March 26, 2007

Meyers' antique trunks are treasured chests

By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

It all started when Sylvia Mallak Meyer, a ‘57 graduate of Holy Trinity High School, received an antique trunk from her parents, Joe and Irene Mallak of Winsted.

She first refurbished the trunk when she was about 19 years old, and found it very useful for storing a number of things over the years. Then, about 15 years ago, she decided to refinish the treasured chest again.

This time her husband, Val, was available to help. He suggested that they line the trunk with aromatic red cedar. The results were amazing. They not only liked the restored trunk, their children did as well.

The search was on for more trunks for their children and grandchildren.

Today, their beautiful, spacious home in Waconia, has many, many treasured chests on display.

The trunks are lined up in the entryway and down the hallway. Most rooms have multiple trunks, and, of course, the trunk room has wall-to-wall trunks.

They are all different sizes, small, medium and large. Some trunks have dome tops, others have flat ones.

“The first flat-top trunk brought a whole new dimension to our search. We used to just pass up all of the flat tops,” Sylvia said.

Some of the finished chests are colorfully painted with shiny hardware, others are brown with leather decorating them. All of them charming in their unique style.

Each of the trunks has a story behind it that the Meyers will easily recall as they proudly show off the trunk’s individual characteristics.

“When we started out, we never imagined it would evolve to this point that you could not even walk through the house,” Sylvia said. “It is difficult to house clean. Just too many. That is why we started to sell them.”

The hobby grew because the hunt for treasured chests became as rewarding as the finished product.

They found trunks in different parts of the country while they were away from home camping and horseback riding, including Iowa, Colorado, and Missouri.

“Different places in the country have different trunks than we see in the Midwest,” Sylvia said.

“We have found some in antique shops, but they are expensive so that isn’t always the best way, but it is always fun to look in shops just in case there could be a treasure,” Sylvia said.

Word spread about the Meyers’ expertise in restoring antique trunks. Twice, they were featured in a fix-it column in the Minneapolis StarTribune that asked what works to get the musty smell out of the inside of antique trunks. They answered, and their name was out there for future reference.

From that article, they made contact with a man who had a trunk that his great-grandfather and four brothers used when they came to the US from Ireland many years ago.

He asked the Meyers to rerstore the trunk for him, and they hesitated because the trunk was all leather, and it was in pretty good condition. They had never worked on leather. The owner was insistent and Val tried a product for old leather. It turned out great when it was finished.

“When somebody brings us a trunk and says, ‘my great-great-grandfather came over from so-and-so and this is what they used. Is there anything you can do?’ I will bend over backwards to get that one finished,” Val said.

“So many times, when they come back to get their trunk, they don’t even realize that it is theirs,” Sylvia said.

Occasionally, people just want to give them away. “One older woman had four trunks that came from Poland, from her great-grandfather,” Sylvia said. “She was cleaning house and wanted them out of the house. She didn’t want them, her children didn’t want them, and neither did her grandchildren.”

One of those trunks was refinished by the Meyers and donated to a silent auction for their church, St. Joseph’s in Waconia. A contribution they have been making annually.

“They usually do well in the silent auction. This year, a young man, only about 30, was so excited to get it. He just saw it and knew he had to have it,” Sylvia said.

They also donate one of their trunks to a fundraiser for the Ridgeview Hospital each year.

When working in the shop, the Meyers will work on as many as three or four trunks at the same time, mostly because they are in different stages – waiting for filler or paint to dry. Others are waiting for parts to be made or polished.

Sylvia’s task is to clean out the dirt and grime, preparing the trunk for finishing.

“I do some sanding and some of the polishing of the metal,” Sylvia said.

Val does most of the refinishing. “If there is a board that is broken, it generally doesn’t make much difference what kind of wood is used to replace it. One board can be oak, one pine. Not always, but trunks seem to be made with whatever was on hand at the time,” Val said.

If the inside cleans up and it looks nice just plain, they will not do anything to the inside. It keeps the cost down.

“It is fun to see what is underneath all the junk and dirt,” Val said.

If the trunk lining does need to be redone, that is Val’s job, and it can get pretty time consuming.

He explained that most of the trunks are not square. There could be as much as a half inch difference from the bottom to the top, and the middle of the trunk can be bowed.

He can line them with paper, fabric, vinyl or cedar. If they are doing it for a customer, they will let the customer decide.

Val will also redo the bottom of some the trunks that have been rotted out. They have had a few of those, that some people would have thrown in the trash. He takes those bottoms totally off and puts a new bottom on.

“He is incredibly patient. Sometimes, he will redo things many times over until he gets them the way he wants,” Sylvia said.

There are times the Meyers don’t agree on what a finished trunk should look like.

“That doesn’t happen too often,” Sylvia said.

Whenever a compromise is necessary, whichever one of them has done the most work on the trunk is the one who gets the final say on what the trunk will look like.

So far, with all of the trunks that they have refurbished, the only real treasure they have found inside was some antique pictures from St. Boni that they cleaned and dusted off, and returned back to the owner. The owner donated them to the church where the pictures were taken.

“No money and no body,” Val said, in response to finding anything of value in the trunks.

Once they bought a trunk at an auction and it had a couple of gourds, which Sylvia thought were great.

“I like gourds, so it was a treasure to me,” Sylvia said.

One thing the Meyers never thought would happen is the attachment that forms between them and their final products.

“It takes two to three weeks to complete a trunk and you kind of bond with it,” Sylvia said. “By the time we finish, we think this is prettier than anything else we have worked on. It is hard to part with. It was something we did not anticipate.”

All of the trunks are numbered, and each one gets a before and after photo. The current number is 142. Of those, there are approximately 16 waiting to be worked on.

“So far, we have not had any two trunks that are alike,” Sylvia said.

They have only recently started to sell their trunks. They have trunks that have gone to San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, Missouri, and Montana.

The refurbishing of trunks will continue to be part of the Meyers’ daily routine.

Besides, they still have two more trunks they are interested in finishing for two of their grandchildren.

“Working on our trunks gives us a reason to rise and shine each day,” Sylvia said. “They allow my husband and I to work together at home in an environment we both love. I think that work is healthy for the soul and our spirit.”

Children of Val and Sylvia Meyer are:

• Michelle, married to Bruce Pinkerton and living in Bedford Texas;

• Maureen, married to Tom Palm and residing in Orono with their two children Mathew, 15, and Kelly, 13;

• Heidi, married to Bryan Richert and living in Minneapolis; and

• Dean, married to Alison and living in Waconia with their two children Hayden, 10, and Seirra, 7.

To contact Meyers

For more information on their antique trunks or to purchase one, call Val or Sylvia at (952) 442-4250.

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