American Eagle Antique Mall is tastefully packed with nice dishware, period pieces and vintage jewelry and clothing, but there's one item you can't take home at any price: The Alligator Wrestling Pit sign. Thaila Stilson noticed the 18-foot Seminole cypress sign in a Plant City cow pasture more than a decade ago. "The farmer said I could have it if I could haul it," said Stilson, a 4-foot-10 dynamo. "So I trudged a quarter mile through red ants.
"It was the first item in our shop, and to this day it's not for sale," she said. "It's my pride and joy."
Stilson, 63, brings muscle and fire to the light-ladies-luncheon world of Dade City antiques. She got into the business in the late 1990s with her husband, Rich "Doc" Stilson, who was the lead guitarist of the band Monster, an opening act for Vanilla Fudge back when psychedelic rock was the rage. She brought with her the business acumen of managing a nightclub, helping organize festivals and opening an art gallery in the San Francisco area.
Ready to take risks
How did she go from rock 'n' roll to antiques?
One thing led to another, she explained, and "no one was more ready to take risks than me."
Before coming to Florida, Silton managed 19 Broadway, an iconic San Francisco nightclub known for featuring live music every night. Garry Graham, the co-owner of the club, credits Stilson's heart and grit with putting 19 Broadway on the right track.
"She helped book the bands and increase the reputation of the club," he said.
Stilson also rolled up her sleeves with the Fairfax (Calif.) Chamber of Commerce, helping organize a jazz festival and a "Brewfest," Graham said.
Along the way, she helped friends sell their antiques. And she ventured into the art world, starting a small gallery with pieces she transported across the country in her beat-up Toyota.
"We transported valuable art under dirty laundry in the back seat," she recalled.
But it was a fateful encounter at her high school reunion that brought Stilson to Florida.
She and her husband had divorced years ago, under the strain of his touring schedule. When they came face to face at their 30th high school reunion in Indiana, Rich Stilson had a proposition.
"The first words out of Rich's mouth were 'So? Are you ready to move to Florida with me?' " she said. "The band's booking agency had brought them to Tampa. After driving around the area, Rich found Dade City, the spot he wanted."
The couple remarried got their start in antiques operating Remember When Antiques. In time, they expanded into four more Dade City retail spaces.
Then in 2009, Rich Stilson, the whistle-a-happy-tune strong man, passed away.
"I used to be more active with the city and I'm still friends with everybody," Thaila Stilson said. "But ever since Rich died ... I've just concentrated on making my visitors happy."
With help from her landlord, Otto Weitzenkorn, Stilson launched the American Eagle Antiques Mall at Seventh Street and Live Oak Avenue, which includes merchandise from 13 other dealers and consignors.
Objects of interest
"I had parted the Red Sea by moving north of Meridian," she said. "How's business? Ever since Mallie Kyla's (a popular Dade City lunch spot) moved into our space, you might see a tour bus or two in our parking lot."
Stilson describes her inventory as objects of interest, "not stuff from the big box stores."
"With the Dade City culture of hand me downs, some impressive stuff comes and goes," she said.
American Eagle also sells goods from dealers outside the area. They include Philip Blum whiskey bottles, selections from Lighthouse Books in St. Petersburg, auction artifacts from Burchard Galleries in St. Petersburg, and affordable jewelry from Pam Lewis.
Her wares will be available at this weekend's Dade City Antique Faire, an event expected to draw 3,000 shoppers looking for rare and unique items.
Crystal Davenport, executive director of Dade City Downtown Main Street, is grateful to Stilson for her knowledge and ability to attract outside dealers.
"She turned me on to the right periodicals," Davenport said. "That is how I was educated about our town's top industry."