Are we there yet?

by | Aug 1, 2020 | Features

Photo by Liz Chrisman

Story by Rick Wood

A gentle press on the key fob initiates and all the doors and rear hatch unlock on the SUV. Courtesy lights on the outside rear view mirrors come on for about 20 seconds. The seat automatically adjusts for the driver it senses. Another fingertip action and the engine springs to life. Depressing the brake pedal allows Buddy Hoelzeman to select for reverse and back down the driveway. Only a slight effort turns the wheel thanks to power steering. An alarm warns him he is getting close to wife Tootsie’s prize tropicana roses. The warm summer sun warrants adjusting the air conditioner to a more comfortable temperature. With the gear selector in ”D”, he is on his way.

Traveling West on US Highway 64 and then south on State Highway 9, he is soon crossing the Arkansas River. A slight push on a steering wheel button sets the speed control at a pleasant below-the-limit speed. After completing the longest curve in the Arkansas road system, a right turn at Oppelo yields scenery of fences and cattle and haying operations. The two-mile stretch of State 154 produces an elevation change of over 2,000 feet. At the top, past Petit Jean’s gravesite, the last leg of the trip provides the mixed scenery of homes, pasture, and timber.

Buddy’s drive to work is something millions of people do every day all over planet Earth. But it’s something that absolutely no one did just 120 years ago.

A great philosopher once said: “Find a job you love to do, and you will never work a day of your life.” Buddy has accomplished just that. Work, for Buddy, is the Museum of Automobiles. But it’s a place where some of the examples on display share only two things with his transportation to work—four wheels and a seat. The earliest cars did not have a windshield and used a tiller for steering.

Buddy’s career at the museum began in January 1966 as an accountant. His talents were soon recognized and he became much more involved in August of that year with added duties including overseer of restorations and procurement as well as operations. Buddy accepted the title of director in 1971 and was reaffirmed when the museum reorganized as a nonprofit in 1976. Buddy’s son and two grandchildren also work at the museum.

The Museum of Automobiles is the culmination of a dream of the late Governor Winthrop Rockefeller. He discovered Petit Jean Mountain in the early 1950s and fell in love with it and Arkansas. Rockefeller wanted the museum to be a significant, outstanding facility so the renowned architectural firm Cromell Architecture was enlisted for design. The 45,000 square foot building has two levels on a 150 feet by 150-feet footprint. The copper roof is free floating, not supported by the walls, and is suspended by cables attached to four massive corner posts. The significance of the design produces a stream of visitors to study the architecture itself.

Opening in 1964, the Museum of Automobiles was a boost for tourist traffic. The “Antique Automobile Fair” was held in October of that same year and anchored a regional auto enthusiast tradition that continues today. The week-long event now ends on Saturday the day before Father’s Day. Attendees affectionately refer to the annual trek as “going to the mountain” with no other explanation needed. The event is one of the largest automotive happenings in Arkansas.

In the museum, there are approximately 50 automobiles on display at any one time. Five or six cars are changed out annually so it is not a static display. Displayed permanently are the Rockefeller family cars, the 1914 Cretor’s Popcorn Wagon (possibly one of the first food trucks), an Elvis-owned car, President John F. Kennedy’s personal Lincoln provided to him by Ford Motor Company, and two Climbers. The Climbers at the Museum are the only complete examples of the only car manufactured exclusively in Arkansas. Publicity stunts were the most effective form of advertising in that era (1920s), so newspapers reported on the progress of a planned trip around and across the region to show the Climber’s ability to negotiate Arkansas’ primitive road system. The engine was started in Little Rock and ran continuously during the odyssey. The grand finale was the car being driven up — climbing — the steps of the state capital and Governor Charles Brough ceremoniously turning the engine off. The collection displays the chronological development of the automobile concept with real examples. A great history lesson with detailed features and facts is provided on each auto displayed. Also featured are motorcycles, gas pumps, license plates, signs, and pedal cars.

The Museum of Automobiles offers world-class architecture and an enlightening presentation of the history of a device that did not exist just over a century ago — a device that truly changed the world. The automobile has become so engrained in our lives that we now live in a car culture. Experience the automobiles when they had names like: Brush, Rickenbacker, Olds, Studebaker, Star, Tulsa4, Indiana, Stutz and Moon. And Buddy’s smile will greet you and make you feel welcome.

Located at 8 Jones Lane atop Petit Jean Mountain, the Museum of Automobiles is open 10 a.m. -5 p.m. every day except Christmas. COVID-19 precautions include the state mask mandate and barriers in place to create a one-way maze for visitors to view cars and displays while minimizing interaction with other museum visitors. Admission prices are Adults $10, 65 up $9, 6-17 $5, 5 and under no charge.

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