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Woodford Times - Peoria, IL
  • Ever-growing Wheels O'Time Museum is no longer Peoria's best-kept secret

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  • PEORIA — Gary Bragg is getting tired of hearing the Wheels O'Time Museum characterized as Peoria's best-kept secret.
    Maybe it's because the museum at 11923 N. Knoxville Ave. was started back in 1977 by Bragg and John Parks, both former Caterpillar Inc. engineers.
    It's a place where you'll find old cars, trucks and trains along with other relics from the past — a barbershop quartet with the likenesses of former presidents, an old radio studio along with vintage clothing and toys.
    The facility was built with a simple concept in mind, said Bragg, the museum president. "One of the purposes of the museum was to provide a place for items that were donated to us," he said.
    The number of artifacts has grown over the years, and the museum has grown with it — an operation powered completely by volunteer labor, said Bragg, 77.
    "We've probably got about 70 volunteers, mostly retirees. We're like a family," he said, noting that the museum recently held its annual dinner meeting of artifact owners, museum officers and volunteers.
    This is the off-season for Wheels O'Time — at least for the public. The museum is open from May through October, but volunteers carry on toiling over displays. "We work there all year 'round," said Bragg.
    Whether it's working on the brakes of an old fire engine once used to battle Peoria fires or a vintage Caterpillar machine, the Wheels O'Time provides a glimpse of the central Illinois past through a wide variety of objects.
    The automobiles on display are unique — from a 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk to a 1925 Velie made by the John Deere company in Moline.
    Visitors can scrutinize a shiny Model A Ford, a Glide touring sedan manufactured in Peoria Heights or an electric car that rambled about Peoria in the early 20th century.
    There's also a Gem automobile, considered to be the last car made by Charles Duryea in Peoria in 1917.
    "The prototype was Duryea's last gasp," Bragg said, chuckling. "He had a big feud with his brother, Frank. He needed his brother to be successful," he said.
    The Duryea car is just one of 23 artifacts on display at the museum transferred from the Peoria Regional Museum Society, which officially disbanded after 60 years, to the Peoria Historical Society.
    "The Peoria Historical Society is working on developing a loan agreement with the Wheels O'Time organization so that the 23 artifacts — that include an 1855 fire pumper, three Caterpillar tractors and a seeder from the Peoria Drill & Seeder Co., manufactured about 1900 — will continue to be displayed at the Wheels O'Time," said society President Mark Johnson.
    "The historical society is very humbled to have been selected by the society to receive these very unique and visible artifacts," he said.
    Page 2 of 2 - "We are dedicated to their conservation and continued opportunity to work with the Wheels O'Time Museum to display them for public viewing, thereby increasing an understanding of the life and achievements of people who lived in the Peoria area over the years," said Johnson.
    Meanwhile, Wheels O'Time volunteers will keep working on displays to be ready for spring, noted Bragg. "Over the years, we've seen a slow increase in attendance — about 1,100 a month. It keeps creeping up," he said.
    "We get a lot of repeat visitors," said Bragg, hoping that the secret of the museum may be out by now.
    Steve Tarter can be reached at 686-3260 or starter@pjstar.com. Follow his blog, Minding Business, on pjstar.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveTarter.
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