Wheels O’ Time

Where History Comes Alive…
by Sara Browning

What fun is it to have an antique collection and not be able to share it?

That was the question Gary Bragg asked himself before launching the Wheels O’ Time Museum in 1977. Beginning as simple storage space for antique Packards, Chevys and Ford Model Ts, this museum has evolved into one of central Illinois’ most beloved collections of antique memorabilia. Encompassing four large buildings totaling 24,000 square feet, Wheels O’ Time Museum, located off North Knoxville Avenue in Dunlap, contains items dating between 50 and 100 years ago. Bragg, who founded the museum with his wife, Jan, and his friends John and Midge Parks, says he and John decided to construct a building to house their antique car collections. Over time, they opened it up to area collectors, and later to the public as a museum.

But Wheels O’ Time is “far from just an automotive museum,” according to Bragg. “We have everything from vintage clothing displays, toys and musical devices to tractors, clocks and a player piano.” He says the mission of the museum is both to entertain and to educate. “We provide a place where people of all ages can see, hear and touch items reflecting entertainment, transportation, industry, farm and home life from years gone by.”

One of the most popular historical attractions in central Illinois, Wheels O’ Time Museum allows visitors to appreciate the accomplishments that have made Peoria prosperous, while simultaneously participating in a fun, interactive environment for both the young and young at heart.

A Mini-History of Peoria
A line of railway cars headed by a large black steam engine captures visitors’ attention as they drive up to the Wheels O’ Time Museum. The steam train exhibit, which passersby can view from the highway, includes a Pacific-type Rock Island railroad steam locomotive, a Milwaukee Road combine car, two private Pullman cars and a TP&W Caboose Plymouth switch engine.

Inside, the museum houses transportation-related relics including three fire trucks, seven pieces of Caterpillar equipment and 47 antique cars, most belonging to private citizens from Peoria and the surrounding area, who retain ownership of the items. Adults with an interest in antique automobiles will love browsing the showroom filled with various makes and models, including the Ford Model T, Briscoe, Packard, Austin Healey, Velie, Glide, Nash Metropolitan, Mercedes, Pontiac and an Indy racecar. The vehicles date from the 1910s to the 1980s. 

“The Velie is a 1960 model and was made by John Deere’s grandchildren,” says Bragg. “The 1933 Packard Coupe Roadster is one of only 13 like it left in the nation from the 1933 series. About 75 were made.”

The collection also includes the museum’s most recent acquisition: a 1994 Chevrolet Police Cruiser obtained last fall from the Peoria Police Department. According to Bobbie Rice, marketing director at Wheels O’ Time, this model was the first to have a computer terminal that allowed policemen to access police department information.

“Having this car on display provides a way for children to see a police car in a non-threatening environment,” adds Bragg. “It all comes back to education.”  

Music, Planes & More
The museum’s spacious buildings house an eclectic collection, including jukeboxes and other coin-operated displays, and an orchestrion, a machine containing numerous musical instruments that are activated with a vacuum pump using punched paper rolls, similar to the player piano, also on display nearby. A Dutch shelf clock from 1650 is the museum’s oldest item.

“We have a peanut roaster and a model airplane collection of at least a dozen remote control airplanes,” says Rice, adding that the museum also includes visitor-activated displays. Children love to activate the miniature circus, which runs on kinetic energy. “The fire truck siren is something kids can’t get enough of,” she continues. “They can also blow the steam whistles and operate the model train.”

Kids love experimenting with the museum’s old-fashioned scale. “We show kids a cube of lead and a cube of wood, and we ask them which weighs more,” Bragg explains. “Of course, the two cubes weigh the same, but when the kids pick them up, the lead feels heavier.”

The circa-1935 mechanical horse, an antique exercise machine, is another popular display. One such machine was kept in the White House, and several were used on the Titanic. A model still resides on the Queen Mary, now a historical attraction in Long Beach, California. The museum’s model was donated by the Altorfer family of Peoria, who also manufactured the ABC (Altorfer Brothers Company) washing machine on display in the Museum Farm Building.

Among Wheels O’ Time’s first exhibits was an 1855 Button fire pumper, which remains on display and belongs to the Peoria Regional Museum Society, which skillfully restored it to its original condition, with inlaid wood and many brass parts.  In 1876, the Peoria Volunteer Fire Company No. 4 won first place and $900 in gold (about $30,000 in today’s dollars) at the National Fireman’s Tournament in Chicago by throwing water nearly 220 feet with the pumper.

Because so many people contact the museum with a desire to donate historic items, Rice says deciding which items to showcase is a challenge. “We look for items that are manufactured, educational and entertaining. We look for things that tell a story of Peoria’s history.”

A Unique Experience
The Wheels O’ Time Museum may be known for connecting decades of Peoria history, but it also brings generations together. “Grandparents often tell their grandkids stories about what life was like when they were young,” says Bragg. “Here, kids have the chance to experience a taste of that life for themselves.”

One family that came to visit the museum ranged in age from 14 to 84 years old. “Four generations in one family,” says Rice. “They all looked at different aspects of the museum, and they all had something different to take away.”

The museum also provides opportunities for school, business and church groups to come together, as well as scouts, collectors and motor coach tours. Rice says groups love to come to the museum for “a unique experience that allows you to get away from it all. You get to take a break from the everyday hustle and bustle.”

Even individuals from across the globe come to watch Peoria’s history come alive. “We’ve had visitors from 45 states and 22 countries come to see us over the years,” says Rice. “Last year, we had visitors from China. It’s exciting that we have the tools to educate so many different types of people.”

Hosts are available to greet groups and to explain and operate displays. Guests are welcome to visit the gift shop, which sells t-shirts, postcards, key rings, books and more.

A Labor of Love
A volunteer-run organization, the museum is supported by individuals from all walks of life. Rice says retired schoolteachers, salesmen, engineers and firefighters give their time, serving on museum committees, as site managers or as tour guides. Volunteers also help with maintenance, take admission and assist customers in the gift shop. “Every person has different attributes they bring to the museum,” she says.

A steady, conservative expansion of the museum is in the works. Within the next few months, a fifth building encompassing 3,600 square feet will be erected on the museum’s campus. According to Rice, two-thirds of the building will be a workshop area and one-third will showcase displays. The building will resemble an old-time Ford dealership and will feature five Ford automobiles in a rotating display. The museum is partnering with the regional chapter of the Early Ford V8 Club of America for the expansion.

The new building will also feature an Ahrens-Fox fire engine. “It’s called the Rolls Royce of fire engines,” explains Bragg. “It’s from the 1930 to 1954 era. We’re hoping folks from the Peoria Fire Department will help us restore it.”

The Wheels O’ Time Museum welcomes donations to help continue its expansion. To become a friend of Wheels O’ Time, simply call to request a membership form. “The very old to the very young absolutely love it here,” says Rice. “It’s a unique experience that combines laughter, learning and appreciation for our past.” iBi

Wheels O’ Time Museum is located at 1710 West Woodside Drive in Dunlap, Illinois, near the corner of West Woodside Drive and North Knoxville Avenue. It is open from May through October, Wednesday through Sunday. Museum hours run from noon to 5pm. For more information, visit wheelsotime.org or call (309) 243-9020.

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