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Cultivating a Collection : Museum Sprouts in Piru Back Yard

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As he had done so often in younger days, Harry Lechler bent over a wooden Victrola, lifted the instrument’s arm and slowly placed the needle onto a record.

And as if he still were a young boy playing a song for his sweetheart, the 83-year-old man excitedly wound up the Victrola and listened as the voice of Bing Crosby filled the room.

“If you want it loud, you keep both doors open,” he said as he opened wide the doors of the wooden speaker. “If you want it low, you close the doors.”

The Victrola is one of thousands of local and foreign memorabilia and artifacts that Lechler has collected during the past 52 years. Determined to preserve days gone by, the Piru native has turned his collection into Lechler’s Museum.

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Tucked in the back yard of Lechler’s home at the corner of Market and Church streets, the collection fills two sheds, a garage and an 864-square-foot room built exclusively for the museum.

Hundreds of agricultural tools from as far back as 1875 clutter open space in the back yard, while the main building flaunts the stretched skin of an 18-foot boa constrictor, Chumash arrows and mortars, a copper ax blade traced to the Incas and correspondence between his wife’s aunt and then-First Lady Grace Coolidge.

The collection, which Lechler describes as heirlooms, also includes petrified wood, 1920s wine-making paraphernalia, 40 clothes irons including early versions called mangles, as well as coins, books and Italian leaded-glass windows.

“I don’t like to throw things away because they are the only physical instruments to keep us in touch with the past,” said Lechler, an energetic man who does not allow visitors to leave without listening to him play some of his vintage harmonicas.

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Nearly every day, Lechler and his wife of 61 years, Peggy, give tours of the museum to history aficionados from as near as Fillmore and as far as Arizona, he said.

“We do not advertise or anything; people hear about us from friends and relatives who have visited,” said Lechler, who doesn’t charge admission.

Indeed, at the end of each tour, which may last as long as three hours, Lechler presents visitors with a wooden nickel that describes Piru as “A little town with a lot of history.”

Lechler, who most of his life owned a hardware store in Piru, said he began putting the museum together in 1943 when he bought a showcase to display shotguns that he had inherited from his father and grandfather.

After placing the showcase in a second-story room at his home, friends and relatives began to come over to see it, and within weeks Lechler discovered that he had many more items to show.

These included the 125-year-old scythe that his grandfather used to cut hay and alfalfa at the family’s ranch in Piru Canyon and a large collection of Indian mortars and grinding rocks that he and his brothers found during hiking trips in the canyons of Ventura County.

Charmed by Lechler’s enthusiasm, friends and relatives began to pitch in artifacts and relics--some brought from faraway places, such as snake skins from South America.

By the early ‘50s, Lechler began displaying items in the garage and sheds, and by 1969, he used his savings to build a large room that displays the most cherished items in the collection.

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“I never turned anyone down,” Lechler said. “Whatever people want to donate, I take it.”

But donations make up only a small part of the museum.

Like an archeologist seeking lost treasures, Lechler often went on excavating trips around Piru, finding buried items such as pieces of railroad track from the late 1800s and an 1858 milk bottle.

“I like to hike and move around, so I would go out and start looking,” Lechler said, adding that age no longer allows him to do that.

For all the curios and the discovered artifacts, though, it has been Lechler’s desire to preserve his family history that motivates him to maintain the museum, he said.

His grandfather, George Lechler, moved from Jersey City, Pa., to Los Angeles in 1853. While working as a bartender, he loaned money to a friend.

Unable to pay the debt with cash, the friend offered as payment a 40-acre homestead at Piru Canyon, which George Lechler accepted. Through the years, the ranch grew to 500 acres, most of which still belongs to Lechler’s family, Lechler said.

The youngest of nine brothers and sisters, and one of only three surviving, Lechler says he worries about what will happen to the museum when he dies.

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Although he has four children, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, no one in the family has shown an interest in operating the museum, Lechler said.

“I fear that no one will care about it,” he said. “Or that people will come and take what they think are the most valuable things and leave unattended the little things that mean so much to me.”


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