10,000-plus visit LeMay collection

The LeMay family opened its estate grounds in Parkland to let the public peek at its cars on the final Saturday in August, continuing a tradition that began 33 summers ago.

The event has grown over the years since the original car show, back when Harold and Nancy Le-May shared their budding collection in a single garage.

“Friends of ours knew we had a few cars; we didn’t have that many back then,” Nancy LeMay said Saturday of the show’s origins.

In the first few years of the open house, they served coffee, lemonade and cookies to visitors from their front porch.

“The year when we hit 5,000 (visitors), we couldn’t make lemonade fast enough,” LeMay said.

The event gained popularity as word spread and the LeMay collection grew. More than 1,000 cars – rare, old, fast and famous – were on display Saturday at the family’s home and at the LeMay museum in Marymount, about 2 miles away. Shuttle buses ferried people.

Scot Keller, LeMay museum spokesman, estimated Saturday’s crowd at 10,000-plus between the two sites.

For many years the event was free, but now admission donations are collected to go to the Harold E LeMay Museum , which is set to open in late summer 2011. Ground was broken in June near the Tacoma Dome for the $60 million project.

Over at Marymount, about 120 collector cars were judged in a car show. An auction of restorable cars attracted budding Harold LeMays.

James Burton of Tacoma has attended the open house for 17 years. The 30-year-old said he comes for the unique cars.

“Just cars you’ll probably never see anywhere else,” he said.

Ken Rose and Nancy Reifler came down from the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.

“It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s amazing,” Rose said.

The LeMay collection once numbered more than 2,300 vehicles and was once described by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest private collection of automobiles in the world.

Harold LeMay died in 2000 at age 81.

The collection he started in 1946 will get a permanent home next year in a 165,000-square-foot museum near the Tacoma Dome.

At the LeMay residence, about 250 cars reside in about 10 themed garages that were expanded and adapted as cars were acquired.

“It exceeded my expectations,” said Lance Martin of Bothell, who walked the grounds with his wife, Jennifer. “Not just the cars – just a lot of amazing stuff they’ve been collecting over the years.”

Cars are only part of the collections; LeMay’s hubcaps or old road signs or rusted farm implements could stand alone as an impressive display.

“Most of it’s junk unless you know how to display it,” Nancy Le-May said.

One long garage houses an alley of 10 red fire engines made between 1914 and the 1950s . Nearby, a restored 1920 Stutz fire engine on display is surrounded by 20 fire axes, numerous fire extinguishers, old firefighter helmets, hoses and toy firetrucks.

“I like this because you can see where he added on to each building as he needed to,” said Barry McCall, who came down from Langley, B.C., with four friends to see the LeMay collection.

“The workmanship and the creativity on these classic cars is outstanding,” McCall said. “To think that this was one man’s life.”

As people walked around the estate Saturday and admired the displays, Nancy LeMay repeated one of Harold’s favorite sayings :

“It’s a basic three-story house, with his and her basements, six bedrooms and a 300 car-garage.”