DENVER - The Girl Scouts have never been what you'd call an underground movement. But the world's largest display of their memorabilia is tucked into the basement of one home in Denver. Carol and Ernie Altvater's collection, with its estimated 8,000-11,000 items, is open for tours by Girl Scout troops. The basement of their home, a converted duplex, is packed with display cases and drawers of meticulously labeled items from all 100 years of Girl Scouts history.
"When you collect things and just have them... it's boring," Ernie said.
"It's addictive," Carol added. "We travel all around the country looking for this stuff."
The collection is large to the point of defying any attempt to summarize its contents. Visitors are greeted by a line of several dozen mannequins wearing a plethora of Girl Scouts uniforms from the last century.
It becomes immediately clear that the Girl Scouts of yesteryear had a knack for branding, and not just cookies. The original Girl Scouts cookie boxes are displayed, but so are Girl Scouts cameras, coin purses and compasses.
The Altvaters, retirees who moved to Denver from California last year, have an infectious enthusiasm for the organization they say changed their daughter's lives.
"I saw what it did for my daughters. I saw how much they enjoyed it," Ernie said. "I knew it was a worthwhile, beneficial program."
Neither Carol nor Ernie were Girl Scouts growing up. Carol's mother didn't want her to participate and Ernie was ruled out for reasons more physiological than philosophical.
When Carol's daughters showed an interest, she was more than willing.
"I got to do all the fun stuff I missed as a kid, only I got to do it as a leader," Carol said. "Our daughters are grown now and gone off to other things, and I'm still a Girl Scout!"
The amount of time you spent talking about Girl Scouts with Carol and Ernie is entirely determined by how much time you have.
"It's always been about what the girls want," Carol said. "From the very beginning, the program has evolved. It was never meant to stay the same."
Proof is seen in the long sleeves, high socks and bloomers of the 1920s designed to cover nearly every square inch of Girl Scouts and in their original salute, long since abandoned, which rose with the flag as it ascended the flagpole, and now looks eerily reminiscent of 1940s Germany.
The old-style salute is more likely to draw gasps and head-shaking from troop leaders than the girls. Like on a recent afternoon, when Troop 2198 from Littleton spent 90 minutes exploring, playing and laughing in the Altvater basement before leaving the guest book filled with phrases like: "awesome", "cool", "really cool" and "you rock!"
Carol and Ernie guided the girls through a well-practiced routine, showcasing the most interesting and odd items, seamlessly walking them through 100 years of Girl Scout history.
The collection began about 25 years ago with a single item, a red and green plaid plastic grooming kit, from an antique store in Pomona, California.
Their local chapter of Girl Scouts planned to create a museum. The museum never happened, but the Altvaters, avid collectors already, were hooked.
The Alvaters say the only larger collection belongs to Girl Scouts USA, which doesn't display as many items at any given time,
The collection moved with the Altvaters from California to Colorado and word is spreading among Denver-metro troops.
"People don't always believe what they hear," Ernie said. "They expect to find a few shelves in a basement."
The Altvaters don't charge admission and discourage donations of money or items, instead encouraging Girl Scouts and troops to hold onto and preserve their own memorabilia.