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Collector preserves the history of washing machines with his own backyard museum

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Lee Maxwell has 1,700 washing machines in his collection. The 12,000 square foot museum, named after its 93-year-old founder, is running out of space.
Photo: Peter Vo, Rocky Mountain PBS

EATON, Colo. — Lee Maxwell is old and unusual. At least, that’s what his wife Barbara thinks. 

At the entrance of his 12,000 square foot museum, Maxwell has a sign that reads, “Lee Maxwell: Collector of Old and Unusual Washing Machines.”

Barbara believes the sign should instead read, “Lee Maxwell: Old and Unusual Collector of Washing Machines.” 

Maxwell wouldn’t mind the change. “It’s true. It’s an insane hobby,” he said.

Maxwell, 93, has been collecting washing machines since 1985. In 1992, he opened the Lee Maxwell Washing Museum to educate and entertain visitors with guided tours and demonstrations on how the appliances work.

Colorado Voices

Preserving the history of washing machines

Maxwell was a professor of electrical engineering at Colorado State University until his retirement in 1985. 

Taking advantage of being able to travel in his new free time, Maxwell and Barbara decided to take a roadtrip to Maine in their newly bought motorhome. 

About halfway through Iowa, he stopped at a farm auction and raised his hand to buy his first antique washing machine, an old Maytag with a gasoline engine. 

“For what reason? I don’t know. I just liked it,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell shows off the different types of household items he has in his collection.
Photo: Peter Vo, Rocky Mountain PBS

Maxwell and Barbara came back home with 13 washing machines from that trip alone. And so began the pair’s odyssey across the world to collect washing machines. 

They found everything from wooden hand-cranked machines and gasoline powered machines, to electrical and metal machines. 

Their search expanded internationally. The pair hunted down washers in Europe and Australia, finding rare machines such as the Krauss Dampfwaschmaschine, a hand-operated appliance made in the early 1900s.

Through word of mouth and the website Maxwell created to catalog his collection, the public began to express interest in checking out his washing machines. 

“Over the years it got so popular even though I didn’t have any advertising,” Maxwell said. “I had to start charging people because I want people to be serious about seeing the museum.”

At first, he housed the washing machines in his garage, but the washers quickly outgrew it. Then he housed the collection in his barn — but it became apparent that he didn’t have enough space within the buildings on his property for his growing trove.

The second warehouse that Maxwell built to store his washing machines.
Photo: Peter Vo, Rocky Mountain PBS

“I had to build two other buildings just to house my entire collection,” Maxwell said. 

Today, the two warehouses on his property serve as the museum and contain 1,700 antique washing machines that stretch as far as the eye can see. Because it’s not set up like a traditional museum and due to its large size, Maxwell only allows guided tours. 

He charges $150 for 10 or fewer people to see the museum. 

“I purposely designed tours so that it's not all just academic history,” he said.

“I like to make it fun. I like to see people laugh. I can show you machines that will make you laugh and I can show you some very interesting history,” Maxwell said. 

Maxwell’s museum features machines that date to 1844 and includes some of the first automatic washing machines. 

Along the way, he’s collected many quirky machines.

One machine operates by using the energy from sheep walking on a ramp, another washer works double duty and can perm your hair as it does the laundry.

Maxwell fixes up most of the machines that he collects because they’re usually well-worn by the time he buys them. Carefully taking them apart and cleaning them, Maxwell’s restorations keep some of them functional. 

“After tearing apart 1,300 washing machines, I thoroughly understand and enjoy the mechanics of washing machines prior to the automatic,” he said. 

Maxwell also displays washing machine models that he has built himself. 

“I decided about six years ago that there's a lot of washing machines that have been patented since the late 1700s that I've been unable to find and probably just aren't available since a lot have been discarded,” said Maxwell. 

Maxwell has taken up woodworking in order to build the 18th century patents. He believes that his teaching philosophy from his career as a professor also applies to himself.

Maxwell has been working on patents, turning them into models of washing machines.
Photo: Peter Vo, Rocky Mountain PBS

“My philosophy of teaching is that it's 95% learning, only 5% teaching. For example, I can't teach you anything, but you can learn,” he said.

With the internet, and his database of more than 23,000 patents schematics, Maxwell learned woodworking well enough to build dozens of washing machines that he hasn’t been able to collect.

On the day that RMPBS visited, he was working on a washing machine that relied on the motion created from driving on a bumpy road to spin around a load of laundry. 

Maxwell believes in the preservation of these machines. Why? Because he enjoys it. 

“I have no other reason. I completely enjoy it. I'm completely immersed in it. I love finding new stuff. There's so much stuff that needs to be done,” Maxwell said.

Models that Maxwell has built, displayed in his museum.
Photo: Peter Vo, Rocky Mountain PBS

Today, he’s in a position to give it all away if there was someone or an organization to take care of it, “I would give it away if I could find a proper home for if I could find the people or the entity that would want to maintain a history of this could be household technology.”

Because of his age and how much space it takes to operate this museum, he’s been on the hunt to give the museum a new home. 

Properly storing and maintaining his collection, Maxwell said, would require at least five times the space he has now — and would create the only museum of its kind in the entire United States. Meanwhile, Maxwell continues to lend most of his time towards his passion and the patents he’s collected.

“I have spent a considerable part of my life in the last 35 years learning about the history and evolution of the washing machine and that's what I do every day, all day,” Maxwell said. 

He declined to disclose which washing machine he uses today. But he did admit that he’s only done one load of laundry in his entire life. 

“My wife Barbara instructed me to do a load of clothes,” he said. “I failed to sort them correctly and my shirts came out pink, my white shirts. And she has not let me do a load of clothes since that time. That was 70 years ago.”

Peter Vo is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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