Seize a wrench and the day

By Robert Jensen

Published in Land Report, and · August, 2020

From the Land Report, Issue 127, Summer 2020, pp. 16-21.

Mentor, Kansas, a small community a couple of miles south of The Land Institute, hasn’t had a post office since 1995 and these days is more a suburb of Salina than a town. Just off Mentor Road, its unassuming main street, are a handful of modest houses, Mentor United Methodist Church, and a Saline County fire station (RFD No. 2).

And then there’s Rex’s Antique Car Museum.

The museum is housed in two large metal storage buildings that look equally unassuming and modest – until visitors step inside and survey the eclectic collection. There are lots of vehicles, mostly cars and a few trucks, several with celebrity backstories – including a 1937 Lincoln Brunn that once carried FDR and a 1919 Stanley Steamer that Jay Leno bid on, unsuccessfully – along with three fire trucks for good measure, one with a full tank that is available for local fire-fighting.

But visitors who stay long enough to talk with Rex Russell and Thelma Woerz will realize that just as intriguing as the collection are the two proprietors and their backstories.

First a little more about all the stuff.

In those buildings are not only the vehicles – a total of 99 cars and trucks, going back to the 19-teens, all of which run and are driven regularly – but vintage tools, cameras, furniture, and housewares. The main museum building also has some intriguing features built in. One beam is a section of a construction crane – more on cranes later. Look closely at the steps going up to the second floor and notice what looks like tire tread, because they are made of old tires. At the top of those stairs are rooms with 1930s furniture and quilts, a kerosene stove, a hand-crank phone – all arranged as they would have been in a home from that era. Downstairs are a 1920 nickelodeon and an 1895 player piano.

Along with the antiques are modern updates. A jukebox made from the back end of a 1958 Ford Thunderbird is digital. Want your picture taken behind the wheel of an old Ford truck? Type in your e-mail address, and a digital camera hooked up to a computer will send the photos to you.

In the back of the building is the dining area. Rex’s is not only a museum but a party and wedding venue that folks rent for a variety of gatherings. Outside vendors cater the food, but Thelma and Rex are the museum’s only staff and do all the setup and cleanup.

Because the main building is big enough to hold only a fraction of the cars, a full tour includes the overflow vehicle storage building, where the cars are stacked in racks. Some in the collection are real antiques, including a 1911 Ford Model T Roadster, while others are more curiosities, such as the 1974 Volkswagen Thing, which looks a bit like an Army jeep. There are two of those 1919 Stanley Steamers, which have 30 valves that have to be set – “It’s kind of like a water heater”, Thelma says. The 1981 DeLorean DMC, with the distinctive gull-wing doors, well, it’s just plain cool.

While not a formal part of the museum, the old farm machinery outside – mostly Caterpillar tractors and implements, most of them not in working order – is just as intriguing. “My dad farmed with Caterpillars, and I did a lot of dirt work (road building) with them”, Rex says. “I always liked them”.

Rex’s museum does no advertising. There’s no sign on Interstate 135, about a half mile to the east, and the sign out front is modest – although the size of the sign doesn’t really matter since there’s virtually no traffic in Mentor. Visitors arrive via word of mouth, or from an equally modest Web site and Facebook page.

How many people come through? There are visitors at least three or four days a week, and Rex estimates a thousand people a month. Thelma thinks it might be a bit more, but there are no tickets issued to keep track and no admission fee. They accept donations, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Two couples visited when I was there, and as they left one of them held out two twenty-dollar bills, Thelma says. “I told them one was enough”.

What about finances? Rex says he only started keeping track of expenses and income last year, and wishes he hadn’t. “Turns out that we lost $6,000”, he chuckles.

How long have they been doing this? When did the museum open? “We never did open it”, Rex says. “It’s just here”.

OK, but when did people first start coming to see the cars? “They always have, seems like. Ever since I’ve had cars, I’ve had people come to look at them”.

It’s hard to pin down a date the museum was created, but Thelma joined the enterprise in 2007, and it keeps growing, not to make money, but because the two of them are having fun. The pleasure they take wasn’t hard to understand once I got to know a bit more about their lives. For me, Rex and Thelma – not the cars – are the real attraction.

Both started life within about 30 miles of Mentor: near Galva for Rex, born in 1932, and near McPherson for Thelma, born in 1948. Both learned to farm by working alongside parents. Rex was the fifth of six children in the Depression, while Thelma was an only child born in the beginning of the post-WWII boom. Their early experiences on the farm seem to have produced several common traits, including a willingness to strike out on new paths with gusto.

Let’s start with Rex. He worked in his father’s hardware store and then his father-in-law’s Allis Chalmers tractor dealership while he also worked on other farms and road crews; took an entry-level job at Beech Aircraft, eventually moving into sheet metal work and then electronics; got interested in airplanes while at Beech, bought his first one for $400 – he had $150 and borrowed the rest – and learned to fly; bought a bulldozer and became a terracing contractor; was shop foreman for Reece Construction in Salina, where he also led a project to develop the large-scale manufacture of sulfur concrete, a specialty composite construction material; spent years as a pilot flying private clients and charters; and then started a construction crane rental business that, at its peak, was leasing up to 150 cranes. (Remember the construction crane serving as a beam in the museum?)

Thelma’s path also has lots of unexpected turns. With a voice scholarship in hand, she headed to McPherson College and earned a teaching degree; taught home economics for 14 years, along the way picking up computer programming; earned a doctorate in childhood education from K-State; opened a computer store selling her own computer brand to customers such as Boeing; went to work for Raytheon as a computer analyst during the run-up to Y2K; and returned to do more teaching, this time in special education at Wichita State University.

And through all that, she was racing dirt-track cars, good enough that she almost went on the road with Danica Patrick and the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars.

Along with the success, both have also dealt with setbacks. Thelma had to grow up fast after her father died when she was 15 and her mother a few years later. Rex is lucky to be alive; in the early 1970s, a bucket loader came down on him while he was working on a road crew. Doctors told him he would never walk again, one of the many proclamations from authorities in his life that he’s ignored. Much later, one of his four children – Danny, his partner in collecting those old Caterpillar tractors – died in an industrial accident, “And just like that, I lost interest in them Caterpillars”, Rex says.

In “retirement”, both work harder than many people with full-time jobs. Both are happy to talk about their lives and their unorthodox career paths, though when I used that phrase, Thelma chuckled, as if she had never considered that there was anything unusual about her working life. Rex and Thelma talk about their lives as if there’s nothing particularly special to note. But to me, three things stand out.

First, their early farm experience taught them how to get things done with whatever tools and resources were available. Most every farmer in those days was also a mechanic, Rex points out, to keep things running. If a mechanic from town was available, you might not be able to afford the help. Thelma learned her way around engines in the same fashion, helping out her father with every aspect of farming. Such “tinkering” experience, common in the world in which they grew up, would be difficult to replicate today with vehicles and implements that have so many computerized components and can’t be fixed without sophisticated tools and highly trained mechanics.

Second, both seized opportunities without giving much thought to whether they were qualified to take on a challenge. Thelma learned computer programming when the principal at Marquette’s high school, where she was teaching, had no one to take on the class, and so she volunteered. Rex made his first solo flight after only an hour and 45 minutes of instruction on a Saturday, landing his plane on Sunday in his brother-in-law’s alfalfa field to give rides to family members. On Monday, after telling a co-worker who ran the Marion airport about it, he learned he was supposed to have a minimum of eight hours in the air with an instructor before soloing. For both Rex and Thelma, that work experience on the farm no doubt helped foster that confidence – from an early age, both had demonstrated to themselves that they were competent to get things done.

Third, Rex and Thelma both have an understated sense of humor. I’m not a racing fan and am unfamiliar with dirt-track racing. “Could you explain it to me”, I ask. Thelma’s response: “You get on the track and go left”. How did her racing career start? She was helping a guy build a car that his son was supposed to race. When the son didn’t show up, “I put on the suit, and finished third”. She only gave up the sport, she said, when she “was racing against the grandkids”. Literally. She once raced against one of Rex’s grandsons.

In the 1950s, Rex was wiring houses when an inspector came by and asked to see his license. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve got a driver’s license and a pilot’s license. Which one do you want?’” Instead of shutting him down, the inspector looked at the quality of his work, left, and came back later that day and handed Rex an electrician’s license. Where did Rex learn to wire a house? By paying attention. When rural electrification came to the area in the 1940s, “My dad wired houses and I helped”, he says.

This reflection on rural history is of value not simply for the sake of nostalgia. Wes Jackson, Land Institute president emeritus, who himself grew up on a Depression-era farm, says all three of those traits will be necessary in the low-energy world that is coming at the end of the fossil-fuel epoch. “We’re going to need people who can tinker and keep all this patched together, and who don’t wait around for permission to do things”, Wes says. “And it isn’t going to always work, which means we are going to need a healthy sense of humor”.

Rex isn’t much for predictions, but he worries about the bills for the United States’ expansive economic growth during his lifetime coming due. Take wind machines, he says, which “made us big money in the crane business, but may be the worst thing that we’ve done”. Rex isn’t against renewable energy, but warns that we’ve underestimated the long-term maintenance costs and are counting on more from that technology than is likely coming.

Rex doesn’t resist change – there’s a computer on his desk and a cell phone in his pocket. And he isn’t nostalgic about the suffering during the Depression – he has enjoyed being able to travel and gets pleasure from all those vehicles and planes (he owns a dozen, all still flying).

But he sees how some “progress” has come with costs, such as community connection and neighborliness. Rex doesn’t think that people have changed all that much, but, “It’s just (technological) advancement more than anything else”, he says. “We used to have to have help to do things, but now you can do almost everything by yourself”. He gave the example of a corn cultivator that required two people, which meant he needed his neighbor’s help. “You worked together because you had to. You didn’t have a choice”.

Rex points out what many sociologists have observed: In small communities with limited resources, people get things done through collective effort, which means spending lots of time together, which creates real bonds. Here’s another example: When he was young, Rex’s dad and brother were badly burned when the propane generator for a Delco battery system that they were repairing blew up. (Rex says he had been helping them but escaped the same fate because his mother made him go out to milk the cows.) His brother hadn’t finished his plowing yet, and without anyone in his family asking, more than 20 neighbors came by and got the work done. “Neighbors still help”, Rex says, “but not like that”.

Wes, who had stopped by and joined the conversation, nodded in agreement, noting that this also meant a certain lack of privacy that people have come to expect today. “There was no such thing as ‘your own business’”, Wes says.

Rex agrees, and offers another observation that researchers have “proved” through scholarly studies: Our experience of wealth and poverty is relative to what our friends and neighbors have, which means it’s easier to thrive in hard times when the struggles are shared.

“Everyone else was just like us, and we didn’t think of ourselves as being rich or poor”, he says.

“At Christmas, I got one present, just like everyone else. Not a dozen presents, just one. I don’t recall feeling deprived”.

Rex hasn’t felt deprived, and he also appears unfazed by his success in his various businesses or his impressive collection of cars, truck, and planes. He acknowledges that he enjoys working – “building, creating, fixing things” – but can offer no explanation when asked about the secret to his success.

“Well, I have no idea”, Rex says. “I’ve just done what happened to come in front of me”.