Preserving the past
A hobby gets away on this Eltham collector
What do you do when your passion for collecting means you are accumulating objects that can be measured by the tonne?
One answer is to buy a big building and open it up to the public — Mike’s Museum in Eltham displays the extraordinary results of Mike Coil’s collection mania.
Two upper stories and a huge basement of an historic building in the small Taranaki town are bulging with the strangest things. A big collection of antique chainsaws, World War II objects, including an anti-aircraft searchlight and US submarine generator engine, steam boilers of all sizes; you name it, Mike’s collected it.
There’s also a great collection of historic tools and objects from New Zealand’s past.
Mike began collecting when he was a young fella. From a family of 12, he was raised on Taranaki farms and recalls, when aged eight, his father coming home from a stint at sea with a handful of coins.
“Yep, the old man got me started on this path. He gave all us 12 kids each some foreign coins and said when he came back the one who’d collected the most will get more.
“I didn’t stop. I started collecting coins, then stamps, then left high school aged 14 to work on a farm. I was paid 12 pounds a week and given two sows.”
When Mike was 17 he expanded into bottle collecting and then got into WWII military vehicles, including a Dodge 4 x 4 and a Chevy Puddle Jumper.
He purchased a milk bar in New Plymouth, which his father ran, then he crossed the ditch to Australia where he ran a number of abattoirs, and owned and operated an interstate truck and trailer.
“It was built in 1910 in the Doric style and it’s believed to be the first building outside of Europe to be constructed with a suspended floor — it’s on concrete stilts”
When he returned to Taranaki he was loaded up with a big WWII antiaircraft carbon arc searchlight, 12 crates of antique bottles, and a 1700s flintlock pistol.
That’s when the collecting and restoring of old things really took off.
Mike needed space. He purchased a big building in Eltham, and 14 years ago began filling it, setting up what’s become Mike’s Museum.
The two-storied building, with a massive basement, had a history. It was built in 1910 in the Doric style and it’s believed to be the first building outside of Europe to be constructed with a suspended floor. It’s on stilts — huge legs made of solid concrete.
Every bit of free space in the building is now full of things either on show or waiting to be restored. Mike spent some time in the on- and off-shore Taranaki oil and gas industry, operating boilers. As a result, his collection has many steam boilers, from tiny working models to big boilers designed to run steam equipment in workshops.
His workbench in one of the big rooms is in danger of disappearing under the mass of ‘collectibles’. He only just has room to get to his grinder to clean things up.
“I’ve had many sheds over the years. The trouble is I fill them up fairly quickly.”
In 1993 he joined the Taranaki Vintage Machinery Club. “That’s when things got really serious,” he said.
Buying the best stuff
Mike goes to auctions, field days, swap meets and does scrap metal deals.
He picked up the WWII submarine engine at a farm auction.
“I love auctions but I have to back off a bit now. I’m running out of room! I call it preserving history, but you could say I’m a mad collector,” he says with a grin.
Now aged 67 he’s as passionate about his collecting as he ever was.
“I’ll never get round to restoring all this stuff but I just can’t stand seeing so much history end up in rubbish tips.”
While most of the building has massive piles of old objects from yesteryear, all awaiting restoration, the displays in the downstairs museum are restored and fascinating.
He waved three petrol bowser pump handles at us. One was from a garage
bowser, one from a farm, and one for refuelling aircraft that he got from the Ohakea Air Base.
Mike collects strange things. Outside the museum he has a funny-looking device on wheels that was used way back to wheel stoves into houses so the delivery man wouldn’t need an assistant.
Also outside is a 1919 Fordson F farm tractor with metal cleats on the wheels.
On display inside is an old stainless steel operating table, complete with instrument trolley and birthing stirrups.
I also spotted a pith helmet and police baton, which Mike explains was issued to special constables during the 1931 Depression riots.
“I also spotted a pith helmet and police baton which Mike explains was issued to special constables during the 1931 Depression riots”
Chainsaws of old
Mike’s collection of about 250 chainsaws from long ago is impressive, and he has 30 of these on show in the museum.
“I knew a bulldozer driver at the New Plymouth dump. I told him I’d give him a dozen beer for each old chainsaw he found. “He ended up getting me 70 saws, some of them quite rare. I don’t think he died of thirst.”
One big two-man saw is powered by a Mercury twin-cylinder outboard boat motor. It was adapted by Diston to run a big saw. The motor could be detached from the saw and used back on the boat.
An unusual saw is the Blue Streak, made in Australia in the ’50s with the chain oil tank in the pipe handle. Because the carburettor would only work in the upright position, when the saw was on its side the carb and tank would swivel to
remain horizontal; very innovative. This saw motor also detached to run a post hole auger or a blasting auger. Mike said some of these saws had clutches, which made them ideal for powering early go-karts when their sawing days were over.
He showed us a 1940s bar with roller tips and, instead of the chain running inside a slot, the chain had the slot and it ran over the bar.
Some of these saws are huge. The big two-man saws were heavy to lift, let alone use for sawing. Mike has some bars and chains well over two metres long, from the days when men were men.
But wait, there’s more
Old motorbikes, pushbikes, stationary engines, a giant wasp nest, a collection of fossils, bottles, tools, old swords, and china are scattered around. Not to mention several early police helmets.
There’s even a piece of original roading macadam from an Eltham street, which was the first street in the country to be sealed by this new-fangled method.
His old car parts include parts from an early horseless carriage, and a Rex engine from a pre-1905 water-cooled motorbike. There’s an early loom, an old forerunner of the Flymo mower, and one of the odder objects — an old electric stove he picked up in outback New South Wales with a white tailed deer head and antlers attached to the side.
There’s a collection of wheelbarrow wheels, an ancient pig castrator, old ceramics, and a row of very old stationary motors.
He took us underneath the big building into a massive basement that was once a .22 shooting range, and then a boxing club and gym for Eltham youth.
Climbing under the building, another world opened up. A jet unit from an early Hamilton jet boat sits by old street lights that once lit up the streets of Melbourne, along with two 24-volt aircraft generators.
Mike said that working on a farm, he once used similar old generators as welders.
He has a big, heavy-duty air compressor off an oil rig, which compresses up to 5000psi, sitting near a 1900 Ruston stationary motor awaiting restoration.
A big power generator, which was once the standby generator for the New Plymouth power station, is surrounded by tractors, farm tools, vintage car parts, a small church organ, a big mangle, horse-drawn equipment, and old street lights. There must be a kitchen sink there somewhere.
“I’m a bit lucky. My partner, Mary, is very supportive. She’s a bit of a collector herself, mainly collecting period furniture. She’s added to the museum collection during the 24 years we’ve been together.”
At present, Mike is into restoring old tractors. He’s currently working on a rare 1950 Renault and a 1948 Fordson E27N half track.
Mike’s Museum is open during local events, during the Taranaki Garden Festivals, and by arrangement.
To contact Mike, ring 027 724 3731.
“I’m a bit lucky. My partner, Mary, is very supportive, she’s a bit of a collector herself”
A whitetail deer head mounted on the side of an old stove A well-known advertising display from the 60s
Some of the weird and wonderful objects in the basement awaiting restoration
Fuel bowser handles, the big one, from Ohakea air base, is for refuelling aircraft
Even the building itself is collectable
All you need to know is in this hefty Websters dictionary
Some rare and unique pieces in this museum
Not a lot of room left in storage
A WW II carbon arc searchlight
A massive spanner made for bending beams that was found hooked under a rural Taranaki bridge. These were used as bridge spanners, for tightening the massive nuts and bolts holding these structures together
One of Mike’s stranger finds — an ancient pig castrating device
A section of the displays in the museum
A piece of original macadam from Eltham streets — the first road in New Zealand to have tar-sealed roads back in the early 1900s
Part of Mike’s collection of old chainsaws
Mike at his workbench — not much room to work
Mike Coils and his museum