As the years roll by, my memory of dates, events and people become blurred, often difficult to recall and sometimes fading into oblivion. But there is one date, one event, and one person that I’ll never forget—July 19, 2003, the day I first visited Wheels Through Time Museum and met owner and curator Dale Walksler.
Four of us friends from the northeast decided to take a ride south on the Blue Ridge Parkway to meet up with some of our southern friends at Blue Ridge Motorcycle Campground in Cruso. Manhattan Mark, Philly Dude, M&M and I had a wild yet exhilarating ride down the Parkway, accompanied by severe rainstorms for part of the way. We made it to the campground by early evening, a little cold and a lot wet, but safe.
The next day, a bunch of us took a wet, brisk ride along forested roads to Wheels Through Time which none of us northerners had heard of, but our southern compadres raved about. They had contacted Dale in advance, and by the time we arrived, he was ready to give us the grand tour of the museum. Dale told us he’d started his collection 35 years prior when he owned a dealership in Illinois, where the original museum began. He sold the dealership in 2000 to focus solely on the new museum which opened its doors in Maggie Valley in 2002.
Inside the museum was an astounding wealth of machines and memorabilia, with 250 motorcycles on display. Dale started up and rode a few of the more rare antiques through the museum, proudly informing us that every bike in there could be started up and ridden, hence the moniker “The Museum That Runs.” The depth of Dale’s knowledge, his enthusiasm, his warmth, and his delight in sharing his passion with others was obvious, and even though we’d spent the better part of the afternoon fully immersed in two-wheel history, we still hated to leave.
When we got outside, Darrin’s Ironhead wouldn’t start. The rain had made her persnickety—the magneto had already zapped Darrin earlier—and no matter how many times he kicked, there was no spark. Dale came out with a can of ether, sprayed it in the carb, and, as Darrin describes it, “Spray… kick… boom… fire!” I stood there stunned as flames shot out the carb and up the side of the bike, but the guys quickly snuffed out the flames, amazingly leaving the bike with no lasting damage.
Our experience at Wheels Through Time stayed with me, and I vowed to return the next summer. Life intervened and for one reason or another, I didn’t make it back until 2015 when my riding partner Thundercloud and I went on a road trip to Memphis and then Mississippi, stopping in Maggie Valley on the way.
Even though I hadn’t been there in 13 years, it truly felt like coming home. As the years passed since my first visit, I’d kept up with museum happenings, watched museum videos, entered their annual raffles… all the while taking pride that I was among the first year’s visitors.
Since Wheels Through Time first opened, there have been many changes to expand the collection, bringing the number of motorcycles to the current 350 or so. Dale’s Channel offers videos online that include hundreds of shows that include the history, restorations, and rebuilds that take place inside the museum. Dale had even hosted a show, What’s in the Barn, for two seasons on Velocity TV.
I had occasion to visit the museum earlier this year for their Memorial Day tribute to veterans that featured American Motordrome Wall of Death performances. And this past Veterans Day weekend, we again made the 700-mile trek to Maggie Valley for the museum’s annual raffle drawing.
The day of the raffle was quite chilly, but the museum was still packed with people, some of whom lined up outside at the Engine 52 Pizza Food Truck. The bluegrass sounds of Vaden Landers and Company along with the anticipation of possibly winning one of the prizes lent a festive atmosphere in and around the museum and gift shop.
Milling about that day, checking out the rotating exhibits that had changed since May, and watching the crowds when door prizes were given away every half hour is when it really hit me that through Dale’s drive and desire to bring everyone into the vintage moto fold, he has truly created a family. In addition to several members of Dale’s kinsfolk that work with the museum, the wonderful staff, volunteers, and the folks that visit again and again have organically expanded this huge moto clan that’s nearly as passionate about the museum and its contents as its founder. Before the drawing began, past raffle winners were asked to raise their hands, and I realized they weren’t there just to win another bike—they were now part of a rarified group that owned a Dale Walksler-restored vintage machine.
A name was drawn by Bella, a young girl recruited from the crowd, for the third prize of $5,000. The $10,000 prize winner was announced next, and finally, the grand prize winner of the stunning 1936 Knucklehead EL in Venetian Blue and Croydon Crème, restored by Dale with the help of some well-respected vendors and painted by the talented John Dills. Sadly, none of the winners were present, but the excitement continued as Matt Walksler rode into the museum on the 2019 raffle bike, another 1936 Knucklehead EL, this one a beautiful bobber in black with vermillion red accented with gold striping.
Wanting to feel even more like part of this moto family, I realized another raffle ticket and a T-shirt wasn’t enough to express my admiration for and appreciation of this wonderful gift that Dale has brought to us motorcycling aficionados. So I became a life member, knowing that every cent goes to the 501(c)(3) that preserves and educates about the history of vintage American transportation. Thanks to Dale, family, staff, and friends for keeping this important piece of Americana alive.