In a nutshell, you could say that Arlene and George Wagner, of Leavenworth, Wash. (pop. 2,074), are nutty about nutcrackers.
During the last 40 years, the Wagners, both 84, have amassed more than 5,000 nutcrackers from 47 countries—one of the largest and finest collections of its kind in the world—which they display at their Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum.
"It is a passion and an obsession," says Arlene, nicknamed The Nutcracker Lady. "All we do is hunt for nutcrackers."
The couple's fondness for nutcrackers developed out of their love for The Nutcracker ballet, which Arlene directed for 11 years and which George performed in for eight years. After the Wagners married in 1970, they traveled extensively throughout Europe, touring nutcracker factories, attending nutcracker-making workshops and collecting nutcrackers of all shapes, styles and sizes, including Karl, a 6-foot-tall wooden nutcracker carved by German artist Karl Rappl.
With so many nutcrackers, the Wagner's collection eventually outgrew their Leavenworth home. "We had so many nutcrackers that either they had to move or we did," George recalls.
To house their colossal collection, the Wagners bought a three-story, 9,000-square-foot building in the Bavarian-themed village of Leavenworth and opened the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in 1995 to display their antique and contemporary nutcrackers, nut bowls, fruit knives with nutpicks, and other nut-related items.
"Nuts have been a significant part of man's diet throughout history," explains Arlene, author of The Art & Character of Nutcrackers, an award-winning book.
The oldest nutcrackers, found at a dig in Israel near the Red Sea, are believed to be between 4,000 and 8,000 years old. These primitive nutcrackers consisted of a large rock for crushing and a smooth, curved surface on which to crack the nuts. Since then, nutcrackers have evolved into many different forms, including screws, levers, mortar and pestle, and the familiar gap-mouthed toy soldier, which gained popularity after publication of the 19th-century Christmastime fairy tale, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.
In addition to Christmas-themed nutcrackers, the museum features a bronze Roman nutcracker dated between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200, a pair of spiked nut-cracking shoes from 15th-century France, and contemporary decorative nut-cracking characters such as George Washington, Robin Hood, Phantom of the Opera, Teddy Roosevelt and Zorro.
"I like the carved ones," says Rebeca Wadkins, 27, the Wagner's granddaughter, who plans to carry on her grandparents' legacy. "They all tell their own story."
The Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum also displays items donated by other collectors, including Pat and Andy Daly, of Holmdel, N.J. (pop. 15,781), whose family gave their nutcracker collection to the Wagners after the Dalys died.
The Wagners love sharing their knowledge about nutcrackers, and their ever-expanding collection, with the thousands of people who visit their museum each year. "It's an addiction," George says, "and I get my addiction satisfied every time I walk in here."