Left: Charles Zeeb’s collection of toys, memorabilia, signs and stoves took up most of the available space in the School House building at Pioneer Acres.
Charles Zeeb is unabashedly grateful for the 22 years he lived with his parents on their Menno, S.D., farm, and it was there that the collecting bug first bit him. "I started collecting Corvette literature and advertising in the '60s after high school," says Charles, who now resides in Sioux Falls. In fact, his Corvette fascination led him to make a business of restoring the now-classic cars. "Years later, I discovered old machinery literature, and it made me nostalgic for my days on the farm."
Charles' collection of literature, signs, toys and other items filled nearly every inch of wall and surface space in the School House building at Pioneer Acres this past September. His many hours of careful preparation, punctuated by the monophonic sound of vintage recordings, created an authentic walk down memory lane. And judging by the steady crowd of people in the School House, his efforts were met with much appreciation.
"What people collect today, my mom and dad used," Charles says. "They were both born around the turn of the last century." Adopting that timeframe as a guide, Charles specifically seeks ads that are both beautiful to look at, and a gateway to fond memories of his past. "I particularly like items that have a visual-emotional effect on me where I can relate to the subject," Charles explains as he points out specific details in a McCormick-Deering reaper ad. "The color is beautiful, the imagery is idyllic, and the machinery is incidental." Charles points out that in his favorite advertising pieces, the cattle are always fat, the people are always beautiful and happy, the crops are always in perfect condition, and the horses are always stepping high. "I am not partial to any line of machinery, I just love the art, and its sentiment," Charles adds. Charles' sentimental collecting journey has also led him to toys and other aged artifacts.
"Toys reflect on an era of life with some innocence," Charles says, pointing out that many of his toys provide a direct link to his own childhood. For example, one of his most cherished pieces is a beautifully weathered barn that his father, Ruben Zeeb, built from a set of plans published in Popular Mechanics magazine. At one point, Charles' nephew used the toy barn for target practice and shot out its glass windows. Charles replaced the broken windows with pieces he cut from panes obtained from windows in his grandfather's barn, which only increased the toy's sentimental value.
Not all of Charles' toys have a direct family connection. He purposefully seeks out those that take him to a time and place where life seemed more idyllic. Another of his prized pieces is a Studebaker Junior wagon. "The wagon was played with hard, but it was obviously a prized possession because it was also well cared for," Charles explains, while pointing out how the paint has been worn off the little Studebaker by perhaps thousands of hours of play. "I really look for that kind of thing for my collection." Charles has a number of other toy wagons and sleds that fit the bill. Ads and toys aren't the only things that lead Charles down the path of memorable memorabilia. Parlor stoves in particular warm his heart.
"I like parlor stoves because they are works of art that bring people together in a room," Charles says, explaining that parlor stoves were more than useful. "Parlor stoves had to be beautiful because they were central to the room's décor, and a beautiful stove warmed it in every season." Charles had three very beautiful stoves on display at Pioneer Acres, where they radiated warmth inside that old school room that had nothing to do with the temperature.
Charles isn't certain where his sentimental journey will lead next. However, he has recently found that some household product and food advertising evokes the same nostalgic emotions as the rest of his collection. Charles enjoys talking about his collection and his collecting philosophy, and he can be reached at (605) 338-9101.