FOUNTAIN CITY, Wis. — A career in auto salvage might give anyone an eye for seeking timeless treasures, but that doesn't begin to describe the treasure trove that Elmer Duellman amassed in his lifetime.
"This toy is going to be 100 years old and, at minimum, it will go for $25,000," said John Rodrigues, a pedal car collector who traveled all the way from New Jersey for a massive sale at the former home of Elmer's Auto & Toy Museum outside Fountain City, Wisconsin.
"I just want to see what's going to happen," Rodrigues said. "Look, my hair is standing up and I'm bald headed."
Mecum Auctions spent months working with the Duellman family to sort and catalog hundreds of wagons, trikes, bikes and motorcycles; more than 800 pedal cars and pedal tractors; and another 100 classic cars that Elmer spent his life collecting.
"The variety of what's been amassed here is probably the best in the world," said Mecum Auctions COO, Sam Murtaugh.
The auction, which started on Wednesday and concludes this Saturday, includes a total of 2,000 lots from four jam-packed buildings.
"It was more than an obsession, it was an addiction," said Elmer's son, Brad Duelmann. "If it had wheels, he had to have it."
In the process, Elmer's became a major source of knowledge across the pedal car and vintage toy hobby. He was often a go-to expert for the American Pickers, and wrote several guides that helped set the market and encourage a new generation of collectors.
"The knowledge that he had is beyond mind baffling," Rodrigues said. "He was an encyclopedia of pedal cars. He really wanted to share that love with others."
Just months before he died, Elmer Duellman talked to KARE11 about the unlikely, and tragic, story that inspired his love for collecting.
"As a young child I never had a toy," he said. "There were eight of us. My mom passed away when I was seven years old, so we had no money. I went to an auction one time and I saw these toys. I bought them for a quarter and fifty cents. Some people, they'd laugh at you, but pretty soon they weren't laughing. They were bringing me toys that they had at home to sell."
It wasn't long before his definition of toys expanded.
"By the time he was 18, he flipped 42 cars already - bought, sold, traded, whatever," Brad Duellman said.
Still, it took several more years to flip it all into a business.
"My wife and I started a salvage yard with just one car," Elmer said. "I worked 20 hours a day and so did my wife, every, every day."
As the years passed, Elmer's business and his collection kept growing. Despite never spending time on the internet, he was able to cultivate a network of "pickers" in states across the country, who would help him find rare items. On weekends he would pick them up or arrange deliveries.
They packed a lot of fun into those days too, which is how one of his treasures wound up in the living room of his home.
"It's a '29 Model-A, Ford," Elmer said. "My wife thought it was pretty enough to put in the house. She's the one who suggested it."
That Ford is still parked next to the fireplace inside the house, and won't be up for auction, but another parked car will certainly generate some bidding.
"It's a '78 Corvette that my dad bought brand-new," Brad Duellman said. "It only has four miles on it. My dad never even sat in it. My oldest brother drove it on the truck. My second oldest brother drove it off, and after it sat on the ground, I got to hop in it.
"The last person to sit in it was my dad's youngest grandson."
Those memories are what Elmer really treasured.
"He loved to share his collection," Brad Duellman said. "He could sit out here all day and tell people anything about any item. That was the passion he loved with it all."
Ultimately, it was Elmer's wish to share his collection with one final auction.
"You know it's got to happen some day," he said, during that interview in 2018. "I won't feel bad. I've had my share of fun. Besides, there's a lot of guys who would like to have a lot of different things out of here, you know?"
Saying goodbye to those things still won't be easy for the family.
"It's going to be an emotional rollercoaster coming up," Brad Duellman said. "Every piece you see is part of my dad, but it's also part of us too."
There is one piece the family has deemed too priceless to auction.
"The '32 museum pickup," he said. "This side says "Burnedette", the driver's door says "Elmer" on it. This was my dad's last ride, and when my mom passes away, it will be her last ride. This one we're keeping."
Most of the rest will be leaving to any number of new destinations, but there's something to treasure in that too.
"It's memories, it's what he wanted to share with the rest of the world," Brad Duellman said. "It'll be sad, but we know that stuff is going to go to a good place, people are going to love it."
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