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PIERCE -- The most valuable farm in Pierce County now has 24-hour security, possibly armed, camping where the soybeans used to be.

And a new cattle gate, installed late last month. And electronic surveillance, its details kept secret.

And a crop that has turned the town of Pierce, population 1,700, into the temporary center of the collector car universe, luring a steady stream of pilgrims up Nebraska 13 and west toward the golf course, each hungry for a sneak peek at  the 500 classic cars and trucks that make up the Lambrecht Collection.

These cars were never the best-kept secret in northeast Nebraska, but the auto world knew little about them until they were unveiled this summer and their late September auction announced.

Then it was a revelation, the ultimate hidden treasure, so many endangered species parked in one spot. Hundreds of old cars, many from the tail fin era, most of them running and intact when they were planted here decades ago. More startling were the dozens still considered brand new, even though they have grown so old: Like the 1959 Chevrolet Biscayne with 3 miles on the odometer. The 1961 Apache pickup with 2 miles. The 1978 Corvette with 5 miles.

The curious keep coming, 20 to 25 a day. Some slow, some stop, some just stare at the field from the county road.

But a few can’t resist the pull of all this steel, row after row of mostly American cars, frozen in time. Even when they see the big signs ordering them to stay away.

So Yvette VanDerBrink has to kick them out.

“They just can’t come in, yet.”

Soon, though. At the end of the month, the Minnesota auctioneer will open the gate for a two-day harvest expected to draw thousands of people, and the collection that has remained intact for so long will scatter.

* * *

VanDerBrink had heard hints about a collection like this for years. The legend of the small-town Midwest dealer who filled a warehouse with old new cars and a field with trade-ins.

Then she was contacted last year by the small-town dealer's daughter.

Ray Lambrecht was ready to sell.

Lambrecht and his wife, Mildred, ran Lambrecht Chevrolet for 50 years. They still live in Pierce, in the house he built across the street from the dealership he built in 1946.

“Dad first drove a car at the age of 9,” Jeannie Lambrecht Stillwell wrote in a short history of her family’s dealership. “He climbed into the family’s 1927 tan Chevrolet two-door coupe and drove his mother 7 miles to the nearest town for groceries.”

He was drafted in 1942 and served the Army in the Aleutian Islands, returning to Pierce County with a sergeant’s rank. He joined his uncle at the dealership, and he and Mildred took over when Ernest Lambrecht got sick.

“They worked six days a week for 50 years, never taking one single day of vacation or one sick day,” their daughter wrote. “They worked hard and operated their business with honesty, integrity and kindness.”

And with their own idea of how to run a dealership.

Ray Lambrecht liked to sell only the newest cars. If he still had new Chevys in stock when he received the next year’s models, he’d park them in his nearby warehouse. If he saw promise in a certain model -- like a Cameo pickup or the ’78 Corvette -- he’d buy those for his collection.

And when customers traded in for new, he’d store most of the used cars on several lots he owned in town and, later, beneath the trees at the edge of his 80 acres outside of Pierce.

He saw the collection's long-term potential, his daughter said. It was their retirement fund.

“Ray was kind of an unusual businessman. He knew someday there was going to be some value there,” VanDerBrink said. “They’d drive them out to the farm and park them. That’s where they sat for years.”

A half-century ago, Ron Kallander’s search for his first new car took him to see Ray Lambrecht, 140 miles from his home in Burke, S.D.

“We ended up down in Pierce,” said Kallander, now a retired Baptist camp director and nursing home chaplain who lives in California. “It was the strangest thing in the sense that even then, he had any number of brand new old cars.”

He remembers pulling into the small Nebraska town, its buildings full of cars. “And every vacant lot in town was filled with old, old cars. I remember vacant lot after vacant lot. Sort of junkers.”

The college senior stopped paying attention when he met his new Impala Super Sport, with bucket seats and a 327.

“Once I saw that '64 Chevy, that’s where my gaze stopped and hung.”

And he didn’t often think about Pierce, or Lambrecht Chevrolet, for the next five decades until this summer, when he started seeing news stories about the small-town dealer who was selling his time capsule.

* * *

By the time Ray and Mildred closed the dealership in 1996, their car collection had grown to 450 used cars and trucks, the trade-ins, and about 50 new models, the inventory that had never been sold, never been titled.

He tried to protect his new cars, his daughter said, parking the best models indoors. When his warehouse roof collapsed, he moved some to the dealership and some to other buildings.

But he had to move many into the trees.

For years, their mechanic lived on the Lambrecht farm and guarded the cars against thieves and vandals, but he was powerless to stop season after season of Nebraska weather.

Paint faded. Steel rusted. Mice moved in.

Even the trees did damage, sprouting and twisting through fenders and bumpers.

“Father Time has been cruel to those cars,” Sheriff Rick Eberhardt said.

The collection became a target after the mechanic died. Trespassers broke windows and stripped parts. About 10 years ago, the sheriff busted a theft ring stealing and selling chrome trim.

Last year, 100 radiators disappeared.

An entire car vanished, a bare spot where it sat.

The damage was unending, their daughter said. So Ray and Mildred Lambrecht decided to sell.

* * *

The auctioneer has spent the summer getting the cars ready for the auction Sept. 28-29, with a preview the day before.

At the farm, she hired a construction crew to rip out the trees and line up the cars. Most were American-built in the 1950s and 1960s: Bel Airs and Biscaynes, Corvairs and Caprices, pickup after pickup after pickup. Some came from the ’70s and ’80s: A Monte Carlo. A Pinto. A Chevette. A pair of Vegas.

Not all of the cars in the field are pristine, or even pretty. Some are project cars. Some will become parts cars. Some would make great demolition derby cars, she said.

In town, she opened the dealership, navigated its clutter, piles of hubcaps and tires and wheels and files, and opened car doors that had been closed for decades. These are some of the most valuable pieces in the collection -- the Cameo, with 1 mile, a pair of new Impalas, the Corvette -- and she’ll sell these first.

She’s already registered hundreds of bidders from 50 states. She’s heard from interested buyers all over the world.

She anticipated this kind of reaction.

“The idea of 50 new cars, or a guy who never sold his trade-ins, or a guy who kept his inventory, that’s an unusual business plan people can’t understand.”

She estimates 6,000 to 10,000 people might show up for the preview and auction, more spectators than bidders.

But the man who started it all, Ray Lambrecht,won't be there to see how it ends, his daughter said. The 95-year-old plans to stay home.

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Reach Peter Salter at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

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