What do you do with 1,500 washing machines?

GREELEY, Colo. — One of my pet peeves is how we so casually use the term “unbelievable!” as the catch-all for such amazing accomplishments as an NBA shooting guard draining an 18-foot fall-away jumper with a hand in the face.

To me, “unbelievable” always would have been more along the lines of the long-lost Amelia Earhart reappearing at age 121 and landing her ancient, sputtering plane on Greeley’s Eighth Avenue.

After visiting the Lee Maxwell Washing Machine Museum in Eaton for The Tribune of Greeley, Colo., I’m changing my definition.

The museum is mouth-dropping. Eye-widening. Stunning. Unfathomable.

You have to see it, perhaps on the tours Maxwell offers by appointment only, and even then it’s, well, unbelievable. It must be an illusion. Surely, these all can’t be washing machines, all different, going back to the 19th century, including one with a wood treadmill attached to the machine so a goat (allegedly) can run on it and provide the power. Or another with kids on a teeter-totter-type mechanism powering the washer. Indeed, they’re not all washing machines, as Maxwell also dabbles in such things as a few dryers and irons, tucked away in corners. But washing machines dominate.

The retired Colorado State University electrical engineering professor, now 88, displays roughly 1,500 washing machines, farther than the eye initially can see because they are squeezed into two warehouse-type buildings adjacent to the Eaton home where he and his wife, Barbara, have lived since 1974. They also were part-owners of the adjacent family business, the Eaton Grove nursery, for many years, but now their daughter and son-in-law, Judy and Ken Olsen, are the sole owners.

By the way, that total of 1,500 washing machines is off the record.

“I promised Barbara I’d quit when I got to 1,000,” Lee said, conspiratorially. “So don’t tell her.”

That initial impression probably doesn’t do justice to Maxwell’s museum. He didn’t just round up all these machines, many of the older ones with wood frames or bases, but he also had to tear apart, clean and reassemble roughly 90 percent of them before putting them on display. Plus, with his collection about “maxed out,” he has downloaded 23,000 washing machine patents to his computer and for the past two years, his alternative passion has been to meticulously build scale models — what he calls “patent demos” — of older machines he has no hope of finding, whether because they never were made or because there’s no way intact wooden machines still could be out there.

One of those patented designs he has built to scale is a combination kitchen table, bathtub and washing machine. He also stepped up his pursuit of washing machine instruction manuals, advertisements and other printed materials.

When he retired in 1985, Maxwell had been at the University of Idaho for seven years and CSU for 23. His first antique washing machine was a gift from Barbara’s aunt, an old hand-operated Rue model given to the aunt by a nearby Nebraska farmer in 1920.

“I had no inclination to collect washing machines,” Lee said. That machine now has an honored spot near the entrance to the first building in the museum, and it also has the No 1 inventory number in Lee’s online catalog. Many more followed, starting after Lee and Barbara set out for Maine in their motor home to celebrate Lee’s retirement.

“We wanted to have lobster on the east coast,” Lee said. “We stopped by what turned out to be a farm auction in the middle of Iowa. I raised my hand, and I had my first purchased machine. It was a gasoline-powered Maytag. I paid, oh, a hundred bucks. By the time we got to Maine, we had four washing machines on the top of the motor home. Barbara was complaining that they weren’t light, that the roof was going to cave in. We got to Maine, and we stopped by an old warehouse, and I bought four more. So I had to buy a trailer and when we got home, we had 13 washing machines. And I actually had to buy two trailers because I overloaded the first and bent the springs and the tires blew out.”

Lee was hooked. Why washing machines?

“I’ve always been interested in old things,” he said. “We’ve always had old houses. I was just fascinated with the mechanics of the thing, to start with.”

After that initial excursion, the Maxwells planned out ensuing trips by placing pins in a wall map, showing where they had been told machines they wanted were available.

“I left my card everywhere,” Lee said.

They took month-long trips two or three times a year, using back highways and hitting every flea market, antique shop, or farm sale they encountered. They’d pick up those “pinned” machines, but Lee also said he bought about one a day from other sources on the road. The towed trailer ended up crammed and stacked with machines.

“When we stopped for gas, people would gather around,” Lee said. “The truck drivers would notice us. I heard one driver say on the CB, ‘Now I’ve seen everything, a guy’s pulling his own junkyard.'”

Lee had a checklist of models he needed to fill out his collection and bought duplicates occasionally to use in trades.

The two warehouses went up next to the house two years apart, around 2000. The Maxwells stopped making the motor home buying trips about 10 years ago. The collection was just about complete, with nearly all of what Maxwell believed might be available. The Maytag “wringer” machines are placed to line around the walls, starting with Model 40, manufactured from 1909-27.

The older manual machines — many of the Rube Goldberg-type gadget variety, able also to churn butter and serve other functions — are mainly in the first building. The power machines are mostly in the second.

“I don’t buy any large machines anymore,” Maxwell said. “There are about 10 I would take if I could find them. I know of their existence through advertisements. For example, there are 66 different models of wringer Maytags. I’m missing four of them. I would take those. One is small and three are fairly large.”

Maxwell said he sells machines only rarely, and that’s when it is going to be used in something he considers worthwhile, as when he sold a Maytag to Samsung for $10,000 to be used in a company museum in South Korea. (He also confesses he had multiple washers of that model, so giving up one wasn’t painful.)

Maxwell began charging $75 for groups of up to 10 for his two-hour tours, plus an individual fee for each additional visitor, not for the revenue, but to try and slow down the traffic. It didn’t work. Groups visiting Maxwell can be from senior-citizen groups, car clubs, churches and other places, and television crews have come from Japan and Russia, plus from “Antique Road Show” and a terrific, if tantalizingly brief, segment of the CBS Evening News’ “On the Road with Steve Hartman.” Maxwell is a legend in a niche world, around the world on the internet. “I’m that old, insane guy who collects washing machines,” he said.

He jokes that the sign on the outside of the museum entrance could reverse the second and third lines in this:

“LEE MAXWELL

“COLLECTOR OF

“OLD AND UNUSUAL

“WASHING MACHINES”

So what’s he going to do with this collection?

“You tell me,” he said.

He said he really didn’t know.

It’s too big for my garage.

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