This is the second post describing a small museum near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The first post discussed the museum's display of Kennedy memorabilia. You can find that post here.
Heading west out of Chicago on I-90, you'll drive under two MacDonalds burger joints. You don't drive by them, you drive under them. The first one is in Des Plaines, near O'Hare. Another 60 miles and you arrive at the second one in Belvidere, just before the half mile long Chrysler plant busy churning out the new Dodge Dart. Keep on driving another six or seven miles and you'll see the Clock Tower Inn and CoCo Key Water Park. Until about 10 years ago, the Clock Tower housed the Time Museum, which showcased the largest private collection of antique clocks in the world. Sadly, the Time Museum is no longer there. Its old floor space now holds pumps and filters for the Barracuda Bash Water Slide and the Coconut Grove Adventure River.
So this part of Illinois is missing one of its premier museums, but one man's loss is another man's opportunity. Two years after the Time Museum closed, another museum opened about 12 miles further up the highway. You won't see a sign for it, but go ahead and take the Rockton Rd. exit, the next to last one on the Illinois side of the state line. Head west about a half mile, and you'll see this sign on the right side of the road, almost obscured by the car repair shops and tool and die factories that call this exurban landscape home.
"Historic Auto Attractions". You're in no rush, so you think, "What the heck?" You've always been kind of interested in vintage cars. Maybe there's something up this road that's worth a little diversion from the crush of 18 wheelers and speeding sedans making their way to Wisconsin, Minneapolis, and points west. You make that right turn and drive another quarter mile north to check it out.
When you arrive at the museum, you're underwhelmed. First of all, you came to see historic auto attractions, but the dominant feature of the sign outside the building is a boat, not a car. The building itself looks more like the neighboring body shops than a museum. Oh well, you're here...
You enter the building. It's comfortably air conditioned, a great relief since the 11:00 AM traffic and weather report said the thermometer is already pushing past 90 degrees. Your relief is somewhat tempered when your eyes adjust to the dim interior lighting. Not a single car in sight. You're standing in the entrance to a gift shop, its shelves full of trinkets and tins and stuff that's overpriced and not needed.
You walk up to the man behind the cash register. "Where are the cars?" you ask. "Just through those double doors over there. 12 dollars." 12 dollars? you think to yourself. A little steep, but oh well, you're here...
So you walk through the double doors. Still no cars in sight, but what you do see is kind of interesting and definitely quirky enough to grab your attention.
There on the right is ol' Ben Cartwright and his boys, Hoss and Little Joe. They're accompanied by Rooster Cogburn, the original one, although you're not sure you'd recognize him if he weren't wearing his eye patch. But there's no doubting those are the Cartwrights, standing right there at the entrance to the Historic Auto Attractions.
And check this out! Still in Wild West Land, apparently, you see this wardrobe that was once worn by none other than Matt Dillon, over in Abilene Kansas. You're struck by the fact that, based on his clothes, the good marshall was a big dude!
You round the corner, and off in the distance you can make out some old cars, but first you have to walk past the taxidermy display.
That's kind of neat, but on the other side of the wall from that black bear you come to remnants of another kind of wildlife.
The sign explains it. That's the hat Clyde Barrow was wearing when he was gunned down by Texas Rangers in 1934. Look at the back of the hat rim, right where it meets the crown. Yep, that's a bullet hole. The flashy sequened tam was found in the outlaws' luggage after the shooting, one of Bonnie Parker's prize possessions, no doubt. To dispel any doubt about authenticity, the display also includes this:
The letter serves as provenance for Clyde's hat. There is another one for Bonnie's tam. Both letters are notarized, and were signed by Clyde Barrow's sister in 1996. The Bonnie and Clyde display includes the car that was used in the final scene of the Faye Dunnaway - Warren Beatty movie, which is interesting because you're pretty sure you saw that same car in the Grand Prairie Wax Museum in Texas back around '73.
Well, now we're starting to get to some cars! The museum continues with its gangster theme, only now you get to see more than just movie props,you see the actual 1932 Studebaker used by John Dillinger during an Indiana bank heist in 1933.
There's more gangster stuff, but you're drawn to something else, something a little more recent. That Lincoln is one big, fancy car, and isn't that exactly what you'd expect the King himself to drive? Sure enough, it is, in fact, one of Elvis's later cars, a 1972 Mark IV, one that once graced Graceland.
Across the aisle is another Lincoln, this one owned once upon a time by Conway Twitty.
OK, these are pretty cool, but are they really historic? You ponder the question, but then the next room alleviates your doubts. We begin to move into politics, and the first two cars reach back to the middle 20th century. The yellow one was once driven by the King of Siam (with strains of "Getting to Know You" coursing through your brain). The black one belonged to Juan and Evita Peron, and suddenly Deborah Kerr is drowned out by strains of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina."
While these are, to be sure, pretty neat, it's the next one that really grabs your attention. That '37 Packard with the three inch thick bullet-proof windows once carried Stalin. There's a car with some history. Was the fate of a million purge victims planned in its backseat? You consider Stalin's paranoia and cruelty, and a chill rushes down your spine.
You move on, walking past the Mercedes that once carried Himmler and other assholes of das dritte Reich, and you come to this:
You really are impressed now. It's Franklin Roosevelt's '37 Cadillac, specially outfitted for the president's withered legs. You are also fairly impressed with the wax likenesses of FDR and Eleanor.
Around the corner you come to more presidential relics. You see a long lineup of limosines that once carried Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and LBJ.
Not far from the LBJ car you stop to check out some of the big man's smaller items, including his glasses, key chain, and especially his famous Cattleman's hat made by Stetson.
There are many more displays covering presidential history. You stop a moment to admire the displays of furniture used by presidents going all the way back to the middle of the 19th century. You stop to photograph this nice parlor set that was used by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.
You look at your watch and realize you've already been here nearly 30 minutes. You had no idea there would be this much to see, but there is more. Just ahead is another car, this one a 1960 Cadillac that belonged to Howard Hughes. You can't help but wonder how often the famous recluse actually got behind the wheel of this beauty.
You remember Hughes built planes for use in World War II, and he was a major financial contributor for Richard Nixon's political ambitions. Of course, he was also a major player in the early movies, so it makes sense his display would serve as a trasition from the museum's presidential displays to the cars of Hollywood. A few in particular make you smile, like Mayberry's squad car, signed by several members of the cast, including Howard Morris, or, as you know him, Ernest T. Bass!
There are other fun classics from TV and the movies, like the '59 Caddy ambulance suited up for the Ghostbusters...
...and the Griswold's vacation station wagon, still showing the results of its East St. Louis vandalism (the hub caps must have been pawned off by now).
You're a little relieved Aunt Edna wasn't tied to the roof.
You haven't thought about Fred Sanford in a long time, but seeing this old Ford pickup triggers flashbacks to 1970:
As you check out Fred's pickup, you nearly suffer "the big one" yourself, when -- BAM -- POW -- you catch a glimpse of the very first Batmobile!
You notice other batmobiles from the movies, but really, do they hold a candle to the original? (Answer: No, they don't.)
This museum just goes on and on. You were never really a racing fan, but you can't help but notice an Indy car from one of the earliest Indianapolis 500 races, held in 1929. Across from it is a car that helped usher in the age of NASCAR, Richard Petty's 1960 Plymouth.
As you near the museum's end, you notice a room to the side devoted to Illinois' favorite son, Abraham Lincoln. You see glass cases holding a lot of small items that were once owned by our 16th president. It's the 150 year old dress worn by Mary Todd Lincoln that really catches your imagination. For some reason, it's that dress which transports you to a different time, a time of hope, tragedy, and ultimately redemption for our nation. You also remember that the poor woman who wore this dress died alone, her sanity another victim of the assassin's bullet.
It is time to go. You have seen most of the displays, and you're glad you did. As you leave, whimsy takes over once again when a giant bull elephant bids you farewell...
...as you walk past the faux Egyptian god who watched over the Hollywood antics of Liz and Dick in 1963.