BENTON HARBOR — Darlene and Heinz Damaske spent many weekends driving to antique shows for one reason.

Finding that one type of BB gun made by the Upton Machine Co.

Heinz Damaske, who succumbed to cancer years ago, had worked at Whirlpool Corp. for nearly 40 years. Heinz had always heard that Upton Machine, the name of the appliance maker before it took the Whirlpool name, made one type of BB gun in the early 20th Century.

“As he was nearing retirement he decided to find an Upton BB gun, as a memento for all the years he worked there,” Darlene Damaske said.

The couple began searching in the early 1990s before coming across that BB gun. This came through diligent trips to antique shows in states as close as Indiana to as far as Arkansas. Damaske recalled how her husband would scour the four antique papers that were sent to their house.

But that BB gun was just the beginning for their Upton toy collection.

Their years and dedication led to Damaske providing some of their finds to the Morton House Museum for a special showing this summer. Everything from air rifles to a horseshoe set has been on display since June and will continue to be until the end of October. On Wednesday, Damaske spoke in front of a room full of Whirlpool employees who spent an afternoon at the Morton Museum, learning about the company’s roots.

Denise Reeves, Morton’s board president, told those in attendance how lucky they were to get such a showing.

“We were approached with doing this exhibit and were excited at the opportunity to do so,” Reeves said. “All the research had been done for us, which is something that does not happen.”

Damaske broke down the early history of Upton Machine Co. and how it struggled in the beginning. Upton Machine bought American Tool Works – which made Sterling air rifles – as a way to get revenue after a competitor began making similar appliances.

In 1915, Damaske said, the Benton Harbor company was only making $18,000 per year from washing machine sales. In contrast, the company took in $62,000 from air rifle sales.

The Damaskes’ search for the lone BB gun would have ended, but Darlene decided to ask a friend, who frequently visited the U.S. Library of Congress, to send them advertisements dating to 1914 – the year the Upton BB gun was patented.

Upon flipping through several ads she was sent, which stretched from 1913 to 1927, Damaske discovered an ad that showed 10 different kinds of Upton BB guns.

Through this discovery, they continued their treks though antique shows and spent time online until they had accumulated one set of every Upton air rifle. The Damaskes were a great team, with Heinz looking over every booth and Darlene handling the paperwork.

Among the hardest finds was a junior pump gun that shot half-inch wooden balls. Damaske said they had to buy the entire collection to get that pump gun. Those wooden balls would be the last item the couple found together.

“We found those (wooden balls) on 11/11/2010. That was two weeks before they diagnosed my husband with stage four cancer,” she said. “That date is significant because the Upton Company was founded on 11/11/1911.”

Her favorite item among all the toys they collected is the dining room set because it was the only item marketed toward girls. Everything else was boy-oriented.

Including all the advertisements and patents, there are about 150 items on display at the museum.

As for why she decided to lend her collectibles to the house known for showcasing local history, Damaske wanted other people to feel what she experienced all those years alongside her husband.

“It’s something that should come back to the community,” she said. “It’s something that hardly anyone knows about or has seen. No one knew (Upton Machine) made horseshoe games or had dining room sets. That’s a local, historical significance that should be known.”

Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski