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If you happened to walk through Mantor hall in the past few weeks, you may have noticed something unusual... read more

One man's treasure, another's eyesore
Debbie Epping
Antelope Staff
Photos by Debbie Epping
"There’s nothing like having a black car with dirt on it because you have the anticipation of making it look like a knockout,” Tom Sommerfeld said. Sommerfeld stands by his prized ’41 black Cadillac in Gibbon.
Tom Sommerfeld shows off his horse-drawn steam engine that dates back to 1900. Sommerfeld relocated the steam engine from Colorado to his friend Stretch’s lot in Wilcox. The steam engine still has its original finish, keeping it true to its antique look. "These are so hard to find ... If that would have gotten on the Internet on a bid, that would have been a lot of money," Sommerfeld said.

Court battles ensue for Kearney State alumnus to display prized antique cars

Riding passenger side down a gravel road in Phelps county, we caught a waft of dust coming through the vents of the ’91 Cadillac Deville. To an onlooker, it’s simply another car. Once driven off the lot, a car declines in value until it begins to sputter and cough and is traded in for a newer model.

But to Tom Sommerfeld, this beauty will soon be a piece of history. It’s evident Sommerfeld has a passion for cars— particularly old cars. An avid collector of all things labeled “junk,” Sommerfeld relates everything he collects back to a bigger story.

“That’s one thing about car collecting— you get into some really interesting things. I once came across a ’65 white Imperial with powder blue interior owned by a lady by the name of Dorothy Lynch,” Sommerfeld said.

Sommerfeld’s voice trails off, relating cars to history as we make tracks in the dry county roads. He is taking me to see antique vehicles and engines he has relocated to a former lumberyard in the small town of Wilcox. The lumberyard is owned by his friend, Steve Eberline, who still goes by his college nickname—Stretch.

Sommerfeld’s voice is soothing. His salt and pepper colored hair brushes the rim of his aviator framed glasses. He’s wearing a leather jacket over his red long-sleeved plaid shirt. The leather almost brings a new car smell back to the aging vehicle.

“You know the reason people don’t buy black cars—they show dirt.”

But for him, this was part of the challenge: “There’s nothing like having a black car with dirt on it because you have the anticipation of making it look like a knockout,” Sommerfeld explains.

Sommerfeld’s interest in cars and history can be traced back to his childhood. Born in Hastings in 1951, Sommerfeld’s father was an electrician.

Sommerfeld remembers the beginning of his fascination with cars while taking a tour of Pioneer Village when he was five years old. “Kids just go crazy over anything with wheels on it,” Sommerfeld said. “Whether it’s a car or an engine. That’s the thing that I think was most significant on what I was looking at.”

The early years

“I was more interested in a lot of mechanical things when I was really young, so I did an awful lot of things before I was 10 years old,” Sommerfeld said.

It was around 1960 when Sommerfeld first became acquainted with the word “antique.” His aunt who lived in California told stories about people who were going up and finding things in people’s attics. This was about the time collecting antiques really caught on as a hobby.

“It took me a long time to realize I liked things for what they were,” Sommerfeld said.

Sommerfeld said an eye-opening experience at an auto thrill show (demolition derby) at the county fair in 1962 changed his way of thinking about old cars forever.

“I specifically remember I looked out, and there was my neighbor’s Dodge car. I knew that car. It was on my paper route. Then all at once—there it was and WHAM! there it wasn’t. To me it was just a sacrilege to think you’re just going to take a car and dispose of it like that,” Sommerfeld said.

Sommerfeld is the first to admit it’s a different way of thinking.

“There’s usually about 99 percent of the people who think one way and 1 percent who think the other way. People like to put you in a box. They like to control you.” Sommerfeld said.

It’s clear Sommerfeld is in one of the free thinkers.

“It doesn’t mean you want to do things that don’t work, but you know the future always holds things we don’t see now. JFK said, ‘People look at things that are and ask, ‘Why?’ I look at things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’’ I think that’s what our country should stand for,” Sommerfeld said.

More dreams than money

The first opposition Sommerfeld met to his hobby came from his own grandfather.

“We lived in town and my grandpa lived out on an acreage, and eventually there was a time when I took a car down there to store it. Grandpa kind of had a fit even though he had three acres. That one car,” Sommerfeld said waving his finger in the air. “He was afraid what the neighbors would think.”

It wouldn’t be the last time Sommerfeld faced opposition toward his antiques.

Sommerfeld pulls into the lot covered with buildings and an unsystematic display of antiques in Wilcox.

“This is my big “junkyard” over here,” Sommerfeld chuckles to himself. “I gave over $2,000 a piece for each of these cars. Of course they don’t know that.”

Some pieces in his collection are worth more—a lot more.

Sommerfeld admires a steam engine he got in Colorado that dates back to 1900.

“These are so hard to find. It had a seat on the front and would use a horse to pull it. You talk about a deal. If that would have gotten on the Internet on a bid, that would have been a lot of money,” Sommerfeld said.

The steam engine has an original finish and Sommerfeld is pleased it has remained unpainted.

“Look at those rivets. It’s just as authentic as can be,” Sommerfeld said.

Nearby a rare antique truck lies halfway between the shadows of the shed and the light of the sun.

“This is almost identical to the vehicle in the Beverly Hillbillies movie,” Sommerfeld said. 

There’s no doubt there is money in antique collecting. Despite some of Sommerfeld’s more valuable collectibles, it’s clear he isn’t in it for the money.

“Just because something isn’t worth a lot of money, doesn’t mean it’s junk,” Sommerfeld said.

Sommerfeld views collecting as an art form. He collects for the sheer artistic value.

“A lot of people who have money don’t have dreams. I have way more dreams than money,” Sommerfeld said.  

Scrap Salvaging

Soon after moving some of his collection into Wilcox, he was approached by a man who works for the town board accusing Sommerfeld of running a junkyard.

Sommerfeld is no stranger to city officials who oppose his collections.

After graduating from Kearney State College in 1975, with a degree in math and physics, Sommerfeld turned down big-city jobs in Cleveland and Detroit for his small town dream and desire to work in a machine shop.

“When I first started at Eaton, they didn’t want degreed people in the shop. Although I didn’t make much money compared to those guys who were moving up in management, I think I had a lot more fun and had a better career doing what I did. I wanted to be the best machinist I could be,” Sommerfeld said.

Sommerfeld moved to Gibbon in 1978, a convenient 11 miles from his job in Kearney. He liked the small town atmosphere of the town that still bears a sign welcoming travelers to “Smile City.”

“I’ve always liked the town,” Sommerfeld said.

In Gibbon, Sommerfeld was able to build upon his collection of cars he had accumulated through high school and college. His motivation? No one else was saving the cars from the scrap heap.

“If you went to an auction and didn’t buy something, the iron man was right behind you, and he was going to cut it up for iron, so that would be the end of it,” Sommerfeld said.

The passion and interest in cars and mechanics that stemmed from his childhood only grew stronger.

“It’s just a lot of fun to try to enjoy this type of thing. My life is in Technicolor. So many people see the colors, but it doesn’t mean anything to them. They don’t dare to enjoy anything,” Sommerfeld said.

Working seven days a week at Eaton, Sommerfeld would often have to make arrangements to buy cars at auctions.“More than once I spent $1,000 because I couldn’t be there to buy something. I have occasionally been out of state, but a lot of my collecting was right here in the central part of Nebraska,” Sommerfeld said. 

Sommerfeld never paid much heed to people who told him he was buying too many cars.

From a collector’s point of view, the only two mistakes he’s really made are not buying something or selling something.

“The bad thing is if you buy what you like, it makes it a little more difficult in being realistic in selling it later on. I think this is often times the case with any collector,” Sommerfeld said.

Not just junk

A series of court battles that still rile Sommerfeld, because he argues that his Constitutional rights were violated, began in 1980. He had bought a piece of ground in Gibbon—about the size of a city block, and over the years, he developed it by hauling in dirt and making it into a better piece of land.

“Then I parked a couple trucks over there. That’s when the fight started,” Sommerfeld said.

“’Well you can’t park anything over there,” city officials allegedly told him.

“I beg your pardon? I own the place,” Sommerfeld said.

“We have these old ordinances and this is just trash. This is just junk,” they said.

But to Sommerfeld and fellow collectors, the word “junk” has a different meaning.

“We always like to call it junk. I love to call it junk. But that’s not what it is,” Sommerfeld said.

Stretch agrees. "We don't buy junk to start with. It's not junk. People may think it is, but it's not," Stretch said.

Like Sommerfeld, Stretch believes in keeping “old iron” out of the iron pile.

Sommerfeld attributes people’s disdain for his collection to the fact they don’t understand it.

“I’ll admit I’m probably the extreme case on this. I’m the type of person who would move in 100 cars, and I still feel it’s my property and the neighbors can do their thing, and I’ll do my thing,” Sommerfeld said.

I fought the law and lost

Sommerfeld believes unnecessary city ordinances strip people of their Constitutional rights.

“You would think that the city ordinance would be subject to state law, and state law is always subject to federal law, and federal law is always subject to the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights is the supreme law of the land. Now, naively, I used to think that’s the way things worked,” Sommerfeld said.

When Sommerfeld went to court in 1995, he found that there is a state law prohibiting a person from keeping an unliscensed antique or special interest car anywhere people can see it. It has to be out of the public view.

“I wound up fighting the case, and then I put up a fence because the court said they had to be out of public view. That lasted from 1995 until 2005,” Sommerfeld said.

After Sommerfeld put up the fence, he displayed some of his antique tractors in front of the fence because people showed a lot of interest in them.

“People would come off of Highway 30 and drive by there because they were so fascinated looking at all that stuff,” Sommerfeld said.

Sommerfeld left the cars and tractors unpainted to maintain their vintage look. He said he would mow the property but let the grass grow around the tractors to make it look a little more rustic.

“I like rustic views. I like tractors without paint. How bizarre is that?” Sommerfeld said.

Another complaint put Sommerfeld back in court. This time he lost the case in the district court. While he was in the process of appealing the case, the city came in, took down the fence and started towing his collection while Sommerfeld was at work.

Sommerfeld’s neighbor’s stood behind him.

“I think what they did to him is atrocious,” said Glenn Kollars, a Gibbon resident for 31 years. “They broke in on his property and started towing things off—marked which ones they wanted with spray paint and took them. I don’t even see how it’s legal.”

When Sommerfeld found out what was happening, he hired people to help him save what was left of his collection. “It was madness. I had to haul, and they were hauling, and I was hauling. Everything I could get out of there was mine, and whatever they were hauling out, I couldn’t get back. It was just bizarre,” Sommerfeld said.

“The upshot of it was that they came in and hauled out about 85 cars, 13 tractors, a rare Gardner steam engine which there’s only one left of in the world, a classic 100-year-old jail cell that came out of the Hamilton county court house, among other things,” Somerfeld said.

Gibbon city attorney Barry Hemmerling said the city had a court order. Gibbon has public nuisance laws just like any other city preventing citizens from having unsightly property that damages the value of adjoining property.

In Tom’s case, he was in violation of an ordinance for leaving either trash, litter, rags, old metal, automobiles, etc. around his property, Hemmerling said. “A more specific ordinance on motor vehicles prevents individuals from having unlicensed vehicles on their property.”

The case in appeals was eventually heard by the appellate court, which ruled with the lower court. As the appeal was fought, the city claimed they’d cleaned up the mess, and it was a moot point.

A true habitat

Sommerfeld had supporters who thought the city commited a crime because his antique cars should have been put up for bid. “How could it be legal for them to own something, when it isn’t legal for me to own it?” Sommerfeld asked.

“I have to do everything the city council tells me. To me it’s pretty preposterous. It comes back to a thing called liberty. The flaws in America have been many. The case I have is very symptomatic of a lot bigger problem,” Sommerfeld said.

 “Tom is a decent guy,” Hemmerling said. “I think he accumulates this stuff with the idea it’s going to be his retirement. He’s not a bad guy, he’s just got a different opinion on things.”
Hemmerling said the city made arrangements to start towing, and he doesn’t think Sommerfeld really believed they were going to do it. “It kind of became a race to see who could haul stuff faster.”

“I don’t know how the city is going to make it right with me,” Sommerfeld said.

Much of Sommerfeld’s collection was sold. Some of it was scrapped. They destroyed the Gardner steam engine.“ It went to the storage yard of the junk guy, and it is the city’s right to sell it to pay for the towing expenses,” Hemmerling said. “If they sold it for a bunch of money Tom would have gotten the overage.”

“They think this is all said and done. Who knows how it will wind up?” Sommerfeld said.

Sommerfeld currently has lawyers in Chicago working on the case defending his Constitutional right to his property over these city ordinances and state law.

“It isn’t the money … I was after the cars. I was after the gas engines. I was after the steam engines. I was after all these other things that I collected,” Sommerfeld said.

Hemmerling said, “Tom’s was a huge issue. Part of Tom’s problem was that it’s in a residential area.”
Sommerfeld clearly has a different view.

 “This is true habitat. Most people don’t understand it,” Sommerfeld said.

Retired now, Sommerfeld plans to continue pursuing his lifelong hobby of collecting antiques—Even if others don’t understand.

“A lot of it is the dream. It’s the spark that you’ve got when you have something and can see something in it that nobody else can see,” Sommerfeld said.


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