Dale Walksler is a man on a mission. That mission is to get the regional and local tourism bureaucracies in western North Carolina to acknowledge and nurture the economic impact motorcycles riders have on the region. Dale's Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley is world famous, both in and out of the motorcycling realm. The long "media table" in his offices upstairs at the museum attests to that fact, buried in periodicals, clippings, and articles from newspapers and magazines across the globe.
Now, if he could just get the local powers-that-be to get on board.
Perhaps unbeknownst to some, the museum has been reopening on selected weekends in the summer and early fall of 2009, and will be open at least one more weekend in October, the 16th through the 18th. For museum patrons, next season is looking up. Gesturing to the "Cops and Motorcycles" display, Walksler outlines the near future: "Our 2010 plan is a big exhibit on the main floor right here. It's called ‘Motoring the Parkway.' We had the women's exhibit, now it's the motor cops exhibit. Next year it will be the Blue Ridge Parkway. We are going to have some Blue Ridge Parkway type events, and we're going to promote the BRP."
Walksler is ramping up his efforts in anticipation of Sept. 11, 2010, the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway's first construction operations. The parkway and its network of feeder roads are a magnet for motorcyclists. He looks me in the eye: "You've been on the parkway. Motorcycles to cars?" I venture a ratio of 40-60. "There you go," he says. "Now go to the BRP website, and read about how the tourist industry that flows off the parkway is a boon to all the towns along the parkway. Where's the motorcycle community? Zero."
Sure enough, a search for the term "motorcycle" on the official BRP anniversary website (blueridgeparkway75.org) results in this message: "Your search for motorcycles returned no results." Walksler wants to change that.
I don't believe it's news to anyone that Mr. Walksler has not been especially thrilled with the reception his museum and its patrons have received from some locals in Maggie Valley. In spring of 2008, Walksler announced that the museum would be ceasing its regular hours and would be auctioning off part of the collection of vintage American motorcycles. It looked like the museum would be moving, and far, to northern Arizona. But the auction was cancelled, and at least for now, relocation plans are on the shelf: "If I had the right situation I would (move) in a heartbeat. But I haven't found the right situation."
Walksler confirms that Wheels Through Time will be in Maggie Valley in 2010 and opening according to a schedule of select weekends.
He also reveals that he had discussed with George Barber about moving the museum to the grounds of Barber Motorsports Park. "We had a conversation about it," he says. "And that conversation could be moved forward, but when the economy tanked…." Walksler goes on to say that he doesn't really see Wheels Through Time relocating to Birmingham.
But life at the "Museum that Runs" isn't all politics. Walksler was nursing a sore shoulder that he hopes won't prevent him from racing at the Barber Vintage Festival this fall. "I think I did it starting that 1913 Henderson before I restored it. It's a hand crank." He's relaxed sitting on a bike in the museum, talking to patrons from all over the country, seemingly able to recall anybody that's ever walked into the place since it opened seven years ago. It doesn't take much to get him to crank one of the machines and ride it around in the museum, and maybe lay a big black burnout down the back stretch on the polished floor.
He's been busy: riding a 1918 World War I Harley sidecar rig in the President Obama inaugural parade, vintage flat-track racing at Wauseon Ohio, racing at Maxton, N.C. (the former airstrip now used for speed timing trials), being inducted into the Sturgis Museum Hall of Fame, and he had just returned from the big Davenport, Iowa antique bike event. And he continues to unearth, restore, and assemble historically significant old American motorcycles.
Walksler is a steadfast defender of patina, and the bikes in the museum reflect the value he places on originality. He advises a couple against rebuilding their running Servicar—"Don't take that thing apart."—and follows with a string of tips for the flathead 45 motor.
After taking me for a spin around the parking lot in the inaugural sidecar rig, Dale gives me a tour of some of the newer additions to the collection. He shows me a new find, a 1934 Harley 500 single sitting on a flat front tire. "It's called a CB500; they made 150 of them. This one is original condition, serial number one. I heard about this bike 20 years ago." It sits beside another CB500 in great shape that Walksler bought thinking the owner of #1001 would never sell. "He called me four weeks ago."
He also shows me a bike he found locally a year or so back. "It's a '15, old North Carolina bike, that hadn't run in probably 50 years," he says. Walksler proceeds to kick over the J Model and we watched the exposed valve train components do their little clickety dance. He reaches down and kills the motor by pushing down the pushrod with his fingers.
The museum's stash of motorcycle memorabilia, already massive, also continues to grow and change: "I just found the old shipping crate from a motodrome [wall of death] bike." Walksler points out the hinged, painted container that looks fresh off the circus truck in Roustabout.
In the back of the museum, Walksler shows me an orange bike he's especially proud of. The V-twin has two straight-pipe exhausts on each side of the bike. It's the last Harley board-track racer. "That's a 1928-29 750 overhead valve twin-port special. Only one known; only one built." The bike on the museum floor represents the reunion of some long-separated components. "I found the chassis in January. I found the motor three years ago and knew where it was." Walksler had passed on the motor at an auction in Seattle, not really needing it at the time. The motor was in a 45 frame, but still with the crazy pipes, and the unique clamps were still on the frame. Seventy-nine years later, they're all back together again. Walksler raced the bike (on dirt) at Wauseon and came in fourth. "It's geared for mile tracks, and Wauseon is a half-mile."
In addition to the wonderful hard parts, Wheels Through Time has been producing short films and making them available on the Time Machine section of its website, with content highlighting restorations, historic machines, location stories from old-bike events around the country, and notable visitors to the museum. Hundreds of videos have been produced, and more are in production. The webisodes are available on the museum's website, wheelsthroughtime.com. The website's event calendar will also be updated with scheduled open weekends as they are confirmed for 2010 and the remainder of 2009.
Things appear to be looking up for the museum, and I hope Dale and the crew at Wheels Through Time can maintain a presence in our part of the world, right smack dab on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Unlike other National Parks, the BRP is first and foremost a public road, made for motorized traffic. It just happens to be the perfect road on which to ride your motorcycle to one of the most important motorcycle collections in the country.