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The Collector : Piru Man Stores Up the Past, But Museum’s Future Is in Question

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No doubt about it. These are uneasy days in the museum world.

A Van Gogh sells for a record $82.5 million in New York, a Renoir for $78.1 million, and a judge in Ohio launches a search for obscenity in a collection of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs.

In Piru, meanwhile, another cultural question rides the dry breeze:

Who will take over the Harry H. Lechler Collection?

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“He’s got family,” said a woman at the Piru General Store. “Or he could probably sell it or give it to a historical society. But I couldn’t tell you for sure.”

“He doesn’t know,” said Jean Warren, vice president of the Piru Neighborhood Council. “He didn’t know 10 years ago.”

Harry H. Lechler, founder of Lechler’s Museum and unofficial historian of the tiny town of Piru, collects things. For more than 50 of his 78 years, he has been gathering and displaying them.

Turn-of-the-century farm implements. A 1917 butter churn. An 18-foot-long South American python skin. A buggy whip. Eight feet of Southern Pacific railroad track, ties and all. A fading carton of Albers Flapjack Flour. A can of Billy beer. Ancient razors. A stuffed albino gopher.

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“Slim Johnson caught that,” said Lechler, glancing at the gopher. “I’d say sometime around 1945 or 1948.”

Lechler, who has spent his life in Piru, has thousands of these things, each in its place. The well-secured storeroom behind his house is designated as Ventura County Historical Landmark No. 125. And for 20 years now, he has been offering private tours to those who call ahead or knock at his door and ask politely. He’s in the phone book.

“I’ve only refused once,” he said. “I had two guys come in--rough-looking guys--just before dark, and my wife and I were just about to go out. Must have been about five years ago.”

Lechler, balding, bespectacled and well-fed, seems to be in robust health. In his cowboy hat and bolo tie, he scrambles up a ladder to the second story of his house, talks a blue streak and offers a nimble harmonica recital on his antique Hohner. But someday his collection will need a new curator.

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And so, while New Yorkers wonder if high auction prices are pushing museums out of the art market, and court watchers wonder whether the Mapplethorpe case will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, Piru wonders about the fate of its only museum. And the man whose name is on the sign can’t offer much help.

“Everybody wants to know what’s going to happen to this place when I’m gone, and I wish I knew the answer to that question. I don’t know,” Lechler said.

“I’ve got seven grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, three daughters and a son, so I hope it’ll stay in the family. But. . . .”

Piru, with a population of 1,200, holds little interest for most ambitious youngsters, and the Harry H. Lechler Collection is a daunting property. Lechler has two daughters in the area, but neither seems inclined to step in, he said.

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“Maybe it should be donated to the county historical society,” Warren said. If the collection stayed put under local stewardship, she said, “you’d have to open the doors and charge admission, and you’d have to have a curator, and this town just doesn’t have enough people for that.”

The official tour starts upstairs in Harry and Margaret Lechler’s house, which was built in 1937 for about $3,000. The upstairs den, principally occupied by four deer heads, two television sets and a stuffed mallard, was added in 1943.

By then, Harry Lechler said, he had begun running the town’s general store, and word of his hoarding habits had begun to spread.

“I’d have a salesman in the store,” he said, “and I’d say, ‘Come ‘ere and have a look at this.’ And he’d say, ‘Hey, you got a little museum here! And I got some something you oughta have.’ ”

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Now the Lechlers’ property is crowded with added-on structures, each devoted to another sub-category of the collection. The garden area bristles with rusty Model T parts, spring-toothed harrows, a 1920 Fordson tractor and, near the walkway, a rusted round casing with a wooden handle, mounted on an empty rectangular box.

“This here--I don’t know what it is,” said Harry Lechler, waving an arm at the box. “Something like that, I’ll leave it. And someday, some guy will come and say, ‘Ah, you know what that is?’ ”

Those are Harry Lechler’s favorite visitors. The least favorite are those who wish to do business, such as the man who two months ago offered $50 for a tiny fishing reel.

“I said no,” Harry Lechler said, “because the guy who gave it to me, he didn’t give it to me to sell. He gave it to me to show. And that’s the way I feel about all of this stuff. I’m a caretaker, really.”

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Harry Lechler might be less adamant about his collection if its contents were less familiar, but for him, Piru history is personal history. His father and mother came to the Piru area in 1889 and homesteaded a 500-acre ranch just across the nearby county line. On one wall hangs one of his father’s homesteader papers from 1892, entitling him to 159 acres of Los Angeles County property and signed by President Benjamin Harrison.

In a corner stands the telephone switchboard used by Harry Lechler’s parents when they took over the Roundrock Hotel in downtown Piru. The hotel was sold years ago, and until the 1970s, Harry Lechler made his living running a general store.

But in recent years, the museum has claimed most of his attention. It has neither nonprofit status nor accreditation from the American Assn. of Museums, but Harry Lechler said that troubles him little because he refuses all cash donations.

Material contributions are another matter.

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“If you turn stuff away one time, people will say, ‘Well, he doesn’t want stuff,’ ” he said. “So I take it, whether I want it or not. Hell, I’ve got the room.”

As Harry Lechler said this, standing in the yard amid a century of bric-a-brac, Margaret Lechler, 79, his wife of almost 56 years, labored silently in the kitchen.

She’s not sure what will become of the Harry H. Lechler Collection either. Seeing how it has come to dominate her yard, home and husband, a visitor wonders if, some days, she’d rather just do without the whole accumulation.

“Oh, no,” she said quickly, nodding her head toward the living room. “I have a lot of stuff in there too. I have quite a collection of bells and music boxes. And it looks like I’m starting to get a collection of candles. And, of course, I’ve always been a collector of books.”

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