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It all started with a few pepper mills on a windowsill.

Andrea Ludden, 37, says her mother's collection of salt and pepper shakers eventually grew so large that at one point her family had 2,000 sets boxed underneath their house in Texas.

"Finally my dad just said, 'This is enough,' " Ludden said. "He said, 'You've got to do something with this.' And she said, 'Let's open a museum.' "

The family moved to Tennessee, and in 2002, they opened the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum. The collection started with 12,000 salt and pepper shaker sets and now boasts more than 20,000 pairs. The museum is nestled near the downtown strip in Gatlinburg, gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee.

Ludden is the museum's curator, but she credits her mother with seeing the potential in all those salt and pepper shakers.

"She started to realize that you can see the way a civilization changes over time through these household items that are common, but they're in such an amazing variety," Ludden said.

A welcome sign at the museum says it all: "Inside you will see an amazing variety of salt and pepper shakers from the smallest to the largest, made from anything and everything you can imagine. Including sea shells, light bulbs, gourds, eggs, antlers, walnut shells, bone, plastic, grass, stone, gold, silver, aluminum."

The shakers are displayed behind glass, 10 shelves high, and meticulously organized, labeled by sections such as "bears" or "pigs," then sorted by color. Red radishes and purple eggplants sit in the same window as roly-poly chefs and lobster claws.

An identical pair of nuns smile from behind folded hands and pink cheeks. There are a pair of red bulls from Spain, peacocks from India and gondolas from Italy.

There are jokes, too. One pair of red toilets have "S" and "P" on the opened seats.

All the walls surrounding the display windows are black to keep visitors focused on the salt and pepper shakers -- except for one wall where the history of Morton Salt is tacked between showcases.

Ludden says her whole family -- including her mom, also named Andrea, her dad, Rolf, and brother, Alex -- continues to add to the collection, hunting for shaker sets in antiques shops and malls.

The family ended up with so many salt and pepper sets that eventually the museum ran out of space to display them, so they opened a second museum in Guadalest, Spain, outside the coastal resort city of Benidorm in the Valencia province.

"It's not until you go into a museum like this that it dawns on you that, 'Oh my gosh, they really do come in so many different colors and sizes and different materials,' " Ludden said.

Suzanne Benson, 54, an insurance company consultant from St. Paul, Minn., visited the museum one afternoon in May while on vacation with her family. She said she has her own collection of between 100 and 150 shakers at home, some from her grandmother.

"You just don't see fun ones like this anymore," Benson said. "I've actually seen some of the ones I collected in here."

Over the last eight years, Ludden estimates the museum has had more than 100,000 visitors.

"They talk about, 'Oh I remember when,' and then you go down memory lane with your family," Ludden said. "We'll have people crying, they'll be so emotional about a memory that occurred to them."

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If You Go:

The Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum, 461 Brookside Village Way at the Winery Square, Gatlinburg, Tenn.; online at thesaltandpeppershakermuseum.com; (888) 778-1802 or (865) 430-5515. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily with occasional winter closures.