Pioneer Auto Show
Murdo, South Dakota
In the days before freeways, A.J. "Dick" Geisler owned a car dealership in Murdo, South Dakota. He also owned a gas station on US 16, then the biggest highway in the state. To entice more tourists to buy gas, Dick acquired several old jalopies and parked them next to the pumps. By 1954 he had so many cars that he built a museum. Today that museum has ballooned to over 40 buildings, it's called Pioneer Auto Show, and it's run by Dick's son Dave -- who also owned a car dealership in Murdo.
"Museums are considered boring, dusty, and free," Dave said, explaining his museum's non-museum name. "We aren't. This is an attraction."
Pioneer Auto Show still focuses on cars, but over the decades the Geisler family acquired many other treasures. Volume is the organizing theme, with minimal attention paid to labeling. Glass-fronted cases are packed with old pliers and wrenches, corn cob pipes, door knobs, oil cans, typewriters, Avon bottles, and countless other categories of collectible gewgaws. There are displays of car jacks, tractor seats, slot machines, fire helmets, pot-belly stoves, cream separators. Every wall is covered with old magazine ads, posters, signs, and news clippings. Pioneer Auto Show is also the home of the National Rockhound and Lapidary Hall of Fame, whose inductees include Ute Bernhardt (the first woman to carve an official cameo of a Pope) and Lafayette Funk (of Funk's G Hybrid corn), but inexplicably excludes Paul Broste.
"Our theme is we just do whatever we feel like," Dave said, standing next to an 1890s propane peanut roaster. "I just go places and pick up stuff from all over." We asked Dave to explain the historical importance of dozens of rusty spark plugs haphazardly arranged in a series of cases. He couldn't (Probably no one had ever asked him before). "Dad collected 'em." So Pioneer Auto Show offers a bit of mystery as well....
Dave is himself an attraction, constantly in motion, using an internal guidance system to zip his large frame through building after overstuffed building without a collision. A former car salesman of the year, Dave greets every visitor with a friendly, "How we doing folks?" and makes it a point to turn on every nickelodeon, player piano, and mechanical band he passes. At the fire horn display, Dave stops to crank a siren. The collective cacophony makes it difficult to understand what he's saying, and Dave is always saying something, usually along the lines of "Here's something really odd," or "Here's a couple things that you won't see too often."
Pioneer Auto Show knows what it takes to be an attraction with some appeal. It isn't a high-maintenance showroom, but neither is it a sagging barn full of junkyard beaters. "Most of these will start," Dave says, gesturing down a line of 1970s gas guzzlers. Literally hundreds of cars, trucks, tractors, and motorcycles beckon the curious, from a turn-of-the-20th-century Oldsmobile to a mid-1980s Fiero, most of them displayed in large, dimly-lit metal sheds with crunchy rock floors and a big flap of plastic at the entrance to keep out dust. We notice visitors gazing fondly at certain cars, itching to see what's under the hood.
The car sheds share the yard with "Prairie Village," with several buildings that the Geislers rescued from nearby towns, and a street of fake storefronts that serve as over-sized theme display cases for more of the Geislers' collections. Pioneer Auto Show shuns the pop culture framing of Historic Auto Attractions, opting for the appeal of grandpa's attic. The overwhelming number of items and vehicles reminds us of Harold Warp's Pioneer Village, although Dave draws a distinction between his attraction and the latter. "We're cars with other stuff," he says. "They're a village with some cars."
The problem with so much undifferentiated mass is that it's difficult for the untrained eye to find the exceptional among the ordinary. Dave thinks that pretty much everything at Pioneer Auto Show is exceptional. The attraction has a flying car, and an aqua car, and a car made of wood, but Dave instead showed us a 1930 service station in the Prairie Village, a 1921 motor home ("one of the oldest in the world"), and a steam powered truck.
As we briefly stop paying attention to what Dave is saying, our eyes wander to an old metal sign promoting "Dinosaur Graveyard and House of Freaks" (an ad for "Hidden City," a long-gone attraction ancestor to Rapid City's Reptile Gardens, according to Dave). There's a little something here for everyone.
Pioneer Auto Show promotes its handful of celebrity vehicles, including Elvis Presley's motorcycle, one of Tom Mix's cars (not his death car), and the only surviving original "General Lee" from The Dukes of Hazzard TV series. There are probably other famous vehicles, too, but you'll need to spend hours combing through building after building filled with of old cars -- and if you stop at a place named Pioneer Auto Show, that may be just what you want to do.