After being on what felt like a 32-day house arrest sentence during my ongoing recovery from back surgery, my wife, Sissy, and me – with my doctor’s permission - decided to get out of town for a few days. We stopped for a two-night stay in Maggie Valley, N.C. to relax and enjoy the mountain air. Unfortunately, this trip to some really fun two-wheel riding territory had to happen on four wheels.
The bright side was that we finally got to visit the Wheels Through Time Museum. I have mentioned this shrine to vintage motorcycles (and a handful of cars) in previous columns. According to the Web site, www.WheelsThroughTime.com, “Founded by Dale Walksler in 1993, WTT has become an integral piece in discovering, maintaining, and preserving American motorcycle history. The collection houses tens of thousands of motorcycle pictures, historic memorabilia, and other motorcycle artifacts .” The 38,000-square-foot facility is home to more than 320 very old, very rare, and often very valuable American motorcycles, dating back to 1903. There are dozens of displays commemorating motorcycle subcultures such as board track and hill climb racing; female riders; and motorcycles in police and military service. The museum is a non-profit operation so we didn’t mind paying the $12 adult admission. (Seniors: $10; kids: $6.) It is appropriately located at 62 Vintage Lane in Maggie Valley, N.C.
I was wearing a Surfside Beach Rescue Squad T-shirt. It didn’t take long for someone to strike up a conversation about Myrtle Beach. “A friend called me a few months back. He was heading to Myrtle Beach Bike Week and wanted me to go”, he opened. “I told him that I hadn’t been in years and I wasn’t ever going back,” because of former Myrtle Beach mayor Mark McBride, who commented that he felt like “nudging” a man on a motorcycle with his car because he was wearing an offensive T-shirt. “What person in their right mind even thinks of hitting someone on a motorcycle with their car…over a T-shirt...what elected official…what adult?” he pondered, obviously still baffled. Passers-by stopped to chime in about how poorly the current Myrtle Beach Mayor, John Rhodes, treats bikers and agreed they’d never spend another cent here, either. I used to think this was a great place to call home, but now I’m ashamed to tell a stranger, especially one in the motorcycle community, that I even live here.
But I digress. We were at the museum. Probably the most interesting thing I saw was a 1916 Harley-Davidson that had no seat and long, uneven, side-swept handlebars that reached into an oversized, two-person sidecar from which the driver operated the motorcycle. This bizarre factory prototype was never put into production, but a second one was custom built for a man with no legs and only one arm to “ride.”
One of the museum’s mechanics drew a small crowd by kick-starting one of the motorcycles (99 percent of them have been restored to running condition, hence the slogan: “The museum that runs!”) and entertained us with a story about working on the sputtering and smoking classic beside him. He pointed out the old acetylene (think highly-combustible welder’s torch) fueled headlight and shared how during the restoration, the short feed line ignited and began burning like a fuse. He said the crew ran 30 yards away and braced for the worst; ready to watch the fireball and bid the old bike farewell. Thankfully the “fuse” simply fizzled out and the bike still runs today. He made his point though about how dangerous and inefficient these early headlamps were. We learned, “they were more for being seen at night than actually seeing at night.”
Founder Walksler was also there kick-starting motorcycles and spinning yarns, including one he called “The Old Man and The Crocker.” Serving as the backdrop was a giant, black-and-white image of an older man’s weathered face behind a “For Sale” sign atop a rare Crocker motorcycle. There were only 70 ever made. The museum is home to two of the 40 that remain: a 1937 and a 1940. Walksler, a man with an obvious obsession, told us how the man’s heirs, ultimately entertained suitors for the motorcycle by silent auction. Bidders dropped their best offers into a container. Many simply read, “I will top any bid!” (Similar motorcycles have been valued at more than a half a million dollars). Still obviously filled with humility and appreciation, Walksler, who had spent some time talking to the family about his passion and the Wheels museum, was the one who got the call. Despite promises by many others to outbid any price, the family decided to sell the museum owner the bike (for a price he didn’t mention), knowing he would take good care of it and share it with others.
Proving his respect for these dinosaurs in a way that amused all who noticed was the fact that almost every one of them, which ultimately had some kind of fluid dripping from their underbellies, had beneath it catching the oily mess, not a rag or an old pan, but a silver serving platter. If you are ever in the Maggie Valley area and you love motorcycles, Wheels Through Time is a can’t-miss.