Max Nordeen's Wheels Museum - Gone
Without the ring of billboards in our nose, we wander off the beaten path into the farmland of southern Illinois. We pull up at the aluminum building with the big metal flywheel out front, and Max Nordeen strides over from his farmhouse. We are alone with him, and, though we don't know it yet, will be for the next several hours. Max Nordeen is a man of knowledge, a strong man who is determined to make his Wheels Museum work.
"I've been a collector all my life, " says Max with humble pride. "I'm gonna give you the whole guided tour." We walk into the building, and Max shuts the door. One year, Max's admission revenues totaled $208. "People are so tight. I had no idea it would be like this." Even neighbors neglect his wonders. "They'll get in their cars, drive several hundred miles and pay ten times as much money to see something half as good."
John Deere's Death Notice
The pride of Max's collection is what he believes to be the world's only surviving original notice of John Deere's death in 1886. A century later, hardly anyone noticed.
Max is an open fire hydrant of facts as he points out every odd collectible displayed in glass cases ringing the first half of the building. "That was sold at the Ringling Brothers circus as a souvenir years ago. That was Tom Thumb and his band of midgets playing, they're all dead now. I have one of the largest World's Fair collections in the world . . ."
We methodically move on to his spark plug collection and his gear shift knob collection. Max's fast patter is well-rehearsed, but on who? When you start drifting off, Max sounds a klaxon horn. He is shocked, he says, that some would-be tourists see that he charges $2.50, and leave without staying. "How can people say it's not worth it if they haven't seen it?"
He points toward his naughty key chain collection. "You look through the peephole and you see naked ladies on the inside, those are all World War I souvenirs from Paris France. And as you can see, some of these women are COMPLETELY NUDE."
Max on Sally
We see Sally Rand photos. "People came for hundreds of miles to watch Sally Rand dance nude... I had the privilege of seeing Sally dance twice ... a very gorgeous looking woman. If you don't believe me, take a look through this telescope...she was gorgeous."
Max Pop Quiz
"Guess which one is my dad." After a shortcut through the French peepers and spark plug collection, Max checks to see if you're paying attention. [1.6mb Quicktime movie].
On to war collectibles -- a case of W.W.II regalia and Wehrmacht novelty items. "Hitler loved nudity . . . he had a lot of pictures of nude women. Oh yeah, Hitler loved nudity, a lot of people do. People won't admit it -- I'll admit it ...Here's a picture of Hitler when he was a baby -- and that little baby cost the lives of SEVEN MILLION GERMAN PEOPLE!"
He holds up a big meat cleaver. We back up. "Later on, I'll show you one twice this size...I like things exceptionally big, and exceptionally small...I'm fascinated by little tiny women. Sally Rand was very petite, very petite."
Max's very rare and unusual items are saved for the last case. He holds up a giant petrified leech. "Look at it. Perfect. You can still tell what sex it is."
Max adds stuff weekly, despite the lack of tourist interest. He is well known at local flea markets and gun shows. "I use a hearse at auctions -- it's handy to haul stuff in."
This ends the first half of the tour. Vintage cars and other treasures are arrayed in the back half of the building. So that Max doesn't accuse us of giving it all away, see these for yourself.
See them you should. Max is a hero. He builds his museum because of his restless spirit, the spirit of roadside tourism. Sure it bugs him that no one visits, and that his edifying materials lay fallow like his fields. But he doesn't quit. It would be easy. Who would know? Who would care? Max would. Max does.
Is the Wheels Museum worth $2.50? At least. Maybe ten time as much. But it goes beyond that. When you visit Max, or Jim Bishop, or The Nut Lady, or any of those welcoming purveyors of amazement and wonder, you vote "Yes" to the continuing lure of the road.
As Max says, "You're going to see some things in here you've never seen before in your whole life and you'll never see again -- unless you come back."
October 2005: Petrified Leech
September 14, 2005: Petrified Leech is saved.
December 17, 2004: Remember Max Nordeen!
December 2004: Max has passed away.