Putting the 20th Century in it's Place

Putting the 20th Century in it's Place

For some of us, it’s difficult to believe the 20th Century faded into history more than 20 years ago. The mechanical and technical advances during that period were unprecedented. Transportation for example, went from steam engines and the first horseless carriages to supersonic jets and space travel. Incremental advances over those 100 years became the foundation for the technologies we see today. They’re also the inspiration for ‘The Museum of the 20th Century - West of Tulsa’ located in Ventura County, California. 

Richard and Elaine Keller created this museum in 2012. It’s filled with unique items that most people under the age of 30 would have no clue what they were used for during the 20th Century. Children are blown away when they discover the thing they’ve been playing with, which they thought was an old fashioned bubble machine, is really a 1930’s hand-crank meat grinder.

The Keller’s dreamed that someday schools would bring students here to see, touch and experience the things people made with their hands before computers came along. Everything from tools to typewriters and the first TV’s to farm equipment. Their dream however, has never been realized. 

Richard died in 2021 just shy of his 105th birthday. He lived through the best and the worst of the 20th Century. He told us stories about growing up during the Great Depression and riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle from Oklahoma to California with just a few dollars in his pocket and sleeping in ditches behind gas stations at night. Like so many others from the Midwest he was headed to California’s ‘Garden of Eden.” Richard explained how he was stopped by police at the California border and forced to prove he had a job before they would let him in. Don’t believe it? Do a Google search and you’ll find out ‘Okies’, folks from Oklahoma were considered some of the worst ‘vagrants.’

He was a bomber pilot during WWII and became an engineer after the war designing components for early braking systems on commercial airliners. Some of those innovations were also used by NASA. In the years before he died and the question of age came up, he would give a light-hearted pilot’s reply, “I’m on final approach.”

Elaine Keller At the West Of Tulsa Studio

Elaine, who is full-blooded Cherokee and also from Oklahoma, is still going strong at 96 years old. Her contributions to the museum include Native American artifacts and an entire room filled with vintage dolls, which some people say has a ‘creepy’ factor because they all seem to watch as you walk by.  She also takes pride in her years working for a fiber optics company that invented and sold bizarre looking lamps from the 70’s and 80’s that look like Phyllis Diller’s head with the tip of each hair beaming a different color. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re probably better off or you need to get stoned first. The museum has one of those too.

Many of the items on display belonged to Richard’s first wife, Lupe, who died of cancer in 1992. Many, if not all, of the cars they bought during their 30 years of marriage were placed in storage for decades, parked on hydraulic lifts and are now covered in years of dust. Many haven’t been started in 50+ years. Richard was great at buying cars, but we can’t find any record of Richard ever selling a car. When he died, he had 24 cars, motorcycles, a car hauler of course and more extra auto parts than AutoZone. 

The cars are extremely original examples of what the everyday person drove in the 20th Century. They’re not fancy Ferrari’s that once belonged to a rock star or Arabian royalty.  I asked Richard once just before he died if he would like to get one of his old cars running and go for one last drive. He smiled and quickly answered, “No, I just like knowing they’re here.” 

The oldest car in his collection is a 1940 Ford Opera Coupe. It’s been parked since the mid 1950’s and I believe it was his favorite car or at least the car that gave him the most vivid memories. He described how he and a buddy pulled up to old L.A. Airport in it and just before they were about to get out the first reports came in from Pearl Harbor about the Japanese attack. Richard said they sat in that car all day listening to the radio and knew they were going to war.

A museum like this happens when two borderline hoarders/collectors get married and don’t know where to put all of their cool shit. And a lot of what’s here is cool. Everyone who’s been lucky enough to walk through the 6,000 square foot two-story industrial building appreciates what it took to put it together and the passion behind it.

Now that Richard has passed, Elaine savors every trip to the museum even more. We don’t know what will happen to the museum and its contents in the coming months or maybe years. But at least for now, it’s a unique place that holds a tight grip on the past. 

Keller's vision will probably never happen. The expense of liability insurance and the cost to bring the building up to code for public use proved to be too much. Remember taking educational field trips in grade school? Sadly, they too are disappearing in the 21st Century because of ‘liability’, an ugly 9-letter word that’s killing so many fun things we enjoyed and managed to survive as kids. 

If you can relate to Keller’s dream, chances are that makes you an oddball, eccentric, a maverick. In my opinion, that’s a good thing. Otherwise the world would be as boring as plain white toast.


One last quirky thing about Richard, he used a rubber stamp to mark everything. Letters, files, photos, everything got his mark which simply said, West of Tulsa. I’m sure there was special meaning behind it. Maybe an FU to the police who tried to stop him from following his dreams in California. Maybe an FU to all the ugly people who called him an “Okie.” But, If I had to guess, it simply summed up where he wanted to be during his long, interesting and well-lived life. We should all be so lucky.



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