It’s not hard to see that Elmer Duellman is a man of strong ethics. His work ethic, which can best be described as ox-like, has fueled his ability over the last few decades to run a full-service gas station, operate a salvage yard, solitarily plow the snow off his small town’s streets, and keep up a massive, thriving collection of muscle cars, vintage cycles, pedal cars and tens of thousands of old-fashioned toys. Lately, after three or four heart attacks, he’s had to cut back on the stress, and now he’s only working, in his words, “half-days. Seven AM to seven PM.”
As impressive as that is, it’s his life ethic that I find more inspiring. Elmer is the owner and operator of Elmer’s Auto & Toy Museum, a hidden gem we found after whimsically following a vague, solitary roadside sandwich board advertising “Elmer’s. Car & Toy Museum. 2M ->”. That, the tippiest tip of the iciest iceberg. This place is almost impossible in its awesomeness. Four large barns are filled, save two slight aisles to accommodate peeping humans, with rare car after rare car, each one restored to (or simply stored at) such a condition as to make a grown man cry. I don’t know my carburetor from my manifold and I practically went weak in the knees. I can’t imagine what a real fanatic would do.
Sadly, though understandably, Elmer’s doesn’t allow photography, so I can’t show you what I saw. Here’s a short list of examples:
- 1963 Studebaker Avanti R1
- 1966 Plymouth Belvedere I (“Very rare”)
- 1962 Ford Galaxie 500
- A set of ’40s Indian motorcycles, completely restored
- A chainless, shaft-powered, wooden bicycle
- 1933 Rolls Royce, partly wood construction
- 1920 Dodge Touring Car
- 1910 Model T (“with Mother-in-law seat in rear”)
And on and on. Elmer’s been keeping this collection for decades. Some of these cars were bought new in the fifties, then never driven, acts that required incredible foresight and patience. Elmer’s built himself up quite a fortune. But he’s not interested in selling the collection. He’s not interested in expanding his hours to more than a few days a month. He’s turned down offers to move the whole collection to a high-traffic tourist area, where the real money is. “Then what would I do?” he says. “Invite people up to look at my money?”
Elmer knows what makes him happy — owning and showing vintage cards — and he knows how much he needs to get by. Anything beyond that is trivia.
We intended to spend a half-hour at the museum. Two hours later we were still chatting with Elmer. Sarah had to pull me away. Finally we left, our vacation incalculably improved because of our time there. We turned out of the driveway onto Elmer Ave., then rolled back down the hill to the Great River Road, destination Minneapolis.