Nixon, Reagan, Ford, and Carter: the Barbershop Quartet of the Presidents.
Nixon, Reagan, Ford, and Carter: the Barbershop Quartet of the Presidents.

Wheels O' Time Museum

Field review by the editors.

Peoria, Illinois

Peoria has no official history museum, so the Wheels O' Time Museum is its de facto repository of city antique memorabilia. That's good, because the privately-owned Wheels O' Time has freedom to display whatever it fancies -- showcasing everything from old department store robot elves to a full-size replica of the Red Baron's triplane to a limousine once owned by Hugh Hefner. There's even a house made of steel out by the parking lot, mass-produced by a Peoria businessman as cheap housing for poor Peoria-area workers. Built in 1938, it arrived in 2018.

The Red Baron's tri-plane is ready to strafe the classic Packards in Building #1.
The Red Baron's tri-plane is ready to strafe the classic Packards in Building #1.

"Over the years people have donated things, unusual things," said Marcia Johnson, the museum's manager. "We've had to try to figure out how to adapt to them. 'Cause things keep on coming."

A good example of this versatility is the museum's animatronic barbershop quartet of rubber-headed U.S. Presidents. According to Marcia, the display began as a simple donation of some old barbershop equipment, probably in the 1990s. The museum's team of volunteers then went to work, fitting four dummies with rubber heads of Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, then animating their mouths to sing old tunes such as "Wait 'Till the Sun Shines Nellie" and "Piano Roll Blues" at the touch of a button.

If you want to know what #13 was, you have to read the tiny typewritten sign.
If you want to know what #13 was, you have to read the tiny typewritten sign.

A sign in front of the display gives it a political spin: "Imagine how sweet the sound when Republicans and Democrats get together and sing the same song."

President Bill Clinton can be glimpsed in a back room bathtub "because he was always in hot water," said Marcia. She added that the museum hopes to eventually update the rubber heads. "They're getting kind of worn and no one knows who Gerald Ford is," said Marcia. "Ever."

Wheels O' Time began as a large, private garage for two Peoria car collectors. That was in 1981, and word spread fast; soon other local collectors were asking if they could store their cars, too. In 1983 it opened as a museum, and the donations did not stop: the museum added a second floor, then a second building, then a third, fourth, and fifth. The cars were rapidly outnumbered in an onslaught of other relics, from a clock resembling a time bomb to a hand-built model of the Graf Zeppelin to a full-size steam locomotive that had to be parked out front. As a result, the "wheels" focus has blurred considerably, but the museum still tries to keep a Peoria connection to its exhibits, however tenuous. The Hugh Hefner limo, for example, was later owned by a Chicken Delight millionaire who drove it at his Peoria hotel.

Zombie dummy and 1937 coffin-nose Cord convertible, which was designed by a guy who went to college in Peoria.
Zombie dummy and 1937 coffin-nose Cord convertible, which was designed by a guy who went to college in Peoria.

"That's a 'BD Something-or-the-other'," said Marcia, pointing to a tiny rocket plane hanging at a banked angle from the ceiling. It was built by a Peoria airplane club and is virtually identical to an aircraft featured in the James Bond film Octopussy and several 1980s beer commercials -- except that this example was deemed so dangerous that it was never allowed to be airborne. "They had to swear they wouldn't try to fly it," said Marcia, so it wound up dangling from the Wheels O' Time rafters.

Hometown stories are everywhere. A push-button narration at a reconstructed studio of the WMBD radio station talks of local celebrities such as "Walter Hill the Singing Shoemaker" and comedian Herman Schwartz, who sang, "When Banana Skins Are Falling I'll Come Sliding Back To You." A 3/4-scale Spirit of St. Louis celebrates Peoria as one of Charles Lindbergh's stops on his air mail route (He crashed nearby); Lindbergh later wrote that he first thought of flying across the Atlantic while flying out of Peoria. A bizarre contraption made of gas pipe and plywood was Peoria's entry and 1993 world champion in "Odyssey of the Mind," a competition to design, build, and drive a jack-powered car.

Any museum with an entire gallery labeled, simply, "Things," is never going to win applause from the Ivory Tower establishment, but the Wheels O' Time Museum is enjoying itself too much to care. "For a group of guys and gals who had no degrees in museumology," said Marcia, "I think it's amazing."

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Wheels O' Time Museum

Address:
1710 W Woodside Drive, Peoria, IL
Directions:
North edge of the city. On the southbound side of Hwy 40/Knoxville Ave., two miles north of its intersection with Hwy 6. Look for the sign and the steam locomotive
Hours:
May-Oct. W-Su 12-5 (Call to verify)
Phone:
309-243-9020
Admission:
Adults $7. Cash only.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Tower with Large WoodpeckerTower with Large Woodpecker, Peoria Heights, IL - 6 mi.
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Uniroyal Gal: Vanna WhitewallUniroyal Gal: Vanna Whitewall, Peoria, IL - 11 mi.
In the region:
Phone Booth on a Roof, Lincoln, IL - 49 mi.

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May 19, 2019

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