Several decades ago, Max Nordeen metamorphosed from a keeper to a collector. He had kept many toys and other items from his childhood, and, as an adult, he lived in the farm home in which he had grown up. It still held his mother’s sewing machine, and many other family furnishings.
Always interested in the past, Max began buying items that intrigued him.
“People thought I was nuts for buying that old stuff,” he recalled. “I got things for next to nothing. Now, I go to auctions, and I think they (the other bidders) are nuts.”
When he began attending flea markets, auctions and antique shows, Max realized that he had become a serious collector. Soon, his collections filled his home and garage. But the thrill of collecting wasn’t enough for Max. He wanted to share his collections with others.
In 1980, he built a 48×105-foot metal building on his farm near Woodhull, Ill., and arranged his collections inside. Then he opened the Wheels Museum (so named because many of his collections pertain to motor vehicles) to the public.
Later, he located a huge flywheel, which he installed just outside the museum’s entrance. The wheel was part of a stationary one-cylinder Norris engine once used by a natural gas company. The flywheel is 18 inches thick, stands 12 feet tall, and weighs almost 18 tons.
The Wheels Museum consists of two rooms. The smaller of the two contains showcases; the other room houses antique and classic automobiles, old tractors, pedal vehicles and many other larger items.
Max tries to focus on rare, unusual and different items.
“I don’t have common things in my museum,” he said. “I have many one-of-a-kind items.”
Farm tractors in Max’s collection include a 1929 Case L, a 1930 Case C, a 1936 Case RC, a 1930 Oliver row crop, and a 1929 Wallis.
J.I. Case memorabilia fills one small showcase. That collection’s most valuable item is a model Case steam tractor and engine handmade by an elderly Nebraska man. An original sign showing a Case cross-mount tractor pulling a plow, toy models and Case advertisements fill the display case.
Some of the oldest items in Max’s collection are the Indian arrowheads he has found on his farm. Another unusual item is a printed notice of the death of John Deere, with the envelope and the announcement both outlined in black. Max also shows an 8.5-ounce egg laid by a hen on his farm in 1965.
Advertising items from defunct regional businesses and locally manufactured items fascinate Max. He is especially interested in Wenzelmann Manufacturing Co. in Galesburg, Ill., which made 150 different items, including water pumps, phonographs, pianos, tongue supports, farm gates, binders, mowers, farm elevators, scales, reapers and saddles. Max obtained some of the company’s original literature through a contact with descendants of the Wenzelmann family.
As a child, Max always wanted a pedal car. That wish didn’t come true until he reached adulthood: now he has a collection of 81 pedal cars and 15 pedal tractors. The fleet includes Case and John Deere. His most valuable pedal tractor is a restored version of a Series 60 John Deere made by the Ertl Company.
One piece in the collection remains a mystery: A red pedal tractor labeled “Farmer Boy.” Max has not been able to identify either the manufacturer or the date of manufacture (although the tractor has a grill, he said, so it may have been made in the late 1930s).
Farm life remains a common denominator in his museum. Even a collection of more than 100 small mirrors includes agriculture-related pieces.
The back of one, for instance, features a picture of the Chicago Union Stockyards.
“My dad used to ship livestock up there,” Max said. “This mirror means a lot to me.”
Max’s guided tours of the museum usually last a couple of hours.
“If you just came in and looked, you’d leave in five minutes,” he said. “But when someone tells you about it, it is more interesting.” FC
Dianne L. Beetler is a lifelong rural resident who enjoys writing about people with unusual collections.