The town center of Waitsfield in Mad River Valley is one of those postcard-perfect New England villages. White clapboard houses and shops, nestled on the river bank around a covered bridge. But one of those 19th-century farmhouses is home to something unexpected: the Madsonian Museum. Now, the Smithsonian it is not. But the Madsonian does take a collector’s approach to honoring the beauty and cleverness of industrial design.
When you enter the Madsonian through the sliding barn door used to get large objects into the building, one of the first things you notice is a 1934 Desoto two-door coupe known as the Airflow. The car is worth around $50,000.
The Madsonian’s founder, David Sellers, bought it from the father of actor Dan Ackroyd. Just about everything in the Madsonian has a story behind it, and Sellers is more than willing to share these stories.
Sellers has been collecting items for years and years, traveling to yard sales, garage sales and antique stores to find wares for the museum.
“My house was getting overloaded and my office was stacked to the ceiling with cool things,” he said. “I have this stuff and I wanted to share it with people.”
Sellers has filled the museum with both the beautiful and the utilitarian. You’ll find a rocking chair made in 1898 out of beech wood that has been steamed and bent into graceful curves placed alongside another chair of plywood cut on a computerized CNC mill. An ultra-modern tricycle sits near one from the late 1920s made entirely of metal.
“This was the time where you could smash sheets of metal with gigantic hydraulic presses. That’s how they made the curved car fenders,” he said. “And they said, ‘We have to make it inexpensively.’ Bam, bam, bam, bam, just smash the pieces together, bolt them together and bingo, you’ve got a kid’s tricycle.’”
In the Madsonian, you will find an appliance called the mangle, which was used to iron sheets; a motorcycle with sidecar; old radios that were considered furniture; a wooden windmill blade made in Vermont; a 1940s aluminum electric chainsaw and a 30-gallon butter churner.
One of Sellers’ favorites in the collection is an electric sewing machine made by Singer that looks to be half the size of the old Singers that come in sewing tables.
“Today, it’s one of the real rare collectors items to have a small, portable, tiny, little machine that works,” he said. “Powerful and gorgeous.”
The little Singer is made of enameled steel and many of its parts are chrome plated.
“This became appealing to women to make beautiful things,” Sellers said. “And it had to be a beautiful thing itself.”
Sellers delights in the industrial design of the early 20th century. He showed off a portable Remington typewriter and declared it could be used to teach mechanical engineering. He turned the crank of a pencil sharpener with three blades that was made in 1906.
"Every time it turns, it turns the pencil itself, so that the actual result is a faceted pencil," he said. "But the idea that you can see clearly how it’s made ... It’s so beautiful."
Many of the objects in the Madsonian are either donated or on loan to the museum. Sellers has found that people with cool things in their attic sometimes like to share them with others, even if only temporarily.
Sometimes the donations come from people who simply want a good home for a beloved possession. Such was the case when a church in Warren was disposing of a reed organ from 1895.
"The woman who was the organist, had been the organist for 30 years, called up almost in tears and said, ‘Look. this organ is in perfect working condition and they want to switch to electric. Is there some way you could take it?’” he said. “We said, ‘Yes! Absolutely!’ We brought it in here, plugged it in and bingo.”
During two visits to the Madsonian, there were moments when it was uncertain whether something was part of the collection or just part of the infrastructure. Was that old 1937 Electrolux vacuum cleaner on display or just being used to clean the museum? Both, as it turned out. Visitors approach a reception desk that had once been a kitchen counter and notice that it has a working sink.
"[The counter] looks like it could be made out of white marble," Sellers said. "And it looks like it could be three-feet thick because it looks like it’s all smoothly molded and you say, 'My God, how did you make that? What’s that made out of?'"
Turns out that it was made out of an auto body filler called bondo and epoxy. Sellers said the counter looks like it cost 10 thousand dollars but actually cost a fraction of that. When a home in Waitsfield was undergoing a kitchen renovation the counter was offered to the Madsonian. Sellers is looking for another donation for his quirky collection of industrial design, but it’s something that clearly would not fit inside the museum.
“There’s one thing that we don’t have and that is a great big airplane,” Sellers said.
Specifically, Sellers is hoping to snag a DC-10. So, if you happen to have one you’d like to donate, give the Madsonian a call.
To learn more about the Madsonian, and to see more photos of its exhibits, you can visit the Madsonian's website.