INDEPENDENCE — Everywhere Nels Wehner turns, he sees a piece of yesterday.
A windup record player with a heavy 78 rpm shellac record.
Well-worn baseball gloves hanging beside a rack of wooden baseball bats.
The ceramic chickens his mother collected; the ceramic cows his father favored.
“Over the years I’ve been to a lot of auctions,” says Nels, 78. “I’ve seen a lot of pictures, a lot of heirlooms, leave the family. Nobody was picking up their roots.”
So, 11 years ago, Nels had this 36-by-48-foot Morton building erected on the acreage east of Independence he and his wife, Joann, have called home for more than 40 years. This is his tribute to family, Nels’ Ag Museum, Library and Art Gallery.
“My mother was quite a saver. She saved everything. Thank god.”
He is partial to her scrapbook of 1920s- and 1930s-era pictures torn from magazines. It is what Doris Derks Wehner put together in her early teaching career; a book Nels flipped through as a child to keep him busy and out of trouble.
Born near Warsaw, Ill., Nels recalls his family’s hard times, including floods in 1944 and 1945 and then in 1946 near Oakville, Iowa, that added to his father’s woes of losing a farm during The Great Depression.
“I remember standing up on the bluff,” says Nels, 12 at the time. “You could see this wall of water take everything in its path.
“My dad went through a lot of grief and he only lived to be 63 years old.”
Soon after graduating from high school in ‘52, Nels was off to Iowa State.
“My dad made me go to college. He said it was cheaper to send me to college than it was to repair the machinery I was tearing up,” Nels laughs.
Graduation, a stint in the Air Force and some time back on the farm led to a career as a “fertilizer peddler.” After working for several companies, one of which took hi to Independence in 1962, he and Joann started their own company in 1979. In two decades Nels’ Agri-Service Company grew into a multi-million-dollar business.
Upon retirement, Nels realized how much memorabilia he’d collected. And he loved adding to it, whether that be items contributed by family including brothers, Carl of Cedar Falls and Roland of Iowa City, or stuff he couldn’t resist at auction.
The family museum, surrounded by a pond and gardens (flowers and vegetables) galore, became the savior. Divided into an office and three display rooms, the museum has everything from bound copies of “The Homestead” (the forerunner of Wallaces Farmer) from 1894 and 1895 and issues of the Iowa Agriculture Report as old as 1864, to penny postcards his father saved and a wooden cross made from timbers of a razed Newton area barn he says was used to organize the grange movement in Iowa.
Around July 4, Nels held his second annual open house. But nearly 100 degree heat made visitors uncomfortable and kept attendance down. So, beginning in 2013, he’ll hold it around Oct. 9, he and Joann’s anniversary.
“I’d rather shiver,” he says, “than be out in this heat.”
In one room you’ll find neatly arranged books on shelves surrounded by paintings of farm scenes. In another, children’s toys from the ‘50s, family heirlooms and photographs. In the third, the tools of the trade, from 33 garden hoes and 208 hammers and hatchets to more than 1,000 wooden advertising yardsticks. Throughout, the reminders of family.
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