It's hard to say anymore in this farming enclave in eastern Ventura County. For 57 years, the undisputed keeper has been Harry Lechler, a lifelong resident and retired hardware store owner who built the Lechler Museum in his backyard in 1943.
But this weekend, the museum's 1,000-piece collection is on the auction block. And area residents are attempting in a last-minute frenzy to keep the town's history intact. The county's Cultural Heritage Board is calling on local museums and history buffs to bring their checkbooks and buy as many items as they can. A strategy session to decide who will bid on what is scheduled today.
"It takes years for museums to acquire these kinds of artifacts that tell about a community," said Gary Blum, chairman of the Cultural Heritage Board. "To have them auctioned off in one afternoon would be a tragedy."
Since 1943, Lechler has collected his own finds and objects donated by others. The collection — encompassing artifacts of early Chumash inhabitants, settlers who came here with the railroad and even movie stars who have filmed on location since the early 1900s — spilled into two sheds and the yard.
After years of hinting and months of outright begging to get one of the younger local residents to take over the collection and house it safely, Lechler — who is 88 and recently suffered a heart attack after the death of his son — decided the heck with it. He had it all packed up and sent off to auction.
The sale is set for Saturday and Sunday at California Auctioneers and Appraisers in Casitas Springs, north of Ventura. A public preview is scheduled today and Friday.
The collection has an estimated worth of more than $100,000, appraisers say, enough to provide nursing home care if Lechler or his wife, Peggie, should need it.
The auction house, which operates a Web site at www.californiauctioneers.com, already has fielded several inquiries from across the country, according to owner John Eubanks.
Of widespread interest are such items as a vintage tractor, Victrolas and Italian stained-glass windows from the town's first Catholic church.
There are other items that may not draw as much money but have perhaps greater interest to Piru residents.
These include several Indian tools, as well as woven baskets that may be made of a reed early Indians called "pee-ru," the town's namesake.
There is the guest register from the town's now-defunct hotel, where Lechler was born and where Mary Pickford and other early stars of the 1900s stayed when they came to town to make films.
Some of Piru's 1,800 residents admit they were initially frustrated at Lechler for agreeing to sell. But it's hard to stay mad at a man who voluntarily ran a museum for six decades, let thousands of people into his home and never charged admission or accepted donations in return, said Steve Alcocer of the Piru Neighborhood Council.
"I think Mr. Lechler did exactly what he felt he had to do," Alcocer said. "I knew Harry was going to give up the museum. He's getting up in age. I just wish something else could have happened."
Some questioned whether Lechler had really thought through the sale, suggesting Eubanks tricked him into it or twisted his arm. That is a rumor Peggie Lechler, who turned 90 on Wednesday, put to rest quickly.
"We pressured him, if anything," she said of Eubanks.
Eubanks shrugs off criticism. "Our interest from the beginning was to help them in any way we could," he said. "Due to their health and their financial position, they needed to liquidate the collection. Most people understand, this is the way of the world."
Eubanks called the collection "very unique stuff ... true Americana that deals with Ventura County's history."
Moreover, he suggests Lechler on his own might not have been able to amass the detailed catalog that has been put together for the auction, giving as much historical detail as possible on each item in the collection.
Harry Lechler was too frail to be interviewed, his wife said.
Some Piru enthusiasts say the whole thing is sad.
"It's well known as the best collection of Piru artifacts and history," said Tony Newhall, 59, whose late father bought the spectacular Piru Mansion in 1964 and is a descendant of pioneer land baron Henry Mayo Newhall. "It's unfortunate it can't be sold to someone who would keep it intact."
That someone won't be Newhall, who has put the 1886 mansion on the market. But Newhall may purchase pieces that came from the mansion to keep at least that part of the collection intact.
Some members of the Ventura County Cultural Heritage Board were so miffed they briefly contemplated picketing the auction, but decided that would be pointless.
Board members also considered trying to tell Lechler he couldn't sell his collection because the county had designated the museum a historical landmark.
But county attorneys advised the board the designation applied not to the collection but only to the museum structure. The Italian windows, which were installed in the museum, are probably protected as part of the structure, attorneys advised board members. But after Lechler's heart attack, nobody wanted to press the point.
Instead, a younger generation of Piru's keepers will do its best to buy back what it can, and figure out later what to do with the items.
In a 1995 interview, Lechler told The Times he often worried that when he died people would "come and take what they think are the most valuable things and leave unattended the little things that mean so much to me."
Blum said he will try to make sure that doesn't happen.
"Mr. Lechler was really the landmark in a lot of people's eyes," he said. "If we can't keep him, the collection is the next best thing."