IDA GROVE, Iowa | Duane and Ellen Ernst went hog-wild for pigs years ago.
Like they haven't heard THAT one.
The Ernsts have a shrine to all things pigs in a Pigseum on their acreage near Ida Grove, where Duane was raised and helped farrow 18 sows twice per year.
"I'd rather clean hogs than go out in the field to work," Duane Ernst says. "Back then, we had 2-row equipment and we had to cultivate corn three times per year."
Maybe it was then that the bug bit, though his passion for piggies didn't reach fever status for many years. He and wife Ellen were teaching near Augsburg, Germany, when they began collecting items featuring pigs. The couple spent much of their professional lives in Germany, where they both taught on U.S. military bases. Duane taught history, American government, German and physical education for the U.S. Department of Defense in Germany from 1968 to 1998. He retired at that point and the couple relocated to his home-place near the Ida Grove County seat.
"Pigs are a good luck symbol in Germany," he says. "We went to a lot of flea markets because they don't have garage sales in Germany."
The couple collected pig figurines, cutting boards, kitchen utensils, stuffed animals, books and more for a decade or so in Germany, accumulating 500 to 600 items they packed and shipped home to Iowa when they moved back two decades ago. Those items sat in boxes on the farm for nearly a decade before Duane became inspired to renovate the old 60-foot by 20-foot hog house.
"I think I spent two to three weeks with a power washer in here taking off the old pig manure," he says.
He and Ellen bought new windows and painted them for the structure. An electrician rewired the hog house, too, meaning that, for $2,000 (the windows and electricity) the couple could safely show their collection of snouts, tails and oinks.
"The collection kind of starts in this corner," Duane says, pointing to a Noah's Ark display that has animals lined up two-by-two. The catch? They're all pigs.
The Pigseum, a title for the place which is printed on sweatshirts and more, opened in time for the 50th class reunion of Duane's high school class. Since that time, the Ernsts have kept adding to their collection, scouring garage sales, Goodwill outlets and more. On occasion, they'll find a stuffed pig or a little piggy figurine in the mailbox at the end of their driveway.
The collection has "fattened," you might say, going from 500 to 600 original pig-related items to thousands upon thousands of all things pigs.
A small sampling of items upon which you can find pigs in this Pigseum: stuffed animals, books, chess pieces, pajamas, neckties, T-shirts, aprons, windsocks, aprons, cookie jars, toothpick holders, salt and pepper shakers, mugs, cookie cutters, wine bottles, beer steins, toilet paper, napkin holders, dishes, plates, place mats, pitchers, pictures and more.
The top boards of the old hog house are lined with dozens of pig-shaped cutting boards.
There are probably 100 or so piggy banks, including a couple that move when money finds their bellies. One bank can tell its user what kind of currency was dropped in for safe keeping.
"You read 'Animal Farm'?" Duane Ernst asks. "You know pigs are highly intelligent."
The piggy-bank responds by telling Ernst he has deposited a nickel.
"This would be the only way we'd make money at the Pigseum," he says with a laugh.
The Ernsts don't charge for a tour of their Pigseum. Rather, they open it for local groups, such as Red Hat societies, the Schleswig Wine & Bier Club (of which Duane is a member), the Ida Grove Kiwanis Club (again, Duane is a member) and more. Guests are asked to call the Ernsts at 712-364-2888 to set up a visit if they wish as regular hours aren't kept.
Actually, there's little that's "regular" about this collection, one that doesn't "bring home the bacon." The highest-priced item, in fact, probably only cost the Ernsts $15. Instead, there are all sorts of collectibles here that set the owners back a whole 50 cents or $1.
"Our sons say, 'Mom, Dad, you gotta stop buying this stuff,'" Duane says with a nod.
Will they take up sons Erich and Gregor on it? Maybe, maybe not.
"You used to be able to walk through here," Ellen says while scanning the shelves, "but we had to keep putting up shelves."
"Originally, I wanted to use part of the hog house for the collection," Duane adds, "but it kept going and going and going."
Passing a Christmas tree decorated with all things pig, the Pigseum founder shakes his head, indicating the search for alternative forms of pork is far from over.
"We have all sort of Christmas pigs, but we've not found any Easter pigs," he concludes.
The traditional Easter ham, in a sense, has eluded the Pigseum. And so, the search continues. Chances are, the Ernsts will find that treasure before pigs fly.