PIERCE, NEB. -- For decades, a 10-acre tangle of trees in the corner of a corn and soybean field did its best to hide the legends of Pierce County.
But word got out. You could see a few of the cars from County Road 854 and a few more from the second green and third tee of the neighboring golf course. The sheriff lost count of how many times he was called to the farm to roust radiator thieves or chrome scavengers, and to chase away tire-kickers.
"They were parked in the trees, door handle to door handle, bumper to bumper," Deb Bruegman said as she served beers in the clubhouse of the nine-hole course. "The trees grew up in and amongst and around them."
Still, few people were prepared for what emerged from the woods in late July, when a construction crew uprooted the cottonwoods, maples and ash trees and carried their mostly hidden treasures into the sunlight. Rearranged nearby in nine neat rows, each longer than a football field, were nearly 500 cars and trucks including American classics from the 1950s, '60s and '70s: Bel Airs and Corvairs, Apaches and Impalas, even a Corvette Pace Car model.
All were the legacy of Ray Lambrecht, the local Chevrolet dealer for 50 years until he retired in 1996. Now 95, he and his wife, Mildred, 92, still live across the street.
The Lambrecht collection includes about 50 so-called survivors, cars still considered new despite their age. They were never sold, never titled and, with fewer than 20 miles on their odometers, barely driven. The best of these were stored indoors. While many of these new-old cars still have shipping plastic on the seats, their windshields are layered with decades of grime and bat droppings.
There's a 1958 Chevy Cameo pickup with 1.3 miles. A '64 Impala with 4 miles. A '77 Vega with 6 miles. A '78 Corvette -- the Indy Pace Car -- with 4 miles.
Among those who buy and sell vintage cars, there is a special thrill in unearthing a "barn find" -- a car tucked away in good condition and largely forgotten, only to surface years later -- and the trove here is surely one of the largest such discoveries.
"To a collector, it's a field of dreams," said Yvette VanDerBrink, the Minnesota auctioneer who plans to sell the collection on Sept. 28-29 after a day of previews.
Authorities in Pierce, a town of 1,700 125 miles northwest of Omaha, are bracing for the arrival of up to 10,000 bidders and spectators whose appetites have been whetted by news reports, online chatter and tantalizing photos of dusty Chevys.
Ms. VanDerBrink called the collection an urban legend -- albeit a rural one -- come true, the rare white buffalo of car auctions. By Thursday, over 700 bidders had registered from 50 states and several countries; more than 800 potential buyers had already bid $500,000 online. "To find untouched cars is truly the holy grail," she said. "There's a lot of mystery here."
But there was nothing mysterious about the origins of the collection. In 1946, Army Sgt. Ray Lambrecht returned to Nebraska from the Aleutian Islands and married Mildred Heckman. They'd met six years earlier, when his brother married her cousin, but delayed their own wedding until the end of World War II.
Mr. Lambrecht went to work for his uncle, Ernest Lambrecht, at the Lambrecht Chevrolet Company in Pierce. He built the house where he and Mildred live, and he built a new dealership -- its grand opening announced by elephants wearing Chevrolet banners.
Not long after, when Ernest Lambrecht fell ill, the newlyweds took over, developing an unusual business model and a novel retirement plan.
"He loved to sell new cars," Ms. VanDerBrink said. "He didn't sell his trade-ins -- he wouldn't let you buy them. You had to buy the latest and greatest Chevrolet."
Mr. Lambrecht didn't finance his inventory; he bought cars outright from Chevrolet, according to his daughter, Jeannie Lambrecht Stillwell, who lives near Orlando, Fla., and serves as family spokeswoman. When the latest models were trucked in, her father stored the new cars he hadn't sold and stocked up on those he thought would eventually become valuable.
"You could say that the cars ended up being his 401(k) plan," Ms. Lambrecht Stillwell wrote in an account posted online, which she also provided by e-mail. "Instead of investing money in the bank, he invested it in cars. He recognized the value of keeping them for the long term rather than liquidating them at a loss."
Mr. Lambrecht's collection -- trade-ins he wouldn't resell, new models he collected -- started adding up. He stored his best cars in a warehouse, and filled at least three lots in Pierce with the others.
"One lot, he had some old cars sit there for a long, long time," recalled Don Zimmer, who co-owned the weekly Pierce County Leader and operated the town museum. "There was considerable complaint about that in town, and that's when he started to take them out to the farm."
Mr. Zimmer, 89, lived on that same farm for a year as a boy. He remembered the grove that shaded the farmhouse before it became overgrown, before Mr. Lambrecht turned it into a parking lot.
He remembers, too, nearly a lifetime of doing business with Mr. Lambrecht, starting when he tried to buy a used car.
"He wouldn't sell me one," Mr. Zimmer said. "Which is something he did quite a bit of. People would go in there, and he wouldn't sell them a used car."
He bought his first new car at the dealership in 1960, and he bought a truck for the newspaper in 1972. "It was a new pickup, but it was sitting in the trees. I bought it, drove it out of there and that was that."
Two more memories stood out. Once, he drove to the nearest city, Norfolk, to price a car, and told the dealer he had a quote from Mr. Lambrecht. "He just threw down his pencil and said, 'I can't beat him.' "
Another time, when Mr. Lambrecht sold him a pickup and the two argued over its repairs, Mr. Zimmer traded it for a new truck in Norfolk. "When I got home, Ray and his wife wouldn't look at me. They didn't speak to me for a long time."
But it's a small town, and they patched things up. Mr. Zimmer would be on his way home, driving by the dealership, when Mr. Lambrecht would call out: "Ray would yell at me: 'Come in here, Zimmer. Let's talk.' I got home late for dinner several times."
Ms. Lambrecht Stillwell said her parents worked six days a week for 50 years, her father managing sales and her mother doing the accounting, while also making nearly daily trips to pick up parts. "He didn't deal or negotiate," Ms. Lambrecht Stillwell wrote. "He gave his best price the first time."
Before he retired, her father had sold cars to several generations in Pierce County and to customers worldwide -- including Army buddies across the country and strangers who had heard of his reputation, like a man who flew from Switzerland for a 1969 Corvette.
When snow collapsed the roof of a warehouse, they were forced to move the jewels of their collection, their daughter said. They parked some at the dealership, put some into storage elsewhere and sent many others to the farm.
Her parents didn't simply surrender the cars to the harsh weather, vandals and thieves, their daughter says. For years, their sole employee -- a mechanic -- lived on the farm and kept watch.
But he died, the sheriff found himself investigating more crimes to cars at the farm and Ms. VanDerBrink, the auctioneer, started hearing rumors about the legendary hoard in Pierce County.
About six years ago, a reporter friend mentioned a dealer with hundreds of cars, many still new. "They said, 'I was just at a place that's pretty amazing, and I hope to someday tell you about it,' " Ms. VanDerBrink remembered.
Then, last year, her phone rang. Ms. Lambrecht Stillwell was on the other end. "She said, 'Hey, it's true.' "
The Lambrechts had decided to sell. They were in their 90s, and thieves were gutting their retirement plan. One crew stole 100 radiators for salvage, damaging many cars in the process. Another ring specialized in stealing and selling chrome trim from 1959 Chevys, according to the Pierce County Sheriff, Rick Eberhardt.
When Ms. VanDerBrink first drove to Pierce, she was surprised by the mess in the closed dealership. "In 1996, he closed the door, and he really closed the door."
Tailgates, bumpers, steering wheels and shop manuals made it hard to walk. She cleaned up sheets of vinyl siding and got rid of 150 antifreeze containers.
But she was stunned by what she found beneath the dirt and guano. "Seeing everything left as it was, even though it was kind of a mess, when I first opened my first car door, that was amazing," she said. "It was a new car, plastic still on the seats."
She has spent hundreds of hours preparing for the sale, hiring workers to tear out the trees and free the farmyard cars, sweeping out the dealership, cataloging the cars and fielding inquiries. She rebuffed a Californian who insisted she sell him the collection outright.
The town, too, is getting ready, holding meetings to discuss parking, camping and the logistics of accommodating a crowd up to five times bigger than its population.
"It's going to be like a state championship football game on steroids," Sheriff Eberhardt said. "We're going to have a lot of people come in from Big Town U.S.A. to see what Small Town U.S.A. is. They're going to be surprised, shocked and pleasantly delighted."
The sheriff has no idea what to expect, except this: when it's over, Pierce will be something less than it has been for half a century. "It's going to be a sad day. Our Lambrecht treasures are going to go away on other people's trailers."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.