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Leo Bongers

In this undated photo, Leo Bongers stands among his antique autos, long before the collection was sold in 1993.

Boston Studio Collection

It was possibly the largest and most spectacular public auction ever held in Butler County.

And 25 years later, many area residents still reminisce about the day the late Leo Bongers' massive antique vehicle collection was sold, an event that drew collectors and curiosity seekers from around the world.

Just how large was the auction? The event took place at the Bongers farmstead located about two miles south of David City along Highway 15, on Saturday, Jan. 30, 1993.

The crowd in attendance was estimated to be as many as 3,000.

Bidders waited in line for more than an hour for a chance to view some of the 124 automobiles and motorcycles sold that day. (An open house and inspection day for the public had been held on Friday.)

Vehicles from those attending the sale were parked several rows deep in a field next to Bongers’ residence and otherwise lined the highway almost to the three-mile corner south of town. More than 20 private planes with potential bidders on board reportedly landed at the David City municipal airport that weekend.

The auction arena overflowed with bidders, each having to pay $25 in order to be considered a serious bidder. Meanwhile, a near-by quonset which housed a closed circuit television to accommodate other spectators was filled to capacity.

As one of the main auctioneers in charge of the sale, Russ Moravec of David City had sent more than 5,000 mailings to those interested. Among them was then-Tonight Show host and noted antique car collector Jay Leno.

Moravec said at the time that he had been averaging 19 messages a day about the auction in the month prior to the event. Inquiries came from as far away as the North Pole.

Almost every state in the Union was represented at the sale, as were Canada and Holland. Several other countries were represented by persons who phoned-in sale bids.

The crowd had a noticeable economic impact on the community, including local stores, which sold out of gloves and stocking caps to attendees who weren’t prepared for Nebraska’s winter weather.

Lifetime of collecting

Then Banner-Press reporter Patrick Murphy stated that “what it took the late Leo Bongers a lifetime to collect was spread throughout the country in about six and one-half hours.” He added the auction took on "the feeling of a two-day festival.”

However, the man responsible for the event was not present. Leo Bongers had died the previous October at age 89.

As a farm operator, skilled mechanic, airplane pilot, heavy machinery operator and local businessman, Bongers had also garnered a longtime reputation as having one of the state’s most complete collections of antique autos and farm implements.

He boasted of never having thrown anything away, including a pencil box he started school with.

Born near Brainard in 1903, Bongers attended school through the 8th grade before ending his formal education. In 1924, his family bought the farm south of David City where Bongers moved and lived the rest of his life. That same year he married Mary Meysenburg. The couple had no children.

Instead, as Bongers admitted in numerous newspaper interviews, his passion was focused on restoring old rusty cars and tractors to running condition and then showing them off to the interested.'

Starting over

What became both a business and hobby started in 1934 when Bongers began selling used cars. This expanded into restoring vintage vehicles also, and by 1942 he owned 128 antique cars and other old machinery.

But during World War II Bongers was forced to turn over most of his collection to the War Production Board for scrap. He started collecting again after the war, going on to buy and sell cars and farm equipment throughout the U.S.

Bongers eventually filled a number of quonsets and sheds with dozens of restored horse, steam or gas-powered vehicles, as well as hundreds of smaller collectables like canes, wash boards, toasters and dishes.

As his collection grew, so did its popularity. Since the 1950s, Bongers and his unofficial one-man museum became a frequent stop for tour groups visiting David City. Individual tours were provided as well. On occasion, some of his vehicles were started up and driven in local parades.

Among Bongers’ many vehicles that were the envy of collectors was a rare 1904 auto made by Maytag before it started manufacturing washing machines. He ultimately declined many high-priced offers to sell any of his vintage vehicles.

His talent for fixing things like new included a 1915 Titan tractor that sat in dirt for 45 years. Bongers restored it to working condition.

In later years, Bongers often expressed the desire to eventually have his collection housed in an official local museum. In a 1972 interview with the Lincoln Star, Bongers said, “I want to leave it so the next generations can see what was going on and show them what we had to operate with."

His interest in leaving his collection to a museum continued after his wife Mary died in 1986. Early that same year, Bongers was recognized by the David City Chamber of Commerce for his achievements with what was then known as the Founding Fathers award.

But even then, continual discussions between Bongers and his friends, as well as city and county officials, and the Butler County Historical Society, failed to result in any agreement as to what might eventually be done with his collection.

During the 1988 Legislative session, Senator Loran Schmit of Bellwood introduced a bill that financed a $38,000 feasibility study that would determine how the Bongers collection might be exhibited.

Carried out by a historic automobile expert, the study later reported to the Legislature that while Bongers had a large and notable collection of old vehicles, it questioned whether such a museum could be made self-supporting.

The question of what would become of the collection was still a matter of public speculation when Bongers unexpectedly died in his sleep on Oct. 8, 1992.

It later became known that Bongers had not signed a final will before he died. It was then left to members of the extended Bongers family to legally disseminate Leo’s estate by means of the auction process.

Sale success

Auctioneer Moravec told the Banner-Press then that the Jan. 30 auction was “a huge success.” While some of the old cars drew attention, it was the antique motorcycles that were most highly prized, he added.

The top sale item was a rare 1907 Harley Davidson motorcycle that sold for $140,000 to a Harley Davidson Museum in Sturgis, S.D.

“As far as dollar for dollar, that was probably the highest sale item I’ve sold,” Moravec said then.

Automobiles that brought top auction dollar included a 1909 Stoddard Dayton four-door Open that sold for $76,000, and a low-mileage 1960 Corvette Convertible for $31,000.

The only reported mishap from the huge crowd gathering occurred when a Lincoln man was injured during the auction. He was struck in the face by a towing apparatus that came loose and reportedly later suffered the loss of an eye.

While the Jan. 30 event is best remembered, still other sales were necessary to finish-off the Bongers estate, including a two-day auto and motorcycle parts auction in February 1993 that were also expected to draw big crowds.

Afterwards, some area residents were left with the disappointment of knowing that any hope for establishing a local museum filled with artifacts provided by David City’s ultimate antique collector had been dashed by circumstance.

In a 1969 interview with the Omaha World-Herald, Bongers made a prophetic statement about the fate of his collection when he said:

“Someday I’d like to establish a real museum here. We have no children, so if something happened to me the collection would be scattered all over and that would be too bad. Meanwhile, it is a good hobby. I really like it.”

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