Sunday auction closes the door on Ontario history collection

A lifetime of collecting by Ontario resident Bob Peterson will be auctioned Sunday. Peterson began his collection as a modest hobby that eventually grew to include hundreds of items that filled five buildings. (The Enterprise/John L. Braese).

ONTARIO – Treasures from a lifetime of collecting will find new homes through an auction Sunday.

The collection, which began with the hiding of a simple map during World War II, became known to many as the Knickerbockers West Museum, outside of Ontario. It grew to include pieces housed in five buildings.

For the family of Bob Peterson, an auction seemed the best choice.

“This was an auction Bob would have been at,” said Peterson’s widow, Imogene.

The two were married more than 47 years when Peterson died on April 4, 2015.

Peterson’s collecting started when he removed a map from a wall after what was known as “the Black March.” Peterson had been taken prisoner in Germany after being shot down while flying his 26th mission.

After his parachute opened, Bob thought he heard people chopping wood,” said Imogene. “It was actually the Germans shooting at Bob and his crew coming down.”

Peterson and the crew were captured and taken to Stalag Luft 4 POW camp on Sept. 17, 1944. On Feb. 3, 1945, the camp was evacuated as the Russian Army approached. Peterson and those prisoners who could walk embarked on a 600-mile, 85-day march.

According to Peterson’s book, “Knickerbockers West,” many were left on the side of the road during the journey, unable to continue.

After arriving in Bitterfelt, Peterson “saw a map of Germany in a German office outlining the march he made in red pencil,” said Imogene. “He took the map off the wall, folded it up and hid it in his pack. He also took a German hat and bayonet.”

Peterson returned after the war to Ontario, where he and Imogene started a dairy. When milk prices were good, Peterson would attend auctions or stop by other farms to buy items.

In 1991, people were stopping by to see what he had, so Peterson opened his museum. The visitors included many school groups.

The couple kept a large notebook listing every student who visited. The number exceeds 1,500.

“I would make cookies and punch for every group,” said Imogene. “Bob would spend hours giving the tour, telling stories about pieces.”

Peterson gave his last tour in June 2014. Soon after, he fell and broke his hip. Complications set in and he died.

Since then the family has had to decide what to do with his legacy of treasures.

“There was just so much,” said Peterson’s daughter, Dixie Lee. “Some of the stuff we didn’t even know what it was. I cried when we finally decided to auction it off.”

“The stuff was Bob’s, not mine,” said Imogene.

The family is keeping some items, including the map from the Black March.

Auction visitors will find most of the items marked with cards showing their history.

“He never sold one piece the entire time he gathered up this stuff,” said Imogene. “Before the days of the Internet, he would find an item and write letters to the Smithsonian to get the history of it. He restored many of the items himself.

“The sleighs we have were in terrible shape and he did every bit of the work himself. One has 26 coats of paint.”

Many of the items on the block have a family history.

Dixie Lee accompanied her father to an auction in Meridian as a child when he purchased a 1925 Chevrolet grain truck, bringing it home with her dad in the dark on a trailer.

Imogene helped her husband research when Deere Manzer became John Deere.

The family will be on hand at the auction. Peterson wrote two books, which will be available for sale by his grandchildren. Imogene estimates the family has already put in more than 150 hours setting up the auction.

“He was so involved in the community and so loved showing his museum to kids,” Imogene said.

The auction begins at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Knickerbockers West Museum at 4665 Hyline Road outside of Ontario.

Reporter John L. Braese: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.