No. 122 November, 2009
Harold Ratzburg was born at the start of the Great Depression and raised on a Dairy Farm in Wisconsin. He served four years in the US Air Force in the 50's and was stationed in Germany, where he met his wife Anneliese, who helped get him through College to become a Civil Engineer. After a time as a Highway Engineer and College Instructor, he wound up as a City Engineer of a small town in New Jersey. Twenty four years later he retired to become an old geezer telling old stories on his new fangled computer.
A Collector's Collector
By Harold Ratzburg
I have admired Ray Arndt for years, mostly from a distance, because he was always a little older geezer than I am. But he impressed me as a fellow collector because way back when, I saw the collection of guns he had "liberated" in Europe, and more recently when I learned that he had contributed a lot of his stuff to the Marion Historical Society.
I recently had a chance to talk with him over lunch for a coupla hours, and so----here you go folks---is his story as a collector.
Ray was raised on his Dad's Farm, about a quarter mile south of Maple Valley School in Dupont. He started collecting with the usual Wisconsin Kid's stuff, like Indian arrowheads that he found and traded with other kids. He also started his collection of old shells and bullets for rifles and shotguns, which today is a very impressive display. I makes my mouth water just to look at pictures of it.
Eventually, after forking a lot of hay and shoveling a lot of manure with his Dad, WW II came along and Ray was drafted in 1942 at the age of 24, rather old for a draftee at the time, but his deferment on the farm just ran out, and away he went. He received his basic training at Fort Sheridan in Illinois and was then transferred to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin and Battle Creek, Michigan, for training as an MP (Military Policeman).
Training completed, he was shipped to England where the Allied armies were preparing for the D-Day invasion of Europe. His memories of the trip to England were that he was very lucky about the duties that were assigned to him on the ship. He traveled on a really big luxury liner, the Queen Elizabeth, with only 17,000, (yes, that is seventeen thousand) other GI's, a whole darned Division. His good luck on the ship was that he was assigned to pull guard duty on the top decks, and not in the lower ones, where about 17,000 other troops were literally locked in their quarters. Imagine if you will, 17,000 troops, maybe one half or more of them sea sick, confined to stay below decks, because there just was not enough room on the top decks with fresh air to accommodate them. Ray remembers that the decks and stairs below were sometimes literally awash with vomit. Yucky yucky!!!!!!!!!!!!! Fortunately, the Queen Elizabeth was a fast ship and therefore could, and did, outrun the German submarines and the ship with the whole Division on board made the crossing in only four and a half days.
Back on dry land in England, the MP unit was assigned to policing the Army Troops as they got ready for the invasion on June 6, 1944. With massive amounts of war material and troops being shipped to England for storage and preparation for the invasion, Ray's duties consisted of leading truck convoys all over England and surrounding territories. The duty got pretty hairy at times,-----leading a truck convoy, through the narrow English roadways scarcely wide enough for a car, under blackout conditions where the only light from the headlamps came through a narrow one inch slit opening in a headlight cover, through a strange countryside where most all road signs were removed in order to not give aid to possible German Airborne invaders if they should come----but the Farmer from Wisconsin stuck to his duties and got to see most of the British Isles from behind the steering wheel of a Jeep.
Other interesting parts of the job consisted of escorting US Army prisoners from place to place traveling by the English Railroad system. Especially scary one time, was facing down, (with other MPs,) rioting crowds of white and colored soldiers when racial tensions boiled over as they did from time to time in the segregated WW II Army.
Getting closer and closer to the D-Day date, the MPs helped to gather all the troops--- who were waiting for the signal to "Go" from General Eisenhower,--- into barbed wire enclosures near the points of embarkation and keep them in there, so no word of the time and place of the invasion would leak out to the Germans who were waiting for them along the coast of France. Fortunately, even with millions of people involved, the secret was kept and the Invasion was a success.
With his good luck holding out, Ray missed the actual invasion and stayed in England for a period after June 6th, while the MPs helped to funnel the support troops and supplies from England over the Channel to the fighting forces in France. Eventually, the work for the MPs in England was caught up, and the MP unit was disbanded. The Army handed Ray an M1 Garand and he became a rifleman, which is not really a choice job description in a shooting war, and he was assigned to the 142nd Infantry Division in France.
As his luck and fate would have it however, Ray did not wind up in a Band of Brothers situation in the war. His outfit kinda stayed in the background and he never did hear a shot fired in anger at him during the conflict or later as a soldier of occupation in Germany.
During his time as a Soldier of the Occupation, his collecting instincts resulted in the "liberation" of many collectibles. Foremost among them was a fine German Schutzen Target Rifle Others included German military weapons, a German Flare Gun (now in the Marion Museum), and various cloth insignia from the German uniforms. (Ray was able to send most of the guns home because he had the skill to take them apart and fit them into packages no longer than thirty inches, which was the maximum allowed in the US GI postal system. It also helped that Ray, speaking German, was the interpreter for his Company 'G', and thru his connections, he could have those boxes make by local people, paying them with cigarettes which were the unit of exchange in post war occupied Germany.) Those were the guns that fascinated me later on when I had a chance to see them. Those guns have now gone on to other collectors or family members as auction items or gifts.
Ray's duties as a soldier gave him opportunities to travel to many cities, like Ulm an der Donau,-- (where seven years later, I "collected" my little Frau Anneliese)-- Munich, Dachau, and Linz, Austria. He manned check points at road turns and bridges where people moved back and forth, and he sometimes hauled supplies because he had a GI drivers license. He still has that drivers license cause a true collector very seldom throws anything away.
With occupation duties winding down, Ray was shipped to the south of France and got on a US Coast Guard ship and headed back to the ZI, which is Army talk meaning Zone of Interior--or--the good old USA! That little ocean cruise took eleven days, with no German submarine worries that time, and Ray got his discharge in late March of 1946.
After his discharge, Ray returned home to Marion, and picked up his former life as a farmer and collector. He haunted farm auctions and estates sales and flea markets and gradually accumulated a big assortment of hand tools (over 2,000 of them), farming equipment and just about anything else that was old and interesting to him, including a threshing machine. (How many people do you know that have a collectible like that in their back yard or barn???? Unfortunately, the old thresher was destroyed when lightning struck the barn it was stored in and burned to the ground) In between farming and collecting chores, he built a workshop where he could restore just about any piece of old equipment that needed welding or reshaping or woodworking done on it.
For instance, if he found an old cant hook, that needed a handle, he hand made the handle for it. When he got an old donated fire department ladder truck that was damaged when a snow load caved in a roof on it, he dismantled it and bent it all straight and made the wooden parts that were required, and with the help of other volunteers painting the whole rig, it was back to its original configuration.
Folks in Marion have probably seen the Arndt stage coach in the local parades. Ray put that together from old farm equipment and machinery. He has also completed a tricycle made of wheels from a hay loader and a hay tedder. Now, that has got to be the biggest tricycle around! The stage coach is now in the new building at the museum site and the giant tricycle soon will be.
Eventually, even his farm and farm buildings were getting kinda filled with his collections and Ray got to point that many collectors reach eventually----thinking----What am I gonna do with all this stuff?????
His first solution to his problem occurred when he looked at an old log house that was still on his farm. It was in pretty good condition for its age and Ray figured that it really should go somewhere where it could seen by other people as a relic of the past. He contacted the appropriate people in Marion and offered the log house to the town if the town would provide a place to put it. His offer was acted upon by town officials and so----- the Marion Historical Museum was born.
Moving the log house turned out to be a bear of a job. Volunteers and County Conservation workers were found who had the expertise and knowledge and equipment to dismantle the building and move the pieces and reassemble it. The job of re calking the spaces between the logs, using 63 bags of mortar, was a real time consuming operation, even with help from modern equipment. So imagine what it was like, maybe 100 years ago when it was first built, with only hand tools to work with. Them ole pioneers wuz sturdy folks back then.
Over the years, other buildings were added to the museum, including the old Marion Rail Road Depot which now houses many of the donated collections. I don't really know how the old Marion Depot building came to be added to the Museum collection, but Ray told me about the vast amount of work that was required to move it and restore it. I can only try to imagine myself how many hours were spent by volunteers just removing the old flooring, scraping the old boards clean of paint, pulling the nails, and nailing it back together again. Ray repeatedly emphasized his appreciation for the help that other volunteers and financial donors gave to complete all the work on all the projects.
Each building, the RR Caboose and siding, indeed every building or contribution to the museum, would have its own little story of where it was found, and its history before it arrived as a donation, that would be interesting to us old geezers and other folks like us that are interested in old, historical stuff. And----the story of each museum project, of how much time and effort went into its completion, would make interesting reading.
My Personal Thoughts and Observations
The City of Marion is very fortunate in that it has had the number of officials and dedicated volunteers and financial donors that have made possible the Ray Arndt Historical Society Museum. I have visited dozens of historical museums and sites over the years and I find that Marion's Museum is one of the best with such a varied collection of items and individual collections located on a beautiful site. I can hardly wait to see the new building completed and filled with new "old stuff" on display, especially since so much of it comes direct from my very own home town. I am proud of it, and I'm sure lots of others are too. If you ain't, you should be!!!!!!!
My personal thanks go out to all the volunteers (like Allen Krueger who---carrying his portable oxygen bottle--- was working with Ray on the new building every day that I visited) that gave so much time and work to the different projects, and especially to Ray Arndt who started it all. What a Guy!!!!!