“Hey steve, have you ever seen my tool collection?”
With that, on a July day back in 2009, Wally Keller led Steve Schlecht, owner of Duluth Trading, down into the lower level of his house north of Mt. Horeb, WI. Steve was astonished at what he saw. "Wally had over three thousand vintage tools, some dating back to the early 1800's — from early American to the steel forged tools of industry — all displayed on pegboard and grouped according to what they were used for — farm tools, blacksmith tools, fire fighting and so forth. It was the darndest thing I'd ever seen."
As Wally showed him around, pointing to this old wrench or that old drill, Steve realized that every tool told a very personal, individual story, and the collection as a whole told a story too. "It speaks to the ingenuity of Americans, at the start of the Industrial Age, when work was more physical and more personal," says Steve. "For instance, Wally had over 150 different pipe wrenches, representing some 100 patents — looking at them, you can see how each tool took off on the one before, and manufacturers fed on each other's ideas, until they evolved into the pipe wrench we're familiar with today."
Tragically, two weeks after he showed Steve his tool collection, Wally was killed in a tractor accident. Afterwards, talking to his widow Shirley, Steve realized that she wanted to keep the collection together. She even suggested the old Mustard Museum building in Mt. Horeb as a place to display it. So Steve bought the 3,147-piece collection, and a selection of the tools will be the "extra added attraction" at the new Duluth Trading store in downtown Mt.Horeb, located where the old Mustard Museum used to be.
The collection has been curated by Jim McGhee, a tool collector and artist in his own right, as well as a long-time friend of Wally's. "This is my dream job," says Jim. "I love old tools, and I love turning them into art." Each pegboard panel is an artful collage of tools, arranged in a way that traces their ingenious development. They have a rugged beauty to them, with the hard-earned patina that only comes from years of service for craftsmen who took good care of them.
“It speaks to the ingenuity of Americans, at the start of the Industrial Age, when work was more physical and more personal.”
"I miss my scotch drinking time with Wally," says Jim. "He'd talk about all the different businesses he'd had — antique store, saloon, blacksmith shop. He saw something that might be interesting to do, then just went and did it. Wally did what he loved."
Growing up on a farm during the Depression, Wally got handy with tools at a young age, helping his dad keep all the machinery going. He enlisted in the Navy during the Korean War, went to machinist school right out of boot camp, and ended up in the machine shop of a destroyer. Out of the service, he bought his own welding shop, and learned how to fabricate and repair. It's hard to imagine a tool he didn't know how to use — or a bygone tool he couldn't appreciate.
When he was in his sixties, he began creating unique junk art sculptures. "I use a lot of old farm machinery plus commercial and automotive parts," he told a writer. "Valve, horse corn planter, horse harness, machine gears, sprockets, roller chain, milling machine, buckets, lots of flat wrenches for birds' feet. I like making things that are one of a kind."
Steve Schlecht describes his creative process: "Wally never drew out anything. He had a vision of something he wanted to do, then walked around his scrap yard, looking at all the old machine parts he'd collected, and it all just came together."
You can drive past Wally's place north of Mt. Horeb, and see his sculptures first hand. And it just feels right that Wally's tool collection is going to stay in Mt. Horeb, where his friends and family can visit, and a whole new audience of tool lovers can discover it with the same sense of wonder that Steve Schlecht did, when he first saw it back in 2009.