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Continued: Odd collection is nearly history

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 14, 2011 - 3:44 PM

Lester Behrns started collecting arrowheads at age 8 when work crews came to the flat bluff tops above Wabasha, Minn., where his German grandfather homesteaded in the 1890s.

"Found my first one when they dug them light poles -- must have been 1942," said Behrns, 77, fingering a rose-colored arrow tip. "Back in those days, we still worked with horses and I found a load of them cultivating corn."

Over the years, this vista overlooking the Mississippi River has been Behrns' only home, not to mention the home of one of Minnesota's quirkiest collections of artifacts.

That's about to change.

Behrns is calling it quits at the end of this month. He'll shutter his 25-year-old Arrowhead Bluffs Museum, move to Cody, Wyo., with his wife, Shirley, and auction off his eclectic collection, which has mushroomed to include thousands of arrowheads, spear points, fishing lures, literally every model of Winchester rifle ever made and dozens of mounted full-body hunting trophies, from musk ox to caribou.

He has a mosaic of a buffalo made with 1,471 bison teeth, a 12,000-year-old mammoth tusk, turtle traps, duck eggs and even a stuffed longhorn bull above a scale replica of Dodge City, Kan., in the cattle-driving era.

History buffs and antique aficionados have just a few weeks to plunk down the $5 fee and visit Behrns' bluff-top museum before his collection disappears through a series of online auctions.

"It's definitely worth a visit because here's a guy who is so rooted in this place and has poured his whole heart and soul into this," said Macalester College geography professor David Lanegran, who spent hours in the museum recently. "I loved it because it's not very often you see somebody who's got the courage to put their personality on display for anyone who wants to come in and see."

Lanegran acknowledges the manliness of Behrns' collection, which he says resonates especially with baby boomers who grew up appreciating cowboys and hunting lore. "But the indigenous, Native American artifacts are amazing and not gender-specific," he said.

Aging collector's dilemma

Behrns admits that it won't be easy selling off a lifetime's worth of collecting, but he insists "it's not fun anymore." He worries about burglaries and break-ins and can feel the winds of change blowing on the bluff top.

"What do you do with this stuff when you get older?" he said recently. "You've got to take care of it before you tip over."

His son, next-door neighbor and hunting partner, John, will keep the arrowheads and rare rifles that are left -- most of them were auctioned off three years ago. His daughter in nearby Lake City, and her two daughters and Behrns' two little great-grandchildren "have absolutely no interest in this whatsoever." Other museums are equally uninterested and out of room.

Behrns has seen what happens to other aging collectors, like his buddy in Ohio with a priceless fishing lure collection.

"The old boy dies, the kids get in the biggest fight, the lawyers end up with everything and the kids never talk to each other for the rest of their lives," Behrns said with a shrug.

So out it goes. He said auctioneers expect the stuffed moose, caribou and North American bighorn sheep to end up in Europe, where Germany's elite pay top dollar for game trophies.

The appetite for his stuff back home, meanwhile, has waned with no more steady streams of schoolchildren on field trips and tourist buses coming up Hwy. 60 to the museum.

"Let's face it: A lot of teachers are anti-gun, and they didn't want to come see what started as a gun museum," he said. "And kids today have absolutely no interest in history. They come in with their parents for five minutes and go out to the car to text their buddies."

Not a single tourist bus stopped by this summer. They all go strictly to casinos nowadays.

The unsung hero of collection

This isn't the first time Behrns has considered selling. When his gun collection started taking over the room, he mentioned selling before adding on to his house in the 1960s.

Shirley, his wife of 52 years whom he met when she sold root beer down in Wabasha, wasn't hearing any of it.

"She said: 'I'll divorce you, because you'll be so damn growly, I won't be able to live with you.'"

She rightfully considers herself the unsung hero behind all the collecting.

"It wasn't until he got me to do the milking that he started coming up with all this stuff," she said.

After 30 years of milking two dozen dairy cows, the Behrnses quit dairy farming when they opened the museum in 1986. Shirley and Les have staffed the museum themselves seven days a week, so they're looking forward to the liberation of closing down and moving to Wyoming. Shirley visited Cody in the 1960s and vowed she'd live there one day. Now that day has come, although they plan to spend long stretches back in Minnesota with the kids.

But first, Lester Behrns has a few more yarns to spin. Point to an arrowhead, and he's got a story.

"This one I got from a kid who got it from his grandma," he said. "Traded him for a used .22."

Visitor traveled 7,000 miles

Then there's one about the Saudi gentleman in a turban who arrived in a limo from Rochester. He had flown in to check out the gun collection that he had overheard men discussing at a Saudi Arabian coffee shop.

Or the two ancient Sioux spear tips Behrns got from an 88-year-old woman who found them in the family's straw pile when she was 8. Shirley did the couple's taxes and asked about the spear points, which the woman showed off and agreed to donate to the museum after spurning $1,000 offers from a local sheriff's deputy.

"Then she wrapped 'em up and put them back in her junk drawer," Behrns said. "A few years later we stopped by for coffee when they were selling the farm."

He offered to display the spear points with her name.

"She took them out and put them on the table," he said. "I wasn't so dumb this time. I picked them up and stuck 'em in my pocket."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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    The Arrowhead Bluffs Museum near Wabasha, with its quirky collection of arrowheads, stuffed game, rifles and other artifacts, will close after 25 years at the end of October.

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