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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Mr. History

Monday, September 12, 2005

Alpers carves a historic niche on Fonda's Main Street USA

Who would want want to spend a lifetime collecting old-time automobiles and antiques and then try to open a museum alone, with no funding, government grants or staff?

Gib Alpers of Fonda, of course.

Alpers, a retired rural mail carrier and somewhat-retired woodworker, has created a museum masterpiece in the historic 1884 J.N. McKee & Co. Dry Goods and Groceries building, complete with the McKee Opera House upstairs.

Alpers' love for restoration runs the gamut from cars to a museum that would be a credit to a major city. And he and his wife, Jan, have done it all on their own.

It's been a labor of love, particularly for Gib who seems to be at the right place at the right time in finding acquisitions for his museum. During the Fonda Labor Days Celebration last Saturday, Alpers took the well-deserved trophy for Most Unusual for his 1923 Gardner touring car. Made in St. Louis, there are only about 100 of the rare automobiles in existence.

"It was in terrible shape - called a basket case, I guess," Alpers said. Alpers had to make many of the parts, including fabricating sheet metal for the fenders. "I've made more parts than I care to remember," Alpers said.

Alpers says the Gardner was an "assembled" car in which the company made its own body and bought parts elsewhere. Originally a buggy manufacturer, the Gardner company began making cars right after World War I.

Like many companies, the Great Depression was the final blow to the Gardner company.

Alpers showed three other vehicles at last Saturday's show. Another was a 1927 Chevrolet truck that Alpers found in a chicken shed near Guthrie Center. He turned the truck into a wrecker and to honor his uncle, the name W.J. Knoke, is painted on the side.

Alpers traded a Ford Model T for his 1923 Chevrolet touring car. He acquired the car as part of a three-way trade, with a man in Fort Dodge getting the car from a party in Odebolt.

The fourth car Alpers exhibited during Fonda's Labor Day celebration was a 1928 Ford Model A pickup which he found in Holstein in 1971. The very first vehicle he restored, Alpers took a year to finish the truck in 1972 so he could drive it to a car show in Green Bay, Wis., where he parked it on the 50-yard line at Lambeau Field. Alpers received second place at the show.

The other three vehicles took three years each to restore. That wasn't all, though. Alpers began to acquire enough auto-related and other items to start a museum eleven years ago.

Inside you'll find an unrestored 1927 Willys-Knight, a 1917 Dodge touring car, and a 1917 Overland. If not all of those car names seem familiar, it gets even more confusing when you consider the fact that there were once 2,700 different car manufacturers in the U.S., according to Alpers.

Some of the items Alpers has acquired and restored include a barrel piano built in Paris between 1893 and 1910. Alpers completely redid the cabinet.

Upstairs in the former McKee Opera House is a 1950s room complete with an original Seeburg juke box with 45 RPM singles. The juke box holds particularly sentimental value for Alpers who graduated from high school that same year.

There's also shrines to Fonda's former two high schools - Fonda High School and Our Lady of Good Counsel. Fonda High School closed in 1989 and Alpers saved the high-school memorabilia from the junk yard.

"We're kind of the keepers of the flame I guess you could say," Alpers said.

The building itself has a history all its own. Until 1928, all school plays and other events were held at the opera house. In fact, in 1927 the Governor of Iowa gave the Fonda High School commencement address.

"Fonda was a real busy, bustling place in the old days," Alpers said. "It was a rip-roaring place."

Alpers noted a change about 1970, though. He said that in 1987 OLGC closed its high school and last spring closed the school altogether. Fonda merged with Newell to become Newell-Fonda.

While times have changed, thanks to Alpers' efforts, the past is not forgotten. He conducts public tours of the museum, aptly dubbed Fonda Museum. While there is no admission fee, Alpers does accept donations. "We don't turn it down because it's a money-losing proposition," Alpers said.

"Sometimes it seems like an awful lot of work," says Alpers. "But if people enjoy it, it's contagious."

Alpers is proud of the fact that he and his wife, Jan, run the museum with no government assistance. Just this year they joined the Iowa Museum Association, getting its official stamp of approval.

Alpers believes he and Jan are not alone among those who are creating museums in small towns. "There's a real resurgence of museums," Alpers said. "Every little town in starting to think about it." Anyone who wants a tour can call Alpers at 712-288-6175.

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