From Grasshoppers to Caterpillars and More

Since opening on May 1, the new exhibit building at Wheels O’ Time Museum has delighted visitors.

by Mark L. Johnson
fire engine
This 1931 Ahrens-Fox fire engine, originally in service with the Peoria Fire Department, is a testament to the talented restoration abilities of the museum volunteers.

What building in Peoria showcases a World War II Army reconnaissance airplane hanging from the ceiling? Stumped? Okay then… what building in Peoria houses a beautifully restored 1931 fire engine that originally belonged to the Peoria Fire Department? Here’s your third clue: what building in Peoria houses a 1924 Model 30 track-type tractor produced by the C.L. Best Tractor Company in Stockton, California? The answer is the new exhibit building at the Wheels O’ Time Museum, just north of Peoria at 1710 W. Woodside Drive in Dunlap. 

An Expanding Showcase
Since the new exhibit building opened to the public in May, visitors have delighted at the unique collection of vehicles on display. Designed by Dennis Shoemaker and constructed by E&B Builders of Princeville, the building offers 6,500 square feet of exhibit space, increasing the museum’s total exhibit capacity by 20 percent. The construction was financed by contributions to a capital campaign, including a generous pledge from the Gilmore Foundation. 

“The museum’s mission is to ‘preserve the past for the education and enjoyment of future generations,’” explains board president Jim Baldwin. “The Board of Directors felt strongly that a new, larger exhibit building would allow the museum to display a group of larger vehicles that our visitors would really enjoy.”

Perhaps the most unique vehicle on display in the new building is the 1947 Aeronca L-16 “Grasshopper” Army reconnaissance plane hanging from the ceiling. The plane is on display courtesy of the family of Allan Lurie of Pekin. Mr. Lurie was an industrial arts teacher at Peoria Central High School for 36 years, but his hobby was flying. He accrued over 1,600 hours of flight time and piloted planes like the “Grasshopper” throughout his life. This small plane was used in World War II and the Korean War to provide American troops advance knowledge of enemy positions. Military historians credit the brave pilots of these unarmed planes with providing the frontline intelligence needed to plan successful military maneuvers. 

small Army reconnaissance plane
These small Army reconnaissance planes were a major reason for the success of Allied operations in World War II and the Korean War.

Located on the ground floor of the new exhibit building are two other military vehicles, both from Mr. Baldwin’s private collection. A 1952 U.S. Army M38 Jeep is typical of vehicles used by the Army during the Korean War, and a 1967 U. S. Army MUTT (Military Utility Tactical Truck) is representative of vehicles used during the Vietnam War. “Many of our guests step in the doors to the new exhibit building and just look around in amazement,” notes Marcia Johnson, operations manager at the museum. “It takes them a bit of time before they move on to admire the individual exhibits.” 

child steering on the restored 1952 Army jeep
This four-year-old visitor from Chicago was delighted to try out the steering on the restored 1952 Army jeep.

Our Hometown Legacy
Perhaps the most extraordinary vehicle on display is an Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Pumper, originally in service with the Peoria Fire Department from 1931 through the mid-1950s. After languishing in storage under various owners for approximately 30 years, Wheels O’ Time obtained the vehicle in 1985. Over the next 25 years, volunteers worked to restore the machine, albeit at a slow pace. Finally in 2012, the museum built a new workshop building where the Ahrens-Fox was moved, and the restoration project jumpstarted into a new phase. After approximately 12,000 man-hours devoted by many dedicated and relentless volunteers, the restoration of the fire engine was completed in 2017. 

Now almost 100 years old, the C.L. Best Model 30 tractor is in pristine condition and has a very unique history. It was once part of a collection of tractors maintained by Caterpillar Tractor Company during the company’s early years when the corporate headquarters was still in Stockton, California. When the company decided to relocate its headquarters to Peoria, the collection of tractors was disbursed. This particular machine was loaned to a dealer in California who had the tractor on display in their sales offices. About 20 years ago, the dealer no longer had space to display the tractor, so Caterpillar had it shipped to Peoria and loaned it to Wheels O’ Time for display. Several years ago, the company donated the tractor to the museum. 

In total, there are seven track-type tractors on display in the new exhibit building. While the Best Model 30 is the oldest, also on display is a 1925 two-ton tractor produced by the Holt Manufacturing Company at its East Peoria plant. Holt had originally purchased the former Colean Manufacturing factory in East Peoria in 1909 on the recommendation of Murray Baker, a Peoria agricultural implement dealer. Approximately 8,000 of the small two-ton tractors were produced at the plant in East Peoria until 1928, when the model was discontinued.

C.L. Best Model 30 tractor
Introduced in 1921, the C.L. Best Model 30 tractor was so popular it was adopted into the Caterpillar Tractor Company product line in 1925.

Displays Current and Future
The new exhibit building also contains space for three temporary or revolving exhibits. One of these spaces currently contains a display focused on the brewing and distilling industries in Peoria. It was developed in cooperation with the Peoria Historical Society. 

Wheels O’ Time Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5pm, through the end of October. Never an organization to rest quietly, its volunteers are presently focused on wrapping up another restoration project. For the past decade, they have been working on the two railroad cars that formerly comprised part of the Vonachen’s Old Place restaurant at Junction City in north Peoria. When VOP’s closed in 2010, the two train cars were moved to Wheels O’ Time and a restoration effort commenced almost immediately. After a long and dedicated effort, these two train cars—a significant part of Peoria’s civic life for so long—should be ready for visitors next spring when the museum opens for its 2022 season. PM  

Mark Johnson and his wife Beth are hosts in the new exhibit building at Wheels O’ Time Museum on Wednesday afternoons. For more information, visit wheelsotime.org.

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