Wheel Collection Goes on Tour

Indiana man builds wheel collection from lowly relics.

An Old Wheel

This wheel (one of a pair) gets more attention than any other on the trailer — but Denis Schrank doesn’t know its purpose. It is 24 inches tall and 4 inches wide. The axle would be 1-3/8-inch and it has a cotter pin in the end of the hub to prevent the axle from turning. “It would have had a bearing on the axle under the frame,” Denis says. Traces of Army green paint are visible, he says, making him wonder if the wheels were used for a smoother ride on an ammunition wagon. 

Photo By Bob Crowell

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By itself, a wheel is little more than a curiosity. Add an axle, and it becomes a simple machine. The latter point is the foundation of technology. And the former? Well, the former is what captivates Denis Schrank, a collector of wheels.

For more than 30 years, Denis has gathered up sheer tonnage of wheels. Iron, wood, aluminum, steel, brass, stone, spoked, solid, handmade, machined, big, small: There is but one criteria. “They’ve got to be different,” he says. “I don’t have any run-of-the-mill wheels.”

For the sake of accuracy, it should be noted that this collection is not limited to vehicle wheels. The word wheel covers broad territory, including not only wheels that travel over the ground but also steering wheels, spinning wheels, potter’s wheels and water wheels — and Denis’ collection seems to regard that definition as a starting point.

Constantly evolving

A serious collector of antique tractors since 1974, Denis was at a Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. swap meet some 30 years ago when two wooden wheels caught his eye. “They may have been for a pulley,” he says. “Each was 42 inches by 4 inches and they had the prettiest wooden spokes that had been turned on a lathe. So I bought them; I didn’t pay much for them.”

Then, as is ever the case, “more showed up.” Three decades later, a 24-foot row of wheels lines an exterior garage wall. Another building nearby sports a 44-foot row. “I enjoy seeing the wheels along the buildings,” Denis admits. Practicalities prevent display of the entire collection, which is just as well, as it is constantly evolving. “Just this weekend I picked up four wheels,” he says. “Some people add to the pile and some subtract, but I never charge.”

Among his collection Denis also counts 28 tractors, two International Harvester trucks and, he says deliberately, “lots of old farm equipment. And my wife said lots.” In fact, his wife, Pat, is supportive of his hobby. “The nice thing about my hobby is having a wife who’s involved in it,” he says. “If I think I need something, she says ‘go get it.’”

Hitting the road

Five years ago, Denis decided to take at least part of his collection on the road. “My nephew needed a woodworking project,” he says, “and I had all these wheels laying around with no nice place to display them.” The result: an A-frame trailer display with wheels covering both sides and space inside to hold two of the “up-and-down” bicycles he collects.

The display showcases more than 200 wheels of all types, about half of the total collection. There are wheel-shaped handles from water valves. A seed plate from a potato planter. An emery stone. A propeller from a grain dryer fan. A rotary hoe. A wheel from a clod buster. A gear from a horse power. A steering wheel from a boat. The head from an old mallet found when Denis bought his farm in 1966. A cistern chain drive. A gear from a 5-gallon ice cream freezer. (“We make a lot of homemade ice cream here.”) A wooden wheel said to have been on a circus wagon. A big brass gear from a Fordson tractor and another from an Emerson-Brantingham steam engine. A wheel from a stone crusher. A blacksmith-made wheel once used on a wheelbarrow.

Denis takes the display to shows two or three times a year. He doesn’t stray far once it’s set up. “People have a lot of questions,” he says. “Wheels all work the same, but it’s just amazing how different each one is.” FC  

Know anything about the wheel shown in the image gallery? Contact Denis Schrank, 21097 Hickory Rd., Batesville, IN 47006; phone (812) 934-3696. 

Leslie McManus is the editor of Farm Collector. Contact her at Lmcmanus@ogdenpubs.com.

Learn more about wheels in The Invention of the Wheel. See another of Denis' hobbies in Students Learn Traditional Farm Life Practices.