The ‘country club for people who like to get their hands dirty’ turns 40
The Peoria region has a reputation for having a large and talented volunteer pool. Proof of that exists at the Wheels O’ Time Museum, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer
“We call it a country club for people who like to get their hands dirty,” said Gary Bragg, 86, one of the museum’s founders.
Some 100 volunteers are involved at Wheels O’ Time (WOT), some on specific projects, others handling day-to-day maintenance needs such as cutting the grass, said Executive Director Laura Evancho, who oversees a museum on the move.
The latest addition to the museum is the train cars that once served as dining cars at Vonachen’s Old Place restaurant in the Junction City Shopping Center. Twelve years of meticulous restoration by volunteers have resulted in the opportunity for visitors to walk into the past with a dining car that looks ready to serve and a business car that really means business.
Train cars, vintage automobiles and fire engines are what most people associate with WOT but there’s a lot more to see, said Evancho, who became the museum’s first executive director in 2019. Previously, she had served as director of the Heartland Festival Orchestra, taking over when that organization became a non-profit in 2009. Now Evancho is doing much the same thing at WOT, helping it get realigned as a non-profit.
Opening the doors to dollars
John Amdahl, interim president of the museum board, said the new tax status makes a difference.
“We were able to get donations we couldn’t get otherwise,” he said. “The LeTourneau Steel House, the metal building restored to its original 1938 state, was the first addition we acquired as the result of being a non-profit. Komatsu was able to donate the building and the trades provided the hook-ups.”
Amdahl noted that WOT’s new Generations Building — with displays of the gleaming, fully restored 1931 Ahrens Fox fire engine, an Army reconnaissance plane and a giant LEGO setup — was made possible by donations that now are tax deductible for givers.
“We were able to expand the footprint of the museum by raising $600,000 in a few months thanks to the Gilmore Foundation and others,” he said.
Please, touch everything
Amdahl said that a number of the museum’s displays encourage visitors to touch. “I travel to museums in other locations and, with the exception of children’s museums, it’s hard to find one that’s more hands-on than we are,” he said.
Mark Johnson, a member of the WOT Board, said the museum’s non-profit status has not only resulted in an increase in dollar donations but in artifacts. There have been other changes, as well.
“We now have a solar energy system in place that’s designed to cover 90% of the museum’s electrical needs for the year,” Johnson said. “Our Ameren bill for April was $26,” compared to more than $600 the year before, he said.
Other additions include a Preston Jackson sculpture on display in front of the museum, not far from the Caterpillar bulldozer that’s been greeting visitors for years.
“The guys felt very strongly that we should have an Avery machine here,” said Johnson, referring to the 1916 tractor now being restored in the museum workshop. Avery was Peoria’s largest manufacturing firm in the early 1920s, headquartered in the area known as Averyville on Peoria’s riverfront, a site later used by LeTourneau and now Komatsu.
The area’s manufacturing history is comprehensively covered in displays from watchmaking to bicycles, from cars to washing machines, from distilling to tractors.
But that’s only a portion of what the museum has to offer, said Bobbie Rice, a volunteer who’s helped promote WOT displays for more than 20 years. There’s also the Princess Peggy dress line that came out of Peoria’s Chic Manufacturing Co., a building now being converted to apartments in the city’s Warehouse District. There also are displays on textiles, “Star Wars,” golf and a recording of the area’s early radio history narrated by the late Bill Adams, she said.
“We get visitors from around the world each season,” said Rice. “I was there recently one Saturday when six ladies from Canton visited. The youngest was 83 and she drove. They came to ride on the fire truck.”
Raising the profile, entertaining and educating
While the museum continues to grow, Evancho works on the visibility issue. “The biggest challenge is making sure people know that it’s here,” she said.
“We get a lot of people who say they drive by (on Knoxville Avenue) but are never sure if we’re open,” said Evancho, noting the facility is accessible to the public from May through October, Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
While the locomotive proclaims WOT’s presence from the road, “there’s a misconception that we’re just a train museum,” she said. As a result, Evancho runs TV ads as well as using social media.
“Facebook helps when it comes to special events,” said Evancho, citing the Saturday fire truck rides, Superhero Day (July 29) and a program with service dogs (Aug. 26).
“All museums like ours have the same kind of problem, explaining what we have and making it meaningful to new generations,” said Bragg, who along with wife Jan and John and Midge Parks launched the enterprise in 1983.
“Our challenge is to make sure people are not only entertained but educated,” he said.
Follow the Wheels O’ Time museum on its website (wheelsotime.org) and on Facebook.