Historic Widmer collection up for auction this weekend

Fritz Widmer of Cologne has amassed a huge collection of classic vehicles, farm implements and other items that will be auctioned Oct. 6-7. Photo by Paul Downer

It took a lifetime for Fritz Widmer to build up an exhaustive collection of classic cars, trucks, tractors, signs and other historic memorabilia, but it will likely only take one weekend to get rid of it.

A massive live auction is planned for this Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 6-7, and bidders on site and also online from around the country and world will have the opportunity to come away with a piece of memorabilia.

“The collection has something for everyone, from fabulous original porcelain neon signs to hundreds of pressed tin and porcelain signs,” said Yvette VanDerBrink of VanDerBrink Auctions. “There are also antique tractors, farm equipment, antiques, and several rare collector vehicles.”

Widmer’s collection is, without a doubt, staggering in its range and quantity. He owns a historic fire truck from Long Lake, old steam tractors, a sizable collection of classic cars and even a horse-drawn hearse that he obtained from an Amish community in Pennsylvania.

Historic signs cover the walls and hang from the ceiling of an enormous five-door pole shed. Railroad signals, bells and lights are located around his Sunny Hill Farm property just west of Cologne, and the lawns between the outbuildings were covered in historic farm machinery as Widmer prepared for the auction at the end of September.

Also up for sale will be a variety of guns, swords, toys, cast iron seats, historic farm tools and just about anything else one can imagine.

Lifetime collector
For as long as he can remember, Widmer has been a collector. Why did he start?

“I’m asked that a hundred times. Probably the only thing I can say is, I can’t remember ever not collecting,” he said. “If it was old or related back to something, I just liked it.”

Originally from St. Bonifacius, Widmer served in the Korean War as an artillery mechanic, then returned home to start a septic repair business. He saw improvements that could be made in septic systems, eventually partnered with an engineer, and gradually grew his business into building waste and water treatment facilities around the United States.

That flourishing career not only provided Widmer the means to acquire a wide variety of historic items, but also meant a great deal of travel around the United States where he had access to ever more items of interest.

“It’s something that some people care for and some people don’t. Some people might walk by anything, and I’d pick it up,” he said with a laugh. Then, pointing to a wall of his garage covered from floor to ceiling with old brands of oil cans he added, “It’s like these oil cans. If one is good, 20 is better. Of the whole bunch there, there’s not two alike. You go to an auction and you think, ‘Jeepers, I don’t think I have that one.’ So you buy it.”

The oil cans and classic signs lend a historic feel to the expansive shed, but the vehicles themselves are Widmer’s pride and joy. There are over 20 cars on the property, from a 1921 Watkins Model T to a 1966 Corvair. There’s also a fully functional police car and an unrestored truck from 1918 that still runs. Each one has a story or some special significance to Widmer, who has already sold off half a dozen more vehicles.

Over the years he and his wife Jane, along with their six children, kept the cars in running order to appear at parades and for car club cruises, and all but two could be started up and driven at any time. Widmer put his mechanical skills to work to keep the vehicles running, and though it was time consuming, he felt the results were worth it.

“This ’55 Packard, it’s a rare car and it’s a good car,” Widmer said. “It’s well put together. It runs great. I wouldn’t be afraid to fuel it up and take it to either the east coast or the west coast. It’s been that dependable.”

Despite that satisfaction, Widmer is ready to take a break.

“One advantage of the signs is, you hang them up and you’re done with them. But car work just drags on and drags on and drags on. It might be a dead battery, you lose your brakes, you have to winterize them. You’ve always got something going on,” he said, adding that he spends almost every day working on maintaining his collection and has tried to drive a different car every week to keep them fresh. “I’m pushing 80. It gets hard to take care of them. It’s been my life, really. Family and this has been it.”

Decision to sell
While Widmer has poured his time and energy into maintaining his vehicles and other items, he doesn’t seem overly sentimental about parting with his collection. His farm has been the destination of hundreds of tours by historical societies, senior residences, car clubs and more, and he is confident that most of the items will sell at the auction. What does he plan to do with the items that don’t sell?

“I’ll call Davey Franck (of Franck’s Sanitation),” he said with a laugh. “No, it won’t get that drastic. I think most of it will go.”

Widmer said he had no idea what type of crowd to expect for the auction, but said there should be good opportunities to pick up unique or collector items.

“There’s no reserve. Whatever they sell for, they sell for,” he said.

Now that he’s reached the point where he’s ready to bid his collection goodbye, does Widmer think he can turn off that collector’s instinct in the years ahead?

“I’m going to swear off of auctions,” he said with a laugh. “We’ll have to play it by ear.”

Widmer did admit, however, that it might be difficult to adjust to life without his collection at first.

“I can’t imagine walking into this building after the auction and looking around and everything is gone. I don’t know how I’m going to take that,” he said. “But it’s going to happen.”

Auction particulars
The Widmer collection auction will commence at 9:30 a.m. on both Saturday, Oct. 6 and Sunday, Oct. 7.

On Saturday the railroad collectibles, collector cars, toys and all the advertising signs will be sold. The following day will feature the sale of tractors, implements, guns and swords, and miscellaneous antiques.

For more information on the auction, see www.vanderbrinkauctions.com. For those who are unable to attend the live auction in person, online bidding can be done at www.proxibid.com.

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