"You probably won't see another one of those ever again,” says Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum director Rod Groenewold, a hint of a Nebraskan accent poking through his words. He’s just pointed out a 1932 truck that was ostensibly a moving van before moving vans ever existed.
“That big ugly green thing is called an Available. They were in business 50 years and built less than 200 trucks,” Groenewold says.
The truck might need some TLC and a new paint job, but to call it ugly is a bit of a misnomer. Much like the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum itself, what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in historical significance. Soft-spoken, reserved and accompanied by his Chihuahua, Sis, Groenewold points out the rows and rows of vintage tractors that he’s lovingly dubbed “Rusty Acres.”
“A lot of places, they’ll paint something historical up to look like a piece of candy and you’ll just go through looking around with your hands in your pockets,” says Groenewold, who adds that he’s never wanted AGSEM to be just a place that people came to look at old stuff. Rather, he wanted it to be a place that people could come to really learn something and even get their hands dirty if they wanted to.
It’s this facet that makes AGSEM one of the best-kept secrets in San Diego. Spread out over 55 acres in the heart of Vista, the museum recently celebrated its 40th year and just wrapped up its annual Antique Engine and Tractor Show. Groenewold himself has been at the museum for 25 of those years and says he’s seen it grow from a place that only appealed to a few “old dirt farmers” to a respected educational institution that appeals to locals and tourists alike.
“Most folks are surprised once they get here just how much there is and the diversity of the collection, says Groenewold. “I’ll be honest, it’s hard to keep track of it all.”
He isn’t kidding. It’s easy to get lost here. What’s more, nearly all the machines on the property are functional. There’s a machine shop on site where they’re able to fix, repair and, more importantly, create parts that they need for restoration. As overwhelming as restoring one of these giant machines sounds, Groenewold says that most of these machines were built in a way that many of them only need a few tweaks in order to work again.
“It was a different mindset in the old days,” says Groenewold, referring to the time when many of these machines were made (the collection focuses on 1850 to about the 1950s). Dependability often superseded affordability. “Stuff really was made to last forever. When something didn’t work, it was usually because it was dirty or dry, but the idea was that you could make it go again fairly easily. All this stuff was made to be fixed.”
And that just might be the reason that the AGSEM has been seeing a lot more visitors lately. Whereas in the past it may have just been old dirt farmers, these days there’s interest from people wanting to learn a craft like blacksmithing, textile weaving, clock repair and engine restoration, all of which the museum offers classes in.
“We cater to the folks who get their ass off the couch and want to go do something,” Groenewold says.
And there are plenty of people who are getting off their ass. The blacksmithing classes, which teach patrons everything from making knives to steel padlocks, have a three-month wait-list. The blacksmithing space where the classes are taught is large and ominous. Aside from a few hand-written signs and stray soda cups, it looks straight out of medieval times.
“Actually, it’s set up very similar to the old factories in the 1800s,” Groenewold points out, adding that the building itself has only been there since the 1980s. “A lot of the metal works now, people are doing it for the art. There’s a lot of it on TV now. Blade Masters and crap like that.”
The demand for classes is so high that the museum is planning on constructing an additional space. The museum also recently held its first ever North County Mini Maker Faire, perhaps trying to capitalize on the growing popularity of handmade goods. In the coming months and years, Groenewold and company will be fundraising in order to build a new 20,000-square-foot building to house a recently opened West Coast Clock and Watch Museum, a large hall of antique timekeeping pieces some of which date back to the 18th century. Groenewold has been an avid clock collector for more than 30 years and jumped at the chance to bring the Clock Museum’s collection down from its original location in Bellingham, Washington. He also mentions that, in a way, the clock collection is representative of the museum at large and its commitment to “picking up” different kinds of clubs and collections over the decades.
Still, with a collection that continues to grow and is no longer limited to just antique gas and steam engines, Groenewold acknowledges that the museum’s name can be deceiving. He says he won’t ever change the name, but with all the things offered here, the moniker just doesn’t fully encapsulate it. Instead, he’s toying with the idea of coming up with a catchy slogan. So far, his favorite is “ingenuity, industry and arts.”
“We work really hard to keep these trades alive and unlike a lot of museums, we’re just growing all the time,” Groenewold says.
Later he adds another potential slogan: “If shit wasn’t old, we wouldn’t have it.”