Button King Museum
Bishopville, South Carolina
Dalton Stevens wouldn't be the Button King if he'd been able to watch television all night.
When Dalton was 53 years old -- he's now in his 80s -- he developed chronic insomnia. "Television went off at two in the mornin' back then," he recalled. "No more TV. I didn't have nothin' to do." To pass the time, Dalton found an old denim jumpsuit and started sewing buttons on it. He kept sewing for almost three years. He still couldn't get to sleep, but he had a jumpsuit covered with 16,333 buttons.
The suit, and all of his other button-covered items that followed, are now displayed in the Button King Museum. Dalton opened it in 2008 in a building (built by his children) next to his home.
After running out of room for buttons on the suit, Dalton discovered the allure of contact cement. He glued 517 buttons on his shoes, then 3,005 on his guitar. Next he covered a banjo, then a piano, then his 1983 Chevy Chevette (150,000 buttons). Insomnia became an asset. "I wouldn't quit. I wouldn't stop," he said. "I'd go four and five days and never go to bed."
Dalton's extreme lack of sleep and 24/7 television eventually brought television to him. As the Button Man, and later the Button King, he appeared on Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Geraldo, Regis & Kathy Lee, and countless other shows (Dalton sells a DVD compilation). He'd wear a button outfit, strap on his banjo, and sing one of his self-penned button songs:
I sew buttons, I don't chug-a-lug
Smoke the weed or do no drugs
Buttons on my suit, banjo, and guitar
My wife got upset when I started on my car
Dalton cheerfully strums and sings for anyone who visits his museum. (His wife of 53 years passed away in 2008.)
Dalton regards his original button suit as his masterpiece, but we were wowed by his hearse, which he's covered with 600,000 buttons. It was donated by a funeral home in town. So was the second of his two button coffins (Dalton damaged the first when he accidentally locked himself in it one night, trying to take a nap). He expects to be buried in the second coffin; the first will remain in the museum as proof of his coffin-enhancing skill. He'll probably be driven to the cemetery in the button hearse.
Dalton has no rival Button Kings, and seems to be friends with everybody. One of his pals is topiary folk artist Pearl Fryar, whose hedge-art yard is only a few miles down the road. "Pearl ain't like me," Dalton said, smiling. "I don't have to do nothin' here but sweep the floor now and then. He's got to cut all the time."
The Button King's big projects -- such as his button outhouse and toilet -- are completed. He's content to enjoy his retirement and entertain people who stop by the museum, and there's a chance that he'll be there whenever you visit, since he's still awake most of the time. "It just give me somethin' to do," he said of the buttons.
"I'm proud of it, and it was perfect for me, kinda like it was meant to be," Dalton said. "But if I didn't have a reason for doing it, yeah, I'd think it was strange."