By Antoinette Rahn
By the numbers Elmer’s Auto & Toy Museum is impressive. What’s equally, and truthfully, even more impressive, is the mindset of Elmer and Bernadette Duellman. The Duellmans are the owners and operators of the Museum.
“It is so much fun, sharing this with people. The ‘oohs and ahs’ are worth it,” said Elmer, who has lived his entire life in Fountain City, Wis. “I’ve been very lucky – God has told me what stuff to buy over the years”
Auto & Toy Museum is a Tribute to Collecting
Based on Elmer’s insight, one could presume God is a fan of classic cars, pedal cars, and toys; and people like Elmer and Bernadette. They are the kind of people who have faith and believe in one another. Plus, they strive to bring a little joy into the lives of people of all ages. Oh, and God must also enjoy sharing the beauty of nature. That's easy to see, especially given that the view from the Museum grounds is purely breathtaking.
“You can’t paint a view like that,” said full-time Museum volunteer Ralph Schmidt. It was a view Antique Trader Print Editor Karen Knapstein and myself took in the view recently. Situated atop Eagle Bluff, the highest point along the Mississippi River is the Duellmans’ property. It overlooks the hamlet of Fountain City. The community is nestled along side the ‘Mighty Mississippi,’ which serves as a natural separation between Wisconsin from Minnesota.
Once you catch your breath from taking in the beautiful natural surroundings, you are sure to encounter pure excitement. It's a child-like giddiness you may not have felt in years. It’s just what happens when walking the grounds towards the pole buildings. You'll even see a couple of old school buses and a Bookmobile parked between two buildings. It’s as if they had run their course and settled in a place they knew they’d be welcome.
Careful Acquisition Resulting In an Extraordinary Experience
It’s easy to see why anything and anyone who visits this place referred to as a ‘hidden gem’ feels
welcome. Within the ‘Toy Barn,’ you’ll encounter thousands of antique and vintage toys. Examples include items appearing at auctions around the world, and touted because of their rarity and price paid at auction. A visit to the old barn and the three large pole buildings, yes, three, includes a viewing of more than 700 pedal cars, planes, and tractors. There are 105 full-size antique, classic, and rare automobiles. In addition, you'll see 59 motorcycles and motor scooters. And 179 antique and vintage advertising signs, showcased along the walls of two pole buildings.
In addition, there is a selection of vintage and antique snowmobiles, wooden wagons, outboard motors, bicycles – including antique ‘bone shakers’ – a display of antique tools, and another display (in the barn) featuring items of petroliana. Keep in mind that new acquisitions are regularly added to the collection and take up residency in the various displays, which are all dusted every other week. This means the collection is ever evolving, items are always orderly and tidy, and, in our estimation, call for multiple visits to the Museum.
Collecting and Sharing Go Hand In Hand
If the thought crosses your mind that the outbuildings are the only areas of the Museum grounds, be sure to check out the inside of the Duellmans’ home, where visitors can take in an astounding collection of 400 or so dolls. Even if you are among those who deem dolls to be creepy, do yourself a small favor and at least take a quick peek at the collection. When in life will you have the opportunity to see something like that?
In fact, that’s kind of what Elmer’s collecting and sharing efforts are all about: making the most of the opportunities in life because there are no guarantees. He learned that early on, as one of eight children raised for a while solely by their father, following the passing of Elmer’s mother when he was a young boy.
“There were eight of us kids and we never really had much, not toys,” said Elmer, reflecting on the years his father Hilarion raised the children on his own, before remarrying. His father owned a gas station and was an auctioneer, and before Elmer could legally set foot on the pedal of a car he was working at the gas station to help support his family.
Hometown Roots Run Deep
Elmer’s childhood house is still standing and is located behind the gas station and car dealership Elmer opened in the 1960s, which one of his sons now operates. Just down the road from the Duellmans’ home and Museum is Elmer’s Auto Salvage, which the couple started in 1962 and sold to two more of their sons about 25 years ago. The couple’s family includes six children and 14 grandchildren, all of whom live nearby, providing plenty of time to share stories about items in the Museum.
Storytelling is a big part of the visit to the Museum, because as Elmer proudly states: “Everything has a story.”
Sweet Memories Associated With Every Classic Vehicle
For example, there is the 1973 Chrysler Imperial LeBaron that Bernadette drove nearly every day
for years; the 1957 Chrysler 300 S with features rare for the time, including a push button auto shifter and power windows; a 1964 Amphicar, which operates on land and water; the first pedal car Elmer purchased (a 1920s model) in 1971 for $450 at the White Bear Swap & Show in White Bear Lake, Minn., and the car that Elmer was driving when he first met Bernadette.
That was nearly six decades ago. It came on the heels of Elmer and a buddy drag racing on the streets of Anoka, Minn. After losing the race, a frustrated Elmer opted to purchase another car, and he and his buddy each took the wheel of a car and set off for Fountain City. The drive included stops at several bars along the way, something Elmer would not recommend today. Along the journey, they stopped at a bowling alley celebrating its grand opening. There, at the entrance, was Bernadette and one of her friends pinning roses on patrons as they entered. Elmer, who had enjoyed a libation or two by this time, was smitten. He promptly told Bernadette that he would be heading home to sober up and such. Once he did, he would return to take her out.
Extending Interests Into Focus of Collecting Efforts
The couple will celebrate 55 years of marriage later this year. They bought the property on Eagle Bluff in 1965 and have lived there since 1968, Elmer said. Early on there wasn’t any running water or electricity, but they made it work, Bernadette added.
Within the collection is evidence of Elmer’s love of racing. In fact, Elmer operated a dirt track near their property in the 1960s. However, it took quite a lot of upkeep, he said. Automotive artifacts of his racing career and those of his sons’ sit nestled off to the side of one pole building. Furthermore, you’ll see Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s #8 race car in one pole building, and the seat Elmer sat in while attending five decades of the annual Daytona 500 race. The seat, which he purchased a few years back, now sits just inside the entrance to the barn.
“I’ve been a NASCAR fan all of my life,” said Elmer. He has visited 105 racetracks and once drove a pace car to Sunday service.
Each experience has added up to a life he is grateful to have. He's even more grateful to be able to share it all with Bernadette “who may not have liked or understood every decision I made but has always believed in me,” and their family.
Delightful Destination Offering Unique Nostalgic Experience
Since 1994, visitors from far and wide have traveled the rolling hills of Buffalo County between May and September, every other weekend, to experience Elmer’s Auto & Toy Museum. When you make the plans to visit Elmer’s, you’ll likely experience this unique and memorable place with any number of people. It could be members of a classic car club, who make the trek from Chicago where they are hosting their annual convention; a group of motorcyclists who hail from across the Midwest and while on a ride decided to take in the stunning vista atop Eagle Bluff while enjoying one of the largest toy collections in the Midwest; people participating in a religious retreat in the region, who called ahead and reserved a tour of the Museum – which are led by the Duellmans’ and a stable of volunteers like Schmidt.
There are directors and owners of other museums across the country, many of whom make the trek to Elmer’s every few years just to see the new stuff they’ve added; and families on vacation – traveling by car, bus, and RV – just to get a glimpse of this celebration of nostalgia and pure joy. Bernadette puts the number of annual visitors at between 2,000 and 2,500.
It’s also very likely that you’ll meet someone else while you are at Elmer’s Auto & Toy Museum – your youthful self – who couldn’t be more excited at the prospect of taking in such a place of wonder.
Planning a Trip to Elmer's
Remaining dates in the 2017 Museum schedule include July 15-16, July 29-30, Aug. 12-13, Aug. 26-27 (Discounted admission for Boy and Girl Scouts and leaders), Sept. 2-4 (Live music Sept. 4), Sept. 16-17, Sept. 30-Oct. 1, Oct. 7-8, Oct. 14-15, and Oct. 22-21.
Admission to Elmer’s Auto & Toy Museum is $10 for adults, $8 for senior citizens, $5 for students (ages 6-17), and free for children age 6 and under. Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information, visit www.elmersautoandtoymuseum.com or call 608-687-7221.