Collecting the items that make up the King Agriculture Museum in Centralia took decades of David King’s life. And maintaining the collection so it can be enjoyed by the public takes countless hours each week.
But spend a few minutes talking to King about the museum and you’d never know it.
“I tell people I’ve got the greatest toy box in the world,” King said. “This is a feel-good place because this is where my heart is.”
King opened the museum five years ago. Located just west of downtown Centralia on Maple Street, the museum welcomes about 1,600-2,000 visitors between June and September each year.
The roots of the King Agricultural Museum are firmly planted in King’s own childhood. Raised in Onalaska, King said he grew up working at various farms in the area. He began collecting antique farm implements in the mid-1980s partially because of the sense of nostalgia the items brought him about what he remembers as a kinder, simpler time.
“It was a good life,” King said of his childhood in Lewis County. “As kids we were free to roam the whole country. We could be five farms over and run into a stranger and it wasn’t a problem.”
The backbone of the museum is a collection of more than 80 tractors. Many are owned by King but some that have been donated or loaned by other collectors. After he had been collecting farm equipment for some time, King said he began buying and selling antique tractors. At first, he said he did it to make money. But later, he said he grew attached to the tractors and found it harder and harder to part with them.
“Then all of a sudden I’ve got a whole yard full,” he said with a chuckle.
King has traveled throughout the United States collecting unique and rare tractors. Among his collection are several specimens of well-known companies such as John Deere, Massey Ferguson, Fordson and International. but you’ll also see some more surprising examples of tractors such as a Lamborghini, Volvo and a Field Marshall tractor from England that uses a shotgun shell as ignition.
The 1916 building that houses the King Agriculture Museum was briefly the Kane Pneumatic Shock Absorber plant before becoming a lumber mill. It housed various lumber companies from 1917 until sometime in the 1970s. King said when he inquired in 2006 about purchasing the building to house his museum, he was told that the City of Centralia planned to condemn and demolish it. Much of the building’s roof and some of the building itself had collapsed over the years due to lack of maintenance. King purchased the building and immediately set to work restoring the building so he could see his vision through.
“There were seven of us on that roof for seven weeks,” he recalled.
Besides tractors, the museum encompasses two floors of displays including tools, toys and pieces of rural Lewis County history. One of the newest displays this year is a sewing room featuring many makes and models of antique sewing machines, many from King’s sister’s collection, as well as antique needlework. Some of the other featured collections in the museum include: motorcycles; milking/cream related items; antique toys; oil cans and service station items; power line insulators; and a maritime exhibit that includes pieces from the dismantled Kalakala ferry. King plans in the near future to add an aviation room.
“It’s broader than just agriculture,” King said. “I try to make it so it’s interesting to any field or person.”
The museum’s mission is also broader than just creating nostalgia for older generations. The facility also has several features that are aimed specifically at young visitors. For the last 10 years, King has been part of the group that brings antique tractors and other equipment to the Southwest Washington Fair. Many of those items are housed at the King Agriculture Museum, including the plastic train and the riding lawnmowers that kids can sit on. King said for liability reasons, youngsters cannot sit on the large tractors, but the museum’s outdoor area has several toys and ride-ons that kids can play with.
And the collection at King Agriculture Museum is always evolving and changing. King said he is always gathering more items for the collection, as well as dreaming up new ways to display them. He is currently in the process of building a platform that will house some handmade, fully-functional scale models of heavy machinery. His plan is to hook the models up to a power source so that visitors can see them working. During the off season, many of the museum’s displays go on the road. In April, the museum also hosts an antique toy show, which is growing in popularity. This year, the show featured 55 tables, up from just over 30 the year previous, King said.
“It just goes on and on,” King said. “I’m thinking of these things all the time. ‘how can I make it better?’”
King said he doesn’t run the King Agriculture Museum for the money. In fact, the museum takes a great deal of his time and money to keep everything in pristine condition. He said the thing that keeps him going is seeing the wonder on the faces of visitors young and old when they walk through the collection.
“People walk through here and it jogs their memories ‘I remember running this as a kid’ or ‘my grandfather had this.’” King said. “That’s the beauty of this. When they get done, they have relived things from their past that make them feel really good.”