An accidental hobby

Veteran owns more than 130 belt buckles

T-R PHOTO BY SARA JORDAN-HEINTZ Marvin Nelson, a resident at the Iowa Veterans Home, as a collection of more than 130 belt buckles. His oldest one dates back to 1919 and is made out of World War I shell casings. A variety of brand names are represented, as well as animals, patriotic events and semi-precious stones.

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series profiling the various personal collections of residents of Marshalltown and the surrounding area.

Marvin Nelson, who has resided at the Iowa Veterans Home since 2003, has turned a passing fancy into a substantial collection. For over 10 years, he has collected belt buckles of varying size, style, material and vintage. He now has over 130 of them in his possession.

It all began several years ago when Nelson, who is a native of Primghar, a small town in northwest Iowa, learned an IVH employee was looking to get rid of some of her husband’s old belt buckles he no longer cared to wear.

“I just ran across her and she had 17 of them. I said I’d take them,” Nelson recalled.

His collection was born with this acquisition. Over time, he accumulated more, thanks to the generosity of staff members.

“I took anything and everything. I never turned one down. Pretty soon, I had nurses bring them [to me], but the rule later changed about staff and residents giving gifts to each other.”

With Nelson and other residents no longer able to receive gifts from IVH staff, he said his ability to grow the collection was slowed. However, he still is able to find belt buckles shopping at garage sales and at the nearby Salvation Army Thrift Store.

“My kids look for them for me too,” he noted.

Nelson displays his collection in a large shadow box which hangs from a wall in his room. He, along with IVH staff, built the wooden box. He organized the belt buckles by hanging them from straps affixed to the shadow box. When his collection began to overflow from the space, he started hanging the pieces around the wooden frame.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” he said. “I just get a new one and put it up.”

When viewing Nelson’s collection, the eye is immediately drawn to the variety of shapes, colors and sizes of the pieces, all neatly arranged. The themes run the gamut. A bevy of product brands are represented, as well as belt buckles honoring special patriotic occasions including the Bicentennial (1976) and the Constitution Commemorative (1787-1987). Fish, cows, horses, pheasants and scorpions are all depicted, and he has several belt buckles with his favorite symbol — the eagle.

“I like the eagles the best. I’ll get anything with an eagle on it,” he noted.

Some pieces are made from semi-precious gems, including agate, turquoise and onyx. He has several that could be classified as done in a Native-American art style. One belt buckle is crafted out of Buffalo nickels soldered together as a cluster. But perhaps the belt buckle that stands out the most is shaped like a revolver, and has a mother of pearl handle.

Jim Beam, Marlboro, John Deere, Budweiser, Busch, BFGoodrich, Harley-Davidson and the local Marshalltown Trowels are all companies represented.

“It would be free advertising walking around with the belt buckles [showcasing brand names]. They were probably issued to their workers,” Nelson said.

His most prized belt buckle is dated 1919.

“It is made from World War I shell casings,” he said.

The veteran served two years active duty in the U.S. Navy, stationed at Sherman Field at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, working in Central Supply, delivering materials to the squadrons.

“I do Central Supply here too,” he noted. “I help deliver medical supplies to residents.”

Indeed, Nelson is a familiar sight cruising around the premises in his electric chair.

Despite his sizable collection, he never wears the belt buckles.

“I don’t wear jeans,” he explained.

Nelson would like to keep growing his collection.

“I just wish I was getting more of them,” he said. “I added one recently, but it’s not up yet. It’s just a little Avon one with an eagle.”

If you have any belt buckles you wish to donate to Nelson, get in touch with him by calling the Iowa Veterans Home and asking to speak to him, at: 641-752-1501.

If you collect something interesting or unusual, contact this writer at the information below.


Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or