What is the difference between collecting and hoarding?

There's a lively discussion on the Internet right now on the subject as all the reality television shows draw embarrassing attention to people who accumulate so much material that it overflows into the sight of the neighbors and someone raises an alarm.

The difference, one Web site says, is this. While hoarders may want to be left alone, collectors are often eager to carry on a lively discussion of the items they have accumulated.

I get that. And here's a good example.

I met a collector of the first water a couple of weeks ago. He said some people call him a hoarder and I could see why. His collection is a dusty, unorganized hodgepodge of books, framed pictures, papers, furniture, carvings, light standards, and signs that fill the cavernous high-ceilinged storage room of Slater, Mo., city hall and encroach into the foyer and the office of the collector.

"People bring me this stuff," Russell "Gene" Griffith, city clerk and assistant city manager, said. "They know I'll take anything."

You can only call him Gene if you were born in Slater, Robin Venable, the city hall receptionist told me, but after about 15 minutes of conversation I decided to take the liberty.

He's not kidding about the variety of old things he will accept. One of the items in his collection was a highway sign brought to him after someone shot some bullet holes in it - taking exception, he supposed, to the sign's message, "Hometown of Steve McQueen."

Mayor Stephen K. Allegri doesn't like the collection. He calls it junk, says it doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense - especially at city hall - and wishes that if Gene is unwilling to discard it, he would at least organize it.

But I have to tell you . . . I was quite taken by it. Gene led my husband Bob and me through a series of cluttered aisles around and among his collection in the huge storage room.

He pushed things out of the way to open small closets and reached high to the top of cabinets to pulled down artifacts he thought we ought to see to really understand the collection. He unfurled banners and unfolded portfolios. A constant flow of information and self-mocking banter accompanies this tour. He's an easy talker, who sees it all as a huge joke on himself.

There was a lot of Steve McQueen stuff. Even the city council meeting chamber has glass cases of McQueen photos and memorabilia. There are framed playbills of most, maybe all, of his movies, autographed pictures and shots of the documentary someone did on McQueen, including his years in Slater. He visited the town for that. Even the mayor's office, which is neat and polished, has pictures of McQueen.

In Gene's office, which is polished but not neat, there are boxes on every surface, stacks of old sepia tone photographs, 18 inches high. I'm not exaggerating. There are family albums and piles of family correspondence.

But strung along this stream of everyman's mess, like line shacks on a steam train milk run, there was a theme that kept inserting itself. Slater was a railroad town, much like Pacific, only a little larger than Pacific in its steam train days.

Slater is located about halfway between Alton, Ill., and Kansas City north of the Missouri River at Booneville. On the way to Slater, Bob and I had breakfast at the River View restaurant in Boonville, a nondescript eatery with the best home cooking I've experienced since Kelley's Café in Pacific closed.

The Chicago & Alton Railroad created the town in 1870, built a depot and lake to hold water for the steam trains.

The railroad also built a nine-bay roundhouse that employed more than a thousand men to rebuild and repair steam engines. The population grew to 6,000 residents who could buy astonishing assortment goods in the businesses that grew up near the railroad depot. Approximately 40 trains a day stopped there for water.

I developed an interest in Slater while I was working on the book I just finished on the 1922 Railroad Shopmen's Strike that ended with the Missouri Pacific shops being moved out of Pacific taking with it the jobs and Friday paydays.

Although I didn't uncover any reported violence in Pacific in the strike, Slater had immediate trouble as the townspeople tried to prevent nonunion hires from entering the railroad shops there. Missouri National Guard troops took over operations of the city and the entire force was mobilized ready to go to any city that had similar problems.

The Chicago & Alton shops reopened in Slater after the strike. A 1926 photo in Gene's collection, shows the roundhouse with smoke wafting from chimneys, a grain elevator, nine or 10 sets of tracks and more than 25 freight cars stacked along the tracks.

Gene also has pictures and reports of a 1929 train wreck near Harmony Lake, east of Slater where 20 cars derailed, and an explosion caused a fire that could be seen all the way to Franklin - the Missouri River town that predated Pacific and was the cause that our rural community, originally known as Franklin, needed a new name to establish a post office. Pacific was chosen in honor of the newly arrived Pacific Railroad.

When diesel engines came along and the steam trains didn't need to stop at Slater for water any more, the town turned the railroad lake into a country club, which I thought was pretty clever. It's still in use today, but not as a country club. It's a popular local fishing lake.

Because this is big grain country, freight trains still stop here. The town has an imposing, but old, two-story brick railroad terminal that's a block long. It stands at the end of Main Street. It has seen better days. The street level floor is largely unoccupied and the railroad uses the second floor as its freight office.

Gene has tried to get the railroad to give, or sell, the terminal to the city to be used as a museum. He thinks he could fill it and I believe him. Someone gave Gene the original architect's drawings for the depot. He unrolled the heavy architect's paper, aged to an artistic yellow, with blue lines delineating the floors, walls and windows. If he ever gets the terminal for a museum, he plans to frame the renderings as art - which I think they are.

The Chicago & Alton, sold the railroad to the Burlington, Northern, Santa Fe, which later sold it to the Union Pacific and it became part of the Kansas City Southern, which still provides freight service to Slater but doesn't need all the space in the big terminal.

Gene has written a book about all this, titled "The History of Slater, Missouri," which has tons of railroad photographs.

There are plenty of parallels to Pacific: a fire district that serves a large rural area, a two-story 1800s brick schoolhouse, train wrecks piled on top of train wrecks, and floods of the Missouri River, which in 1951 breached the railroad levee and inundated the town.

Slater calls itself the City of Festivals. They have a Steve McQueen festival, as you might guess, a citywide garage sale, a Simply Plastic Airplane Design (SPAD), fly in, a blues festival, an antique tractor pull, a model airplane show, the Slater Fall Festival, a Halloween parade, Christmas lighting ceremony and a Winterfest. Dates and whatnot about the festivals can be found on their Web site, HYPERLINK "http://www.cityofslater.com" www.cityofslater.com.

So, if you like Steve McQueen, over-burgeoning collections of paraphernalia or erstwhile railroad boomtowns, Slater is a two-hour drive from Pacific. I'm confident you'd be allowed to view the city clerk Griffith's collection, but don't call him Gene until you have permission.

Pauline Masson can be reached at 314-805-9800 or paulinemasson@att.net.