Tilden man made something out of nothing
Harold Ritter never saw trash.
He always saw possibilities, said JoBeth Cox, director of the Elkhorn Valley Museum in Norfolk.
Now, a fair number of those “possibilities” are on permanent display at the museum.
Ritter was born in 1920 to William and Margarethe Ritter on a farm near Tilden. He had one brother, Rollie. Ritter graduated from Tilden High School in 1937, during the height of the Depression, which may explain why he had such a hard time throwing away anything.
Ritter never married, and he never moved off the farm where he was raised. There, in addition to tending the land and livestock, he planted 1,000 trees.
“He loved the natural world,” said JoBeth Cox, the museum’s director. “He also loved engineering and mechanics. His mind never stopped.”
His creativity was evident at a young age, Cox said.
“I got a coping saw and tore every wood fruit box ... apart to make furniture and stuff. I just took a liking to that,” said Ritter during a 2015 interview with Ron Westlake, a museum volunteer. An audio recording of the interview is part of the exhibit as are several letters he sent to relatives.
In fact, when Ritter was young, he asked his father if they could buy a lathe for $300, Ritter said in that interview.
When his dad said, “no,” Ritter built one.
“Well, what was my next choice? he asked.
During his life, Ritter made his own monopoly game, using recycled wood and paper. He typed the cards using his manual typewriter. The game and the typewriter are on display at the museum. He also made wooden jigsaw puzzles.
“To some people, everything they aren’t using is junk. But I can always see some good use in it yet,” Ritter once said in a letter to his brother.
An avid stamp collector, Ritter made envelopes for his collection by cutting cereal boxes into pieces and sewing them together. He created a “Book of Great Men,” that included only three people — George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln.
But Ritter spent much of his spare time sitting on a simple wooden box situated on top of a simple wooden chair whittling and carving hunks of wood, and in the process creating wooden figures, such as a mahogany horse, fish, bears, birds, sheep and many other creatures and objects.
Today, the chair, the box and the hunk of kitchen floor where the chair sat are part of the museum’s exhibit. The floor bears signs of wear from years of his booted feet shuffling back and forth over it. The box on which he sat is worn smooth, too.
Farming, carving and building were just was a few of Ritter’s talents. A curious innovator, he was fascinated by mechanics, Cox said.
“He took things apart to see how they worked,” she added.
But he was just as adept at putting things together, a skill that is evident in the workable miniature steam engine that he made from scrap metal. It, too, is part of the exhibit.
Ritter also built a miniature tractor, a spinning wheel, an electronic organ, miniature violin and bow and more.
He held ongoing patents with Deere Tractors for his mechanical innovations.
Ritter’s free spirit was evident in other ways, Cox said.
“He lived by his own rules,” she said. “He refused to change his clocks (for Daylight Savings Time). He claimed ‘no one could tell him what to do.’ ”
He also didn’t have a phone, preferring to write letters using his typewriter.
Not having a phone meant friends and family just had to stop at his place and hope to find him home. Government officials didn’t have that luxury, which may be why he received a letter from the Social Security office telling him that he was deceased.
“You can’t believe how hard it is to prove you’re not dead,” Ritter said.
Ritter died in October of 2015 at the age of 95. A year or so earlier, he admitted that he should probably move to town.
“But look,” he said. “This is where all the interesting junk is.”