Wheels Through Time…. Don’t let the steel warehouse facade fool you; what lies inside are displays that rival anything you’ll find at the Smithsonian.
Here’s a panoramic view of what you’ll find once you walk through the lobby and gift shop; it’s overwhelming… with things to see covering every inch of the floor and walls.
It’s simply my kind of museum! You know, a place filled with ‘stuff’ that looks like the kind of stuff you might find anywhere, not just perfectly preserved or restored “artifacts”. But, more than that, it’s how that stuff is displayed, particularly in the “theme” exhibits such as “The Chopper Graveyard” or “Slant Artists”
To be honest, and having been to the Barber Museum four times, I was smitten by Wheels Though Time on my first visit in a way that the Barber Museum didn’t.
To be sure, the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum is a sight to behold for any motorcycle enthusiast. A must-see-to-believe experience and perhaps the most amazing collection of motorcycles that can be found at least in the United States of America housed in the largest motorcycle museum in the world. (Note: The largest collection of motorcycles resides at the UK’s National Motorcycle Museum, a far-more modest-looking museum)
IMHO, Barber is more or less an art gallery for motorcycles where the motorcycles in the collection were detailed or restored and then placed on display in one of the most beautiful museums you’ll ever visit. George Barber — grandson and family heir to the founder of the Barber Dairy business — used part of the family fortune to create his own Guggenheim for motorcycles. No doubt, it’s breath taking and the collection provides a level of 360° access to the bikes and cars on display that is hard to rival. Just as a point of reference, here’s what you see driving in on the four-lane, mile-long access road as well as a glimpse inside. You can find a complete gallery at their Website by clicking here.
Wheels through Time, on the other hand, is a living and breathing life-long project of a young man who never lost his youthful passion for motorcycles. It struck me more as a working-man’s museum where bikes come in and go on display pretty much “as they are” in many cases. But, beyond that, the ‘stuff’ around the bikes is equally amazing: vintage engine parts, oil filters and other odds and ends with their natural patina or in many cases still in their original time-worn boxes.
Dale Walksler built a series of small businesses and — at 22 — borrowed $50k and became the youngest Harley-Davidson franchise owner in his small rural Illinois community that he grew into a multi-million dollar a year enterprise. The dealership provided the resources he needed to pursue his true passion: vintage motorcycles and cars. There are several short bio’s and interviews out on the web, all worth reading before making your trek to Wheels Through Time. The more you know about Dale the more you’ll understand and appreciate the Wheels Through Time experience.
In a nutshell, this was our visit experience:
- We met Dale 2 minutes after we parked the bike as he came riding down the access path to the museum on a 1915 Harley Davidson that he bump started while saying “Hi Guys” before taking a spin on the 48 acres surrounding the museum.
- There was complimentary bottled water and coffee in the lobby which was staffed by friendly folks who seemed like they genuinely enjoyed being at work in the museum.
- The “museum staff” included a very eclectic mix of folks, from a 13-year old motorcycle enthusiast to a disabled gentleman buzzing around in his wheelchair, all of who readily offered insights into the displays and museum in between mopping up oil from the ride-ready bikes that filled the museum. Yup, most of them run…. which is why they call Wheels Through Time the museum that runs!
- We were overwhelmed by the displays that surrounded the hundreds of bikes on display in the museum; it was truly information overload!
- I ran into Dale inside the museum and had a nice short conversation. His first question with sincere interest back to me? “So, where are you from and what do you do?” Is it any wonder why he was so successful in his retail businesses? When’s the last time someone in sales at a motorcycle dealership asked questions about ‘you’ that had nothing to do with making the sale? It’s a lost art because it has to be sincere.
- Dale also asked if this was our first visit and, after confirming it was, let us know what we could buy a poker chip for $8 that would give us free return visits to the museum for the remainder of the season. While that’s not something we took advantage of this trip — the season ends in November and just about every weekend until Thanksgiving is booked for us — it’s something we’ll take advantage of next year.
- The presentation of the museum’s artifacts is about as good as it gets. In and among the motorcycle displays are also a number of interesting cars and other machines that were powered by motorcycle engines: farmboy engineering at its finest.
Rather than blathering on, let me just go ahead and post some of the photos from inside the museum: yup, they welcome you to take photos. Can’t wait to go back when it opens up next spring. By the way, all of these photos can be clicked-on to open up in a full-size version. In and among the photos is one I took of Dale riding the 1915 Harley “Cannonballer” back through the museum. Riding motorcycles inside buildings is a hallmark of Harley-Davidson dealerships… and I like it!
So, is Wheels Through Time better than Barber? To be fair, that’s not a valid comparison because the vision that George Barber and Dale Walksler had for their collections and the buildings that house them are so very different… as are the men. George Barber and Dale Walksler couldn’t have come from more different beginnings. Dale started his museum collection one broken down bike at a time, launched a couple of cottage motorcycle and classic car businesses and borrowed $50k to start a motorcycle retail shop… all of which has grown into museum and collection that’s probably worth about $30M. George Barber used $80M of his family fortune to create the Barber Motorsports Park and Vintage museum. George has other interests outside of his motorsports park, whereas Dale remains immersed in the hobby he loves… which just happens to be housed in a museum that looks an awful lot like your average small manufacturing business with a gravel driveway and parking lot.
Therefore, it’s probably fair to say that they are probably the best museums of their respective types and both demand a visit if someone has an interest in motorcycle history. I will return to both museums in the future, but I suspect I’ll be headed back to the Maggie Valley first: I’ve got a full day of exploration ahead of me at Wheels Through Time!