on," Knepper says. "Her goal was to bring back one nice item from each trip."

She also took photographs on her trips, framing the photos and displaying them along with the collections.
Several of those photos are also on display at the Sheets Museum, including a picture of a herd of giraffes.

The giraffe photo was taken during a 1958 trip to Africa with her mother and a friend.

"She hung out the door of a biplane as it buzzed a herd of giraffes to get that picture," Knepper says.

The collections were displayed in bookcases, curio cabinets and one the fireplace mantel of her two-bedroom condo. Her Haviland china and Waterford crystal goblets frequently graced her table.

"She used them. She would eat off that stuff," Knepper says. "She said, ‘What's the point in having it if you don't use it?'"

In 1992, Sheets documented all of her collections in word sand pictures "just in case she ever lost her mind, which she didn't," Knepper says. Sheets was 89 when she died and, her niece says, "had lived a very full life."

After Sheets died on March 22, Knepper was named executrix of her will, with instructions to keep what she wanted and to invite four specific groups of friends to Sheets' condo to take mementoes of her life.

Knepper says she plans to keep the ivory collection, but will first put it on display at the museum.

The museum display includes ivory carvings and several non-ivory items including a decorated ostrich egg and carvings in white onyx and soapstone. All of the carvings are made from legal ivory, she says, and not "blood ivory" - tusks taken from elephants killed by poachers.

Sheets made purchases of carved ivory in Africa, Haiti, Hong Kong, Egypt and other locations. Several pieces, she notes in her journal, were purchased from an Eskimo who was carving on a beach in Alaska on the Bering Sea.
The ivory will remain on display until June or July, Knepper says.