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Economy & Business

Rolla Becomes A Hub For Vacuum Cleaner Enthusiasts

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Jonathan Ahl
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Stefan Norris (right) tries out a 1968 Hoover while other attendees at the Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club national convention look on.

ROLLA — While most people consider vacuum cleaners to be just a household tool, to a select group of enthusiasts they are a passion.

More than 50 vacuum cleaner connoisseurs and collectors from as far away as New York and California came to Rolla over the weekend for the 15th annual National Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club convention.

Tom Gasko, owner of Mid Missouri Vacuum, a repair shop in Rolla, is one of the country’s authorities on vacuum cleaners. In the rear of his shop in an unassuming strip mall is a two-room museum with hundreds of vacuums, some dating back more than 100 years.

“This beautiful display here, it’s really worth visiting. And seeing everything lined up just perfectly, it’s like a time capsule for different decades,” said Alex Terzuola, a vacuum cleaner collector from Denver who has a YouTube channel where he posts videos reviewing the appliances. “It’s like the Taj Mahal of vacuum cleaner collections.”

Gasko has more than 700 vacuum cleaners in his collection and displays the best of them in his museum, which is free and open to the public. They are grouped by era with corresponding newspaper and magazine ads posted above them on the wall.

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Jonathan Ahl
Tom Gasko of Rolla (left) and Richard Curtis of Kansas City compare two vacuums during the 2021 National Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club convention at Mid Missouri Vacuum, Gasko's shop and museum.

Gasko said vacuums tell the story of art and culture in society since their invention around 1900.

“The machines that were made in the 1930s, as an example, are all art deco. In the 1940s, especially right after World War II when we had a national steel strike, steel was very, very hard to get. But a new plastic had been invented called Bakelite. So you begin to see Bakelite vacuum cleaners made after World War II,” Gasko said.

All the attendees agree they love vacuum cleaners, but aren’t always able to say why. Many of them, including Stefan Norris from Knoxville, Tennessee, said it started in childhood.

“My parents would say I could get whatever I wanted for my birthday, and I would get a vacuum for my birthday. I guess it goes from there,” he said. “There’s not a concrete answer, if you know what I mean, on why. I think it’s something you’re born into, is how I think of it.”

Vacuum cleaner designs can be dramatically different depending on manufacturing and decade they were made. But the allure of the appliances can appeal even to someone who can’t see them.

Collector Mike Arrigo of St. Louis, who is blind, came to the event in Rolla. He said the sound of each model is different, and to him, it’s like music.

“Each one has a different pitch and it does kind of create an image. I have one vacuum that I actually did bring with me because it sounds exactly like the first wet-dry vac we ever had when I was a kid. It’s an E flat note,” Arrigo said.

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Jonathan Ahl
These Hoover vacuum cleaners are among the oldest in Gasko's collection, dating back to the 1910s.

The convention is an unstructured and laid-back affair. A lot of what happens is collectors trying out different vacuums, both the ones in Gasko’s museum and ones they brought to show off.

On display this year was the collection of vacuum cleaners owned by the late Stan Kann, better known as the longtime organist at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis.

Another element of the convention is side projects, in which collectors work together to get old vacuums up and running.

Charlie Waltrous of North Carolina has been working for years to try to get a 1946 Premiere upright working again. He thought a repairman he had worked with before could help.

“He looked at it and said there’s not a lot he could do with it and it would be more of a display vacuum. Then I took it to a local place where I live, and it was more of the same thing, and I just refused to accept that,” Waltrous said.

So Waltrous took the vacuum to Rolla, where a collector brought a motor he could have, and Michael Balda of Wisconsin worked on it for hours. Balda, who has had some of his vacuums used as props in movies, said the Premiere might be the hardest vacuum to fix.

“This style vacuum is a hard one to take apart. It was engineered to last forever, it’s 80 years old, and when we’re done with it, it will still be running yet today,” Balda said.

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Jonathan Ahl
Mike Balda of Wisconsin (left) and Robert Clow of Quincy, Illinois, work on the 1946 Premiere upright vacuum.

He made good on his promise, and the old vacuum started up and purred as they ran it over a rug sprinkled with dust.

“I’m so glad to get this back in my collection,” Waltrous said.

That sense of community may be what this convention is really about.

“We’re all friends here,” Gasko said. “So it is 50% a vacuum-oriented thing. But we really enjoy getting together once a year, and for some people, it’s their vacation.”

But don’t be mistaken. They really love vacuum cleaners. Gasko has a tattoo of the logo of his favorite vacuum, the 1935 Airway, on his arm.

And has made it clear that when he dies, he wants to be cremated and have his ashes vacuumed up in one.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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