Before the days of Walmart, Amazon and other superstores, people shopped for auto supplies, hardware and housewares, toys, bicycles and gifts at Western Auto.
The chain grew to more than 1,200 company-owned stores and more than 4,000 dealer stores, mostly in small towns across America. Western Auto was a pioneer in the retail industry and among the few to offer catalog sales. The company was purchased by Sears in 1988 and then sold to Advance Auto Parts in 1998. In 2003, the Western Auto chain went out of business.
Western Auto stores were located all over Delmarva, including Georgetown, Millsboro, Rehoboth Beach, Lewes, Seaford and Laurel in Sussex County.
Thanks to Maurice Sanger, those memories are reborn through his large collection of memorabilia housed at the new Western Auto Museum at the Nutter Marvel Carriage Museum on South Bedford Street in Georgetown.
Sanger, who is retired and living in Rehoboth Beach, has stocked a complete store with thousands of items he’s collected over the past 50 years. Among his most prized possessions is a 1909 catalog from the year the company was founded.
The museum features signature Western Flyer items, including bicycles, a sled and a pedal tractor, an extensive array of auto supplies dating back to the 1950s, sporting goods, housewares, toys, tools and even historical photos, original credit card slips, and driver's caps and shirts. And that's just the small tip of a large iceberg of memorabilia.
Western Auto sponsored NASCAR Hall of Fame driver and owner Darrell Waltrip from 1991-97. Sanger has an extensive collection of No. 17 cars and trucks, some of which are extremely rare pieces. He also has hundreds of trains on display, including some Lionel items still in their original boxes.
With a grand opening planned for next spring, the Georgetown Historical Society hosted a preview of the museum last weekend, and another will take place from noon to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 18 and 19.
The opening is in conjunction with a large train display donated to the society by Jim Boyer of Georgetown.
For years, Sanger had his collection housed in a barn in Centreville, Md. A chance visit to the Division of Motor Vehicles in Georgetown led to the formation of the museum. “I drove by and called the number for the museum and gave them a call,” he said.
Working with society President Jim Bowden, they came to an agreement to rebuild and modernize the former carriage storage barn to house his collection. “It really is like taking a step back in time,” Bowden said.
“During the COVID pandemic in 2020, I worked here every day, transporting my collection from Centreville,” Sanger said. He took photos of his display so he could duplicate it in Georgetown.
Sanger, who started collecting trains in 1957, went on a mission when the company went out of business, with his wife Ellen and six children helping to search out old stores to gather as much merchandise as possible. He's been to pawn stores, rummaged through people's collections and purchased items on eBay.
At 12 years old in 1947, Sanger started working part time at a store in Easton, Md. He eventually owned two of his own stores in Kent Island, Md., and Centreville, Md. His son still operates the Kent Island store with a different name, Western Tire & Auto.