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Wheels Through Time Museum - Maggie Valley, NC
It was a Friday afternoon. The family decided to go to the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, NC. I had never been there; I had no idea what to expect. Normally I like to know something about a place I’m going to, but there was no time to find out.
I mean, why would I know anything about motorcycles? I have only ever ridden them twice: two different times when I was little and my wild sister had a couple different boyfriends who owned motorcycles. My high school physics teacher forwardly chastised us for even thinking that motorcycles were cool.
Little did I know, I was about to embark on a historical adventure, rolling through time looking at pieces of American history: vintage and historical motorcycles, along with a few iconic American classic cars.
American Classic Motorcycles
Upon arriving, I was greeted by a few vintage motorbikes, sitting on the portico. I found out that the bikes at this museum run – all of them. If they aren’t running right when you want to ride one, they could be.
It’s a matter of keeping gas in them, starting them up to keep the engines lubricated and oiled, from the 1909 models to the present.
It’s known as the Museum That Runs.
As I began my tour, various exhibits caught my attention. From the military motorcycles to uniquely painted beauties, I marveled at the ingenuity of the human mind to create such a rich history of machines.
Of course, I was also pleased to find out that motorcycles can get upwards of 70 mpg (some can get more and some a lot less). Given that women are the fastest growing segment of today’s motorcycle consumers, I have to relish in the idea when you ride a motorcycle, you're in the open air, with the wind lapping at your face. The highway is laid out before you, beckoning you on some epic adventure. They’re also kinder to the planet than are cars. Granted, two wheels aren’t quite as secure as four, but we’ll ignore that little fact for now.
My historical voyage took on a new twist when I met Bob White, a volunteer guide at the museum. We shared a love of history and culture which ignited a rich conversation about some of the more fascinating aspects of the museum’s history.
Bob led me over to Swim's Shop. With its neon signs and motorcycles laid out, I wondered at how it all came to be.
It started out in a little place called Energy, Illinois. George Swim owned this shop from the 1940s to sometime between the 1970s and 1980s. He had Harley motorcycles there.
Then Dale came along - the founder of Wheels Through Time.
He bought Swim's Shop. This was after he went up to his father and convinced him to let him borrow $15,000 to get the remnants of the defunct business.
In the Wheels Through Time Museum, Dale and his crew recreated Swim's Shop. A lot of original parts and items from the original store are housed there, including lots of vintage parts.
When I walked in, I was reminded of when I worked at a marina right after college. You smell the oil, the work, the hopes and dreams of people looking for a bit of fun. The historical significance of it all began to register...Harley, service, Americana, engine parts, the American Dream, the open road - these are all words that bubbled to the surface of my mind as I took the sight of it all in.
I'm thinking about getting a motorcycle - road trip anyone?
The Rarest Motorcycle
I happened upon another curiosity: the 1917 Traub Motorcycle. It’s the rarest motorcycle in the world, according to the museum. No one knows its exact history – there is no other bike like it. It was found in 1967 inside a fake brick wall in Chicago, Illinois when workers were renovating an old apartment building.
It still runs, but no one knows exactly who manufactured it. All the parts on it are completely original and built by hand, save for three: the carburetor, seat and ignition. It has three toolboxes on it that contain tools designed to fit and fix parts on this motorcycle, but not on any other.
There is some speculation that a Richard Traut may have engineered it; that name might be a misspelling. He may have sent the specs of his motorcycle to The Motorcycle Illustrated along with money for a subscription, dated 1907. This particular note hailed from Chicago. I saw a copy of this letter in the museum.
However, this may or may not be the same person who designed the bike.
Why it was barricaded behind a brick wall only to be found 50 years later remains an unsolved mystery.
My favorite part about this bike is the gas cap. Why? Well, when you unscrew it, the end of it is a syringe. This allows you to prime the carburetor with exactly three drops of gas, so that you don't end up having to dump gas all over the place or on yourself - I would - when you're trying to fire the motorcycle up when it's cold.
Staff at the Wheels Through Time Museum still ride it. This motorcycle still gets up to speeds around 80 mph. For a bike from 1916, that’s not bad at all. It really was ahead of its time.
Would You Ride or Drive a Motorcycle?
Steve McQueen’s Cadillac
As my journey continued, I wandered over to the classic cars. One caught my eye; I have no idea why. Was it the creamy color beckoning billowy thoughts from yesteryear? I’m not sure, but I’m not that old. However, like a vanilla latte, I had to find out why it suited my taste.
This was a nice ride! For a Cadillac built in 1949, I would drive this car today. The windows rolled up and down better than they do in my 2005 hatchback. The interior was flawless, and the sheer size made me feel safe – safer than in that teeny, tiny little tinbox I own now.
I found out it was Steve McQueen’s day driver. You know, the actor and racecar driver starring in movies like The Great Escape and Papillion. Back in 1949, it was Motortrend’s Car of the Year and it’s still a beauty in 2012. I’m not that much of a classic car person, but I can tell you after sitting in that, I would buy it.
Those are just a few of the exhibits that piqued my interest. I learned more about motorcycles in two hours than I ever had in my life. From smaller gas tanks in all the hill climbing bikes to the Indian motorcycle company failing partly because they were eclipsed by Harley Davidson, if I wasn't a fan before, I am now.
A motorcycle could very well be my next vehicle. To my high school physics teacher, I promise to wear leather pants and a helmet to avoid road rash and a jostled brain. To my mother: I love you even if I ride motorcycles and smoke a cigar or two.
It’s notable that this museum has such a rich and varied history. So ingenious is its owner, Dale Walksler, he’s reputed to be able to fix anything.
It is with this polished ability, Mike and Frank from American Pickers called upon Walksler to see if he could fix a bike they found.
The History Channel has the full episode. Skip ahead to 37:10 to see Mike and Frank visit the museum and have a nice chit-chat with Dale.
If that wasn’t cool enough, Jay Leno and other television shows have graced the grounds where the museum stands. It’s because it has a vision: to bring an element of education, history and awe to the public.
© 2012 Cynthia Calhoun