OREFIELD, Pa. (AP) — Donald Wehr has long picked up odds and ends that have grabbed his eye.
He can’t quite explain why he’s gathered dozens of cigar shop Native Americans. He has a small armada of Ford tractors because they’re easy to climb into, but can’t offer much of an answer as to why he’s collected other tractors. He knows what he likes, and he’s accumulated those items on the Orefield home he built back in 1956.
“I just had an interest,” he said.
Although a deeper explanation may elude him, his pride in his work and collection speaks for itself. The tractors run as well as ever, gleaning in the sun without a speck of dirt on them. Donald’s name shines in neatly painted letters on the side of an immaculate horse-drawn huckster wagon preserved in his barn. Decades ago, it greeted visitors at the entrance to the Bavarian Summer Festival in Barnesville. For most of the past 30 years, it’s sat unused, coming out once or twice for the odd parade.
Soon, Donald hopes the love and toil he’s put into his collection will pay off — literally. This October, he and his wife, Miriam, will auction off their home and Donald’s prized possessions. Miriam’s health deteriorated last year after a stroke. While she’s rebounded after having a defibrillator installed, Donald determined he wasn’t up to the task of caring for her and maintaining his collection and five-acre property. After 65 years of marriage in their home, they plan to move into a senior living facility.
“I’m 87 years old. I’m getting tired of work,” said Donald. “I’m at a point in life where it’s time to move on.”
Maintaining the house and collection has been his primary job since 1987, when he retired from his day job as a millwright for Western Electric and his night job of delivering hay bales to Reading mushroom farms. Since then, he’s tinkered on the buggies, wagons and tractors. Some required heavy restoration, like a 19th-century milk wagon he picked up in Luzerne County. What he couldn’t fix himself — like the dairy wagon’s ribbed, wood-slated roof — he received help from Mennonites by Kutztown, Donald said. Milk crates and glass bottles are still inside, and it looked ready for a final round of deliveries.
“His generation? Different. They could make something out of anything,” said Jason Houser, the auctioneer who will oversee the sale of items and property Oct. 1 and 2.
Houser’s family business performs about 100 auctions a year, most of which are estate sales like the Wehrs’. While he never knows what he’ll find when he starts sorting through attics and garages, even he was shocked by the collection and condition of wagons and buggies packed into the Wehrs’ barn.
“These,” Houser said, waving his arm at the fleet of tractors, “are beautiful, but the fact of the matter is, the customers are dying out. But those,” he said, motioning to the wagons, “are a piece of American history.”
Houser said he’s given the Wehrs ballpark estimates on what their home and many belongings could fetch on the auction block. But he does not plan to set a starting point for the wagons and buggies, fearing he may set a bar too low and inadvertently depress the bids. Given the rarity of the items, though, he will accept bids online and in person.
“You can always be the hero, but you never want to be the bum,” Houser said.
Until the bidding begins, the Wehrs will prepare for their move and parting of a lifetime of collections. And while Donald may not recall when he acquired certain items or why he gravitated to them, the memories he’s attached to the collection have not faded.
While he can’t recall the last time any of the buggies left the property, he shared stories of taking a horse and carriage out for a ride around Orefield in the 1950s. While the Lehigh Valley wasn’t nearly as developed then as it is today, even then he’d avoid Route 309 in favor of the backroads. He shook his head when he thought about taking one out for a spin on the highway today.
“People today wouldn’t even move over,” he said. “You had a lot more people with common sense.”