Restoring Antique Stoves and a Town

Hometown Heroes, People
on January 29, 2006

Steve Hund Jr. paid $15 for a rusty potbellied stove at an auction in 1971 to heat his drafty farmhouse. That purchase sparked Hund to open a stove restoration shop in Paxico, Kan. (pop. 211), which rekindled business for the entire town.

The thrill and challenge for Hund is transforming the rusty heirlooms that people haul in, often in boxes and missing parts, into beautifully restored stoves that warm hearts as well as homes.

“The stoves remind people of a simpler time,” says Hund, 57, surrounded by 40 gleaming cast-iron heating and cooking stoves at Mill Creek Antiques in Paxico. “People remember going into grandma’s house and smelling apple pie baking in the woodstove.”

More than practical sources of heat, the antique wood- and coal-burning stoves from the 1850s to 1920s are works of art embellished with floral designs and scenes and nickel-plated trim.

Such fanciful adornments, though, weren’t the initial attraction for Hund. When he and his wife, Kathryn, were newlyweds, they lived in a fixer-upper farmhouse and needed cheap heat. They were impressed by the efficiency of the stove he bought at an auction, as were friends.

Hund, who worked on the Rock Island Railroad at the time, soon was buying stoves and fixing them up for friends. As his stove collection grew, the then 24-year-old talked a reluctant banker into giving him a $2,500 loan to buy the vacant C.J. Glotzbach General Store in boarded-up downtown Paxico and he used the money to open Mill Creek Antiques in 1973.

Today, Hund restores about 100 stoves a year, including wood-burning cookstoves, and scrambles to keep up with demand from people reclaiming family heirlooms and seeking period furnishings for their Victorian-era homes. Reconditioned stoves sell for $3,000 to $20,000, depending on their rarity and ornamentation.

Hund also restores stoves for museums, including the 1859 Fort Larned military post in Larned, Kan., (pop. 4,236) and President Harry S. Truman’s farmhouse in Grandview, Mo. (pop. 24,881).

Restoration involves disassembling the cast-iron stoves, sandblasting them to remove rust, locating or casting new pieces, and nickel-plating the trim for sentimental customers.

“I remember my granddad sitting in the old wicker rocker beside the stove and smoking his pipe,” says Enid Crabb, 45, of Council Grove, Kan. (pop. 2,321), who paid Hund $930 to refurbish her great-grandparents’ stove. “Granny would pop popcorn on the stove and put sugar on it.” Her children are the fifth generation warmed by the stove. “I love the family continuity.”

As Hund’s sales heated up, so did business in downtown Paxico. Other antique dealers were inspired to buy or lease buildings in the town, which looks more 1906 than 2006 with its brick streets and gingerbread-trimmed storefronts. Today, a dozen antique stores attract thousands of bargain hunters on weekends.

The town’s centerpiece is Mill Creek Antiques, housed in an 1886 building with its original fixtures and counters, pressed-tin ceiling and creaky wooden floors. Hund fixed up the basement in the sprawling half-block-long store so townspeople would have a place for music performances and community get-togethers.

“Every little town I’ve ever seen has one person like Steve who has a vision and is relentless,” says Mike Holper, owner of Old Woodman Antiques, who visited Hund two years ago to sell him some furniture and ended up leasing a building in Paxico.

Hund shrugs off praise, but admits that Paxico has undergone a transformation since he began restoring stoves 35 years ago. “I looked down the street one day and it had happened. We didn’t have any empty buildings.”

Or any cold toes among customers and neighbors sitting around the crackling stoves in downtown Paxico—where Hund keeps the home fires burning.

Visit www.millcreekantiques.com or call (785) 636-5520 to learn more.