WATERLOO • Edd Kueker grows frustrated as a prolonged cough from a persistent cold forces him to lean heavily on his walker.
“If I was just 10 years younger, I could tell you about this stuff,” Kueker said, standing in the dirt-floor barn he had built decades ago to ride his horses.
At 87, his storytelling skills are fine, but his labored breath forces him to tell them at a much slower clip than he would like. The stories — and there are many — involve the thousands of items Kueker has collected over half a century, best described as a salute to the Old West.
It’s a story of how that collection spawned a full-scale museum and has, in recent weeks, earned Kueker statewide accolades.
Until a few years ago, most of the items were in this barn behind the house he and his wife, Violet, have lived in for 60 years.
His collection started when he was a 4H leader in Monroe County. Telling stories, he soon realized children had no idea about U.S. history, specifically the Old West. He was especially interested in teaching them the roles horses played in transportation, farming and war. He bought a bridle bit to show his classes. He now has more than 500 of them – the largest collection east of the Mississippi, Kueker said.
His Old West collection expanded to saddles, then wagons, including one used to haul freight at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. There also is a stagecoach, a surry with fringe on top and a chuck wagon used on cattle drives. Some of wagons are replicas built by Kueker from photos and parts he was able to cobble together, including from his 47 years as an auctioneer.
Annual auctioneer conventions took him throughout the country (he’s been to all states but Alaska) and he would bring something home from each trip, he said.
“Saddles in Nebraska, bridle bits in Wyoming,” Kueker said.
As his collection grew, so did interest in seeing it. Schools would bring busloads of students to the barn. His wagons appeared in parades. Nearly every day, he said, someone would show up at his house, wanting to see what he had in the barn. And more times than he can count, he’d wake up to find someone had left an item outside the barn overnight to add to his collection.
He had offers to put his collection in Western-themed museums in other parts of the U.S. But Kueker wanted it to stay close to home, as did local history buffs and public officials.
A decade ago, a state grant was secured to partly fund a museum five minutes from Kueker’s Waterloo house. As the fundraising efforts lagged, though, Kueker grew concerned his collection would not have a proper home in his lifetime.
But on Oct. 25, 2008, the Monroe County History Museum opened its doors.
“If he wouldn’t have donated the items, we wouldn’t have this museum,” said Norma Reheis, president of the board of the Waterloo Museum Society. The Kuekers have donated more than 4,000 items.
In October, Kueker was one of four people inducted into the state’s Senior Hall of Fame, formed in 1994 by the Illinois Department on Aging to honor older adults who have excelled in community service, education, the labor force or the arts.
Kueker was nominated by Waterloo Mayor Tom Smith.
“Without Edd, we wouldn’t know how other days used to be,” Smith said. “He knows how everything progressed.”
AUCTIONS AND HORSES
Kueker got into auctioneering largely by accident while working at the University of Illinois Extension office as a farm adviser.
“My father-in-law was an auctioneer. He couldn’t hear very good. So when someone would give him a voice bid, I’d stand behind him and punch him or pinch him,” Kueker said.
One day, his father-in-law said he had to step off the platform to cough and handed the microphone to Kueker. It was a ruse, of sorts, to see how Kueker would do taking and calling out bids.
In a small, rural county, the combined jobs of auctioneer, farm adviser and volunteer 4H leader led to seemingly everyone knowing Kueker, better known as “The Colonel,” a title often assigned to auctioneers.
Kueker’s love of history includes World War II, where he served in the the 103rd Infantry Division.
He and his wife, a retired home economics teacher, live on 11 acres in a ranch style home with a large living room window overlooking a large pond. A horse Kueker is boarding stops by for a drink. It’s the same pond an old mare fell in several years ago. It was the last horse he owned.
Kueker’s love of horses runs deep.
When his brown quarter horse, Whistler, died in 2000 at age 32, Kueker sent the Post-Dispatch an obituary. (The paper did not publish it but five others did. The Post-Dispatch did, however, write a story about the horse’s death).
“Oh, I loved that horse,” Kueker said, sitting in a living room wing back chair in sock feet and overalls. Whistler wasn’t top notch at horse shows because of his crooked back legs, but Kueker’s wife took a shining to the horse with four white socks and a gentle demeanor. Kueker and Whistler became staples in parades in Monroe and St. Clair counties and made regular appearances at schools.
Of the thousands of items that Kueker has collected, a presumption could be made he would have trouble picking a favorite. Not so.
“Right there,” he said, pointing across the room to a silver mounted saddle he used to sit atop when he rode horses in county fairs. He bought it at the estate sale of a popular Belleville doctor. The saddle sits on a stand like a prized work of art.
“I’d come in on that during the national anthem and the place would go quiet,” he said.
The barn that used to be stuffed to the rafters still has wagons and other items scattered about. But now it looks more like a picked over sale. There is interest in more of Kueker’s items, but the 6,000 square feet museum doesn’t have the room, Reheis said.
Until there is an expansion, one of the grander pieces of Kueker’s collections remains in the barn: a reconstructed 1861 storefront from Red Bud. Kueker put the H. Schrieber and Sons general store facade together piece by piece and added walls so he could fill the inside with shelves of dry goods and other items the store would have carried.
Kueker admits to getting sidetracked often, including stopping to tell the story of having dinner on a train with Harry Truman.
He has written eight books. The first was called “Life of a Cattle Drive Cowboy.” He wrote “Fundamentals of Equitation” so “if you buy a horse, you know what to do with him.” And he has a book aptly titled “As Best I Can Remember.” It includes stories that go back to his childhood.
Today, his wife worries about him growing too tired and the cough that stops him in his tracks. During a museum tour, Kueker rebuffed an offer from Violet to sit in a wheelchair, preferring the walker.
Publicly, he doesn’t like to be coddled. But back in his living room, out of earshot of his wife, he has nothing but praise for the woman he met at a dance through a friend of hers.
“I couldn’t have found a better woman,” Kueker said. “I’m certain of that.”
Then he moves on to another story.