Arthur Spanjar is a student of history. But the rural Wisconsin man doesn’t spend his time poring over dusty tomes in a quiet library. Instead, his study focuses on objects, artifacts, antiquities, farm collectibles.
“What intrigues me is the history of all this,” he said. “I’m interested in how the people lived, how they worked, what makes them tick, what they did and how they did it.”
Arthur has surrounded himself with pieces of that puzzle. The past is his present: look no further than his living room, where a gleaming 1925 Mathis boat-tail speedster (complete with a fold-down windshield) is parked. In any other home, the car would be wildly out of place. But in Arthur’s world, the car – accented by, among other things, a houseplant – is as natural an element as a coffee table would be at Martha Stewart’s.
“It makes a nice planter,” he said wryly.
The pieces in his collection are diverse and unique. They speak for themselves, without the embellishment of restoration. “I like it natural,” he said. “I like it true. I want to keep the character. If you see an old toy, you see the dents, the wear and tear, the paint is gone … you can see the children playing with it … you can see their shoes, their jackets. If you restore it, there’s no history anymore. It’s all torn away.”
“If it’s mechanical, you want to bring it back to being functional,” he said. But the restoration should stop there.
“Some of these people, they want to make Christmas trees (of collectibles). But those things, they never looked like that. When an engine was manufactured, it was not polished. They just smoothed down the rough edges, and put a name-plate on it. To ‘restore’ it – well, to me, that takes away from it, because the character of the piece is gone. You do more damage when you refinish it. Its own world is gone then; dead. It doesn’t live anymore.”
It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Pieces in Arthur’s collection do bring the past alive. Take his air gas plant. Built in 1886 in Germany, it was designed to produce fuel for a household’s interior gaslights. It is easy to picture a servant using the apparatus each day to prepare a home for nightfall. But the engine, which produced a mixture of air and vaporized petroleum ether, was not produced for the masses.
“It would only have been possible for the wealthy,” Arthur said. “This piece is very, very extremely rare.”
Then there is his Henrici hot air engine. Dating to the late 1800s, the engine stands less than a foot tall. Cast mostly in bronze, it was used to power calliopes, or pump water in decorative fountains.
Arthur sees himself as a sort of caretaker, protecting treasures of the past for another generation.
“We are storing these things for a short time,” he said. “We are not the owners of any of it. We can’t take it with us.”
Preservation is the key, he said.
“A lot of people today, they don’t know what they are looking at, when they see old things,” he said. “It has to do with their education, their homes, their environment. Kids today grow up with TV… plastic everywhere – it’s all made for them; it’s all too easy. If you have a kid, you take the kid with you to shows and see collections. That will create people that have an interest in the old things. But there has to be someone around that starts the machine up.”
He continues to collect, as he has for 50 years. And while his chief interest is in the past, he finds plenty in the present that is collectible.
“They’re doing fantastic things with sculpture,” he said. “As an example, bronze statuary of automobilia. And there’s people that build beautiful models, such as gas, steam hot air engines, and miniature workshops. I have seen fantastic pieces.”
If he has a worry, it is that some treasures fall through the cracks.
“Things are still being scrapped today,” he said. “Some pieces, because of their size, are just too costly to handle. Wars do a lot of damage, and this is a very wasteful country. So many things over the years … but where are they? Thrown away … scrapped … melted down.”
Still, Arthur remains optimistic.
“Where there are people, there are things,” he said. “So long as there are people, people will collect things.” FC