Reminders of Daily Living at the Turn of the Century

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Vintage haying equipment is displayed at the museum's entry.
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Lester's Model A Ford once was a regular in parades. Today, it's a star attraction in his museum.
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"The Rich Man's Cooler": Filled with perishable food, this cooler would be lowered into a well, just to the water level, keeping food cold.
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This wooden washer is hooked right to the wash tub.
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Lester's flatirons. The wooden-handled iron at lower left (complete with rooster) differs from the typical flatiron: hot coals were placed in the iron, and the lid replaced.
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A fancy butter churn.

The technology of daily living has changed so dramatically in the past century that it’s hard to comprehend how people used to live … hard, that is, unless you’re Lester Walch. Lester has accumulated a variety of appliances and tools from the turn of the century and the early 1900s. The collection is a natural extension of his electric and appliance shop. Fascinated by changes in technology over the years, Lester has created a small museum that gives a snapshot of life in the early years of this century. A visit to Lester’s is a step back in time, and a chance to see how much easier daily living is now, thanks to modern technology.

Located on Main Street in the quiet Illinois town of Raymond, Walch Electric is a combination of appliances and household goods. Even though the museum itself is down the street, some of Lester’s favorite items are displayed at the shop. His latest acquisition is a Horton washer that occupies a prominent spot in the shop’s front window.

Lester opened his shop in January 1950. It’s been a family operation from the beginning: His wife, Mary Frances (better known as “Toots”), and his son Carl also are involved in the business, as are his nephew, Ross Walch, who’s worked there for 20 years, and his sister, Leona Carriker, who worked there until she retired.

Customers have come to expect family ties at the business: Nancy Scroggins, who took Leona’s job, said customers ask how she’s related to the Walches.

Lester’s easy-going sense of humor is shown in a plaque hanging on his office door: “You know you’re getting old when you think Happy Hour is a nap,” it reads. But between his business and his collection, Lester has little down time. A “keeper,” Lester has every receipt for every item he’s ever sold, and in his office he displays the first tool he ever used: a blow torch to solder electric wire. Although he’s expanded his operation (to buildings on either side of his shop), and changed locations a couple of times, the shop has always been located in the center of this farm community.

Lester, who grew up on a farm, has first-hand experience with many of the old appliances he’s collected. Although he hasn’t farmed since 1949, a collection of toys lining a wall in his shop reminds him of the machinery he once used on a daily basis.

“I have the Ford tractor and wagon like we used, and an F20 tractor,” he said, “and my parents bought the last F20 sold in Raymond in 1939 before they came out with the H. The combine toy I have is exactly like the one we sold in 1949, a John Deere 12A.”

His museum is located a few doors down from his shop. The collection has no formal theme, but it clearly reflects common household appliances used by a turn-of-the-century farm family.

The entryway is filled with hay equipment. Just beyond that is a collection of flatirons and gas-powered irons. A variation on that theme is an iron topped by a little rooster figurine, standing on a lid that opens.

“You fill it with red-hot coals,” Lester said, “and then you iron with it.”

Of course, before the clothes were ironed, they had to be laundered. Lester’s collection of washing machines includes a 1925 steam washer. The washer sat on a cook stove, and had a false bottom where steam was created. A handle on top was used to move the clothes back and forth in the tub. An earlier model – a 1904 “Busy Bee” washer – was featured in an advertisement that said “A Busy Wife Should Use a Busy Bee Washer.” The ad noted that a woman could wash 100 pieces of clothing in one hour, using a Busy Bee, without any hard work being done!

The Rapid Vacuum Washer featured a tub and something resembling a modern toilet plunger. For $2.09, the Wonder Washer was available from Sears and Roebuck.

Wash day, though, came but once a week. For other household chores, Lester’s collection includes a central vacuum system patented in 1907, as well as a variety of vacuums, and a wide selection of vicious-looking carpet stretchers.

His kitchen collection is equally extensive, including cherry pitters, apple and peach peelers, fruit presses, sausage presses, and his pride and joy, butter churns. A gleaming copper cook kettle sits in the midst of the collection, near a Charter Oak stove that was fueled by gas and wood. Other stoves and heating ovens are also displayed. Lester even has a salesman’s sample stove, used by traveling salesmen to demonstrate their wares. Though tiny, the sample is authentic in every detail, he said.

“You could bake cookies in that oven,” Lester said.

His collection also includes an Electro Lux Kerosene refrigerator.

“That refrigerator was used before the family got electricity in 1948,” he said.

Refrigeration was a challenge for farm homes, where electricity was often considered a luxury. He has a porcelain Frigidaire with a belt-drive compressor, and an old icebox from the pre-electrical era. In those days, he said, an affluent household would have used something like his Iceless Well Cooler to keep perishables cool. The round, cone-shaped metal case has shelves in it to hold butter, milk and maybe a pie or two. The cooler would then be lowered to just above the water line in the well, keeping the contents cool.

“This was a rich man’s cooler,” he said. “We just dropped a bucket in the well, and stopped before you got to the water.”

In the old days on the farm, much of the food was home-grown. For those who raised poultry, Lester’s “Wooden Incubator” or “Little Brown Hen” will bring back memories. The kerosene incubator offered a great way to speed the hatching process.

Other pieces in the collection are hard to categorize: old cash registers, a brass coffee dispenser, a hand sheep-shearer, old pumps, bed pans, a 1930 Model A, tricycles and pedal cars. And then there’s the personal collection: the plate and utensils used when he was a baby, and the toys of his childhood. As one of nine children, Lester grew up on simple holiday celebrations. Each year, he received a bag of candy, and one toy. Those toys, though, were treasured: decades later, he has them all, in working order.

The museum, which is rarely open to the public, is intended primarily for the local community and Lester’s customers. And none of the pieces in the collection are for sale, Lester added. One of his friends, he said, likes to joke about that. “When Lester passes on, there will be a note in the obituary that says the funeral will be at 10 a.m., followed by the sale at 2 p.m.,” he said. FC

For more information: Lester Walch, c/o Walch Electric, P.O. Box 289, Raymond, IL, 62560; (217) 229-3211.

Cindy Ladage is a freelance writer based in Virden, Ill.

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