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The Lee Maxwell Washing Machine Museum is seen on July 31. Maxwell has a collection of nearly 1,700 machines at his museum in Eaton. (Jessica Gibbs, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lee Maxwell has spent a lot of quality time inside junkyards. What was trash to someone else could have been just the trinket he was searching for.

If the Eaton man spotted any washing machine parts, he hauled them home to his barns for storage in case one day, he’d need them. Better yet was when he found an entire washing machine, or when someone gave him their antique washer.

He’d disassemble the old machines, clean every drop of grease, and repair and reassemble them until they were like new. Then, he’d add them to his collection, which he has heartily shared with the public for decades.

Maxwell has been at it since the 1980s, not sure how he got started, but quite sure he’s the only person around who has run a proper washing machine museum. Smaller museums have come and gone, and other museums might have a display among their exhibits, but there were none like the Lee Maxwell Washing Machine Museum, he said.

Maxwell has amassed 1,700 washing machines. They teem in two warehouses next to his Eaton home, and in an overflow barn where he stores the ones he still needs to fix. 

The oldest dates back to 1844. His museum library boasts thousands of patent records — he’s downloaded 23,000 in all — and scores of old advertisements that help him decipher when his finds were invented.

The mechanics of washing machines and their evolution fascinate the former electrical engineer. So does the fact that few people seem to care about the history of washing machines.

“It’s everywhere in our lives. It’s a staple in every home and we’ve just become so familiar with it that nobody really asks the question, ‘Where did that come from?’” he said.

He used to charge for sought-after, appointment-only tours that took up to two hours. Then the pandemic slowed business down. At 92, Maxwell decided it was time to cut back anyway. 

Except for the special occasion where he grants a group tour, Maxwell has closed his doors.

“I’ve run out of steam,” Maxwell said.

Lee Maxwell at the Washing Machine Museum on July 31, 2022, in Eaton. (Jessica Gibbs, Special to The Colorado Sun)
The Lee Maxwell Washing Machine Museum is seen on July 31, 2022, in Eaton. (Jessica Gibbs, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A constant effort

Off-the-beaten path museums, or those with a unique niche, dot Colorado. Owners work to keep them going for reasons often personal, and in at least a couple cases, with the help of a saintly wife who helps care for hundreds of artifacts.

There’s the drive to preserve a piece of history when no one else might. A passion that took on a life of its own. Telling the story behind an aspect of daily life that people take for granted.

Some, like a museum near Colorado Springs housing a vast insect collection, are private collections shepherded from one family generation to the next, while the future of others is uncertain as their longtime owners wonder who, if anyone, will want to take over next.

In other instances, as in the case of a pair of museums on the central plains, historical societies round up volunteers to make sure their community’s stamp on history isn’t lost. That, too, can be a precarious mission as groups rely on volunteers, grants and donations, and sometimes must find a way to revive themselves after going defunct.

Collections like Maxwell’s occasionally attract national or regional attention, but that spotlight can fade, and the pandemic proved devastating for many museums, operators said. That was especially hard when annual traffic could be low to begin with. Competing with the Rocky Mountains is no easy feat.

Rosemary Lengel, president of the Eastern Colorado Historical Society, said preserving heritages and histories requires a constant effort. Organizations like hers “are always needing money, of course,” she said with a laugh, but more critical than dollars can be finding people who want to take on the challenge.

Someone to make sure the roof is fixed when it leaks. Volunteers to clean the exhibits, brush up chipping paint, mow the lawn, and give the tours. It’s not insignificant work, she said.

“If we lose our history, we’ve lost a lot,” she said.

Making history

Preserving local history can also mean preserving a piece of national history, as Lengel knows well. The Eastern Colorado Historical Society manages two museums. Its Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Museum tells the story of how Cheyenne County became the epicenter of a pivotal moment in the telephone’s evolution.

“To me, it’s the prelude to the cellphone,” Lengel said.

In the early 1900s, residents living deep in the isolation of rural Colorado had limited access to telephone service. Some neighbors outside of Cheyenne Wells could communicate by phones connected to fence wires, and in town, residents called one another using a switchboard and operator system run by the Cheyenne County Telephone Company. Still, access was limited, particularly for ranchers and farmers.

In the 1940s, Cheyenne Wells would make history as The Bell Telephone System company sought to bridge the gap for the area’s rural residents.

The company conducted a test in 1946 of the country’s first wireless radio telephone, aimed at reaching people in even the most far-flung rural areas. Cheyenne Wells, in its central plains isolation roughly 200 miles from Denver, was the perfect test site.

The call went from Denver to a Cheyenne County farm couple, and it worked, Lengel said. After successfully using shortwave radio phones, the technology popped up in Utah, Idaho and Montana.

The Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company’s old building is now the site of the museum, which houses 1920s-era phone booths, switchboards and a pre-rotary telephone.

An early 1900s file photo shows the interior of the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company switchboard office in Grand Junction. (Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph Co., AP Photo file)

An annual fundraiser and grants help support any costly maintenance needed at the museum. Volunteers including National Honor Society students and community members do the rest, Lengel said. The historical society does its best to open up its museums each day.

“As with anything, sometimes we have things come up,” she said. “So, we just do the best we can with a small community that we have.”

Saddle up

Those are the types of museums that Don Bailey thinks should be on people’s radar. He says that not only as a resident of the state’s central plains, but as a nearby museum operator himself.

The Simla man, now retired, used to be a teacher by day and rancher by night, but that wasn’t all that kept him busy. The now 73-year-old spent years forging a vast collection of Western saddles showcased at his Saddleland Museum.

Bailey’s affinity for collecting saddles started in 1989 or ’90. One of his grandfather’s saddles was sold at auction. He wanted to track it down.

Bailey found the auction records and called up the buyer. The man was living in Wyoming, but still had the saddle and was willing to sell it back. He even delivered it to him at the school where Bailey worked.

When he married his wife in 1977, Bailey had three saddles. By 1991, that number climbed to 100. Bailey remembers telling his wife he could probably afford to buy one saddle a year. Now, that thought makes him chuckle.

If we lose our history, we’ve lost a lot.

Rosemary Lengel, president of the Eastern Colorado Historical Society

“Since ’91, my little hobby has gotten a little bit out of control,” he said.

His collection stands at roughly 400, a figure that made waves when he opened the collection as a museum.

He’s not sure how he rounded up so many. Bailey would meet one person with several for sale and take home the lot. People would donate a saddle special to their family for safekeeping. His museum is now home to the saddle that belonged to a rancher he worked for in high school. A donation like that “melts your heart a little,” he said.

The museum doesn’t get many visitors. Perhaps 200 to 300 a year. Traffic is bolstered by partnerships with programs such as a senior citizen group who travels the U.S. seeing sites like his. One weekend he might host 50 to 80 people. The next, zero. He tried to keep regular hours for a couple summers.

The Lee Maxwell Washing Machine Museum is seen on July 31, 2022, in Eaton. (Jessica Gibbs, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“But that just led to me being in a bad mood every Sunday afternoon when nobody showed up,” he said.

Now, his policy is to work by appointment, which is flexible because as Bailey puts it: “If I’m home, I’m open.”

Still, it can take a special person to visit the museum, he said. Most people head to the mountains, not “the hot dusty plains out here,” he said.

“We’re a bit isolated out here. We’re not close to the interstate and we’re a mile off of Highway 24, so you have to make a little bit of an effort to come see us,” Bailey said. “We think we’re worth it.”

The museum accepts donations but does not charge admission. To help pay for his hobby, he has sold new and used saddles for three decades.

“That is not our big goal, to make money out of it,” Bailey said. “It’s the love of what we do, and we like to share it with others.”

Long term, Bailey isn’t sure what will happen to the museum. He thinks it’s safe for one more generation, expecting one of his sons will help care for it and keep the collection intact in some fashion.

Letting any of his treasures go isn’t easy, Bailey said. He’s the type of collector who still kicks himself about two saddles he sold 30 years ago.

“I don’t hardly even want to think about not owning and taking care of what’s in it,” Bailey said.

In this file photo, Louise Steer, background, and Linda Senko stand in the May Natural History Museum on April 17, 2008. (Bryan Oller, The Gazette via AP Photo)

Crawling with history

One Colorado family has spent five generations making sure a collection in their care goes on.

The great-granddaughter of naturalist James May is now director of the May Natural History Museum near Colorado Springs. Diana Fruh runs the site alongside the fourth and fifth May family generations after her mother and aunts handed them the keys.

What’s inside? Thousands, and thousands, of insect specimens.

“I think people maybe poo-poo it as, ‘Oh yeah, it’s bugs,’” she said. “It’s a world-class collection.”

The museum aims to teach people about tropical insects that have lived throughout the globe, including some species on display that are thought to be extinct, she said. Fruh hopes it generates more interest “in the insect world, to sustain it.”

“Who is going to go into entomology in the future? We still need entomologists,” she said.

Beyond showcasing rare tropical insects, the family tells the story behind how the bug collection came to reside in Colorado.

James May was born to a British family and grew up in Brazil, where his father collected insect specimens for the British Museum. May lived there until he was drafted into the Boer War, or the South African War, as Britain sought to colonize South African territories.

During the fighting May was shot in the leg and left for dead by British troops. He was saved, Fruh said, because members of the Zulu tribe discovered him. Rather than abandon May, the Zulu nursed him back to health.

“He had more than nine lives, that James May,” Fruh said.

Once he had recovered, May returned to England for some time but then emigrated to Canada, where he met his wife and started his family.

And wherever the hobby naturalist went, he collected and traded bugs. Although the museum displays about 7,000 of May’s best and rarest specimens, there are 100,000 more in storage.

It was James May’s oldest son, John May, who founded the family museum. At 14 years old, John learned how to craft airtight cases to store his father’s insect collection. Then he dreamt up a traveling show and by the 1920s had launched it into a family business.

Car shows, boat shows and county fairs across the U.S. became some of the many pit stops the Mays carted the bug collection to and from. John May and his wife took their twin daughters, including Fruh’s mother, with them as they traveled.

Once the girls reached school age, it was time to settle down, Fruh said, and Colorado called.

“The climate was perfect to preserve those specimens,” she said. “Humidity really damages those 100-year-old bugs.”

The couple scouted out a 1,000-acre property in Rock Creek Canyon, had their third daughter, and in the 1950s, opened a brick-and-mortar museum built of cinder blocks that Fruh’s grandfather made from cement.

“He just did everything,” Fruh said.

A giant replica of a Hercules beetle sits on a hill just off of Highway 115 near the entrance to the May Natural History Museum on April 17, 2008, near Colorado Springs. (Bryan Oller, The Gazette via AP Photo)

The pandemic and particularly 2020 “was just a terrible year,” Fruh said. The museum “was pretty much nonexistent” for nearly three months, a blow when the museum is mainly a seasonal operation. They are open every day from May 1 through Sept. 30, although groups can schedule appointment-only tours in the offseason.

“When you have a five-month season and you lose half of it, and don’t have that many visits in any one year, it’s difficult to come back from,” Fruh said.

A glimmer of hope, Fruh said, is that it seemed like people were eager to get out after the lockdowns subsided, and she thinks people stopped taking what lies in their backyard for granted.

Last year was one of the best years the museum saw in decades, Fruh said, with 2021 and the first months of 2022 showing “just incredible attendance compared to years past.” Roughly 15,000 people visited last year, compared to the early 2000s, when visitation was “significantly less.” Many of the people to visit in 2021 were local, she said.

Fruh still hopes for more awareness that they exist, because the family wants to preserve the collection. Admission tickets keep the doors open, but the family donates much of the labor and material necessary to run the museum, Fruh said.

“That’s what saves it,” she said.

The Lee Maxwell Washing Machine Museum is seen on July 31, 2022, in Eaton. (Jessica Gibbs, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“You cannot replace this”

Maxwell is pondering how to do just that. He’s on the hunt for his washing machine museum’s next owner.

There will not be an auction to piece off the collection on his watch, he said. The items are worthless individually. There is no market for old washing machines, and their value is in the story they come together to tell, he said.

As his search continues, Maxwell can be found each day, all day, inside his shop. About six years ago he learned woodworking so he could make replicas of machines he couldn’t find. He is fast at work on his 122nd wood model.

Who knows what will happen if he does not find anyone interested, he said, but he’s willing to spend years finding a person or organization who will keep his dream going.

“It’s worthless and priceless in the same breath. Worthless in that, I don’t have anyone standing here wanting them,” he said. “Priceless in that you cannot replace this.”

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Jessica Gibbs

Colorado Community Media Email: jessthejourno@gmail.com Twitter: @JesstheJourno