Car lovers and history buffs both have one Peoria destination in common: The Wheels O’ Time Museum. The museum was founded in 1978 by John H. Parks and Gary Bragg, according to Wheels O’ Time Board Member and Corporation Secretary Janice Bragg. "Both shared an interest in their careers as engineers for Caterpillar Inc. and in their antique auto collections. The idea for the museum grew from a need to house their collections, which by 1978, had grown to more than 20 cars in various stages of restoration."
She said while the initial purpose of a new building was to provide storage for the cars, the founders also wanted to establish a museum in the central Illinois area that would also relate to the rich industrial and agricultural history of the area. "Many folks showed interest and bought shares in the corporation that was formed, officially named Wheels O’ Time, Inc. The first structure, on Knoxville Avenue, was completed in 1982 and opened for business in May 1983."
So many donations of historic items were coming in that a second building-located behind the first-was constructed, Bragg said. "A third building for storage was soon added, and 10 years ago, the fourth was constructed. It was built to resemble an old firehouse, complete with hose-drying tower. Over the years, 1,000 feet of railroad track also was built, which now supports the Rock Island #886 steam locomotive and tender, a Milwaukee Road combine car, and TP&W caboose. Also on the tracks is a Plymouth switch engine."
The museum has a total of about 25,000 square feet open for display, not including the outdoor displays. "Most of the vehicles on display are owned privately, as well as some of the other items, but many such items have been donated," she said. "There are about 50 vehicles on display, ranging in age from a 1910 Model T Ford to a 1988 March Indy racer. Cars of special interest include two Peoria-built Glides, a Moline-built 1926 Velie, and a 1981 DeLorean. Other vehicles include two local fire trucks and an 1855 Peoria fire pumper, beautifully restored by the Peoria Regional Museum Society; a number of farm tractors; and Caterpillar equipment. There’s also a collection of bicycles, including two high-wheelers."
Bragg said many of the other exhibits have a local connection-either being produced here or in use in the area over the years. "Examples of these include antique time pieces, musical devices, whistles, tools, toys, farm labor-savers, an old-time kitchen, Lionel train layouts, and other train memorabilia. A number of exhibits were constructed by museum staff, including a mechanized barbershop quartet."
The purpose of the museum, she said, is to provide a hands-on environment with interesting, fun displays for young people and the young at heart. "Overall, the museum creates a sense of fun, with many interactive devices and lots of music and other sounds," she said. "At the same time, it helps stimulate an appreciation for our heritage and the past accomplishments that have led to our present way of life. To this purpose, hosts are provided to bring attention to and explain our historical exhibits."
Also included on the grounds is a museum store, which sells auto- and museum-related items, and a library, which she said is often used in auto-related research.
Because the large buildings aren’t economical to heat year-round, Bragg said the museum is only open Wednesdays through Sundays-plus summer holidays-May to October. Even so, the museum welcomes about 7,000 visitors each season, including many school field trips. "Teachers often use the museum as a tool to acquaint students with their past, and the children are very interested in everything from typewriters to fire trucks. They’re extremely enthusiastic and often bring back relatives and friends. Children who visited years ago are now bringing their children."
And since interactive displays are usually the main draw for school children, it’s a good thing the museum has a variety. "We have musical devices, a miniature circus, a kinetic display, steam whistles, a water pump, model trains, washing machines, and steam locomotive sounds," she said.
Bragg said the best part about her involvement in the Wheels O’ Time Museum is seeing the surprise, pleasure, and old-fashioned fun visitors exhibit during their visits. Like many museums, however, she said one difficulty they run into is keeping a large cadre of the knowledgeable volunteer staffers the museum is known for.
She said future plans for the museum include continuing to provide collectors the satisfaction of displaying their and the museum’s collections. "In the winter months, approximately 25 additional collector vehicles are stored, providing another service to the community. In the planning stage is another building, which could house more displays, as well as meeting and banquet facilities, plus an office and expanded museum store."
As its prosperity over the past 22 years indicates, Bragg said there was a definite need for this facility. "Not only does this museum not directly compete with any others, but it supports several similar organizations. In the museum world, it was a unique idea that’s proven successful." AA!