The young man in an untucked plaid shirt and jeans straddles the old Harley and puts his right foot on the pedal. “It’ll start up, if I had to guess,
The young man in an untucked plaid shirt and jeans straddles the old Harley and puts his right foot on the pedal. “It’ll start up, if I had to guess, in four kicks,” Jake Burks announces to a smattering of onlookers with cell phone cameras at the ready.
He turns the fuel valve on and then the choke, leaving the key turned off. One kick, then another, then another. He turns off the choke and turns on the key.
The old Harley coughs a puff of white smoke as it quakes and clatters to life. Gasoline exhaust perfumes the air as Burks offers a tidbit about the bike’s past: It’s a 1950 Harley-Davidson WL, the seventh off the assembly line out of 1,108 produced. “Y’all holler if you have any questions,” he says.
On the floor of Dale’s Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, Burks strolls and answers questions among a mind-spinning menagerie of nearly 400 motorcycles. Here’s a 1939 Indian four-cylinder: “Absolutely top-of-the-line bike,” he says. “This bike is very smooth, very fast.” Here’s a 1916 Harley-Davidson that’s been “cut down” — a precursor of an Easy Rider-style chopper. “Not a normal 1916 — no, this one’s way cooler,” Burks says. Once again, he fires up the throaty engine, and, once again, white smoke shoots out of the tailpipe. “Runs pretty good for 107 years old,” he says.
Museums are typically hushed places, but this one frequently thunders with internal combustion. Its motorcycles aren’t just showpieces; most of them are in runnable condition — and all are American-made. Let Burks show you around the place, and you can’t help but feel giddy when he says those four magical words: Let’s fire one up. And just like that, the thunder rolls, and a smoky haze hangs in the air like incense.
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Burks, 27, is one of the museum’s tour guides, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of its vast collection. He first visited Wheels Through Time when he was 14 years old. “I was just enthralled with the place,” he says. After making repeated trips, he wound up meeting the founder, Dale Walksler, who offered the kid 20 bucks to wipe oil from beneath the motorcycles.
Walksler, who died of cancer in 2021 at the age of 68, had owned a Harley dealership in Mount Vernon, Illinois, since 1977. The dealership included a museum that showcased the motorbikes and cars he had been amassing for years, beginning in the early ’70s, when he dropped out of college to open a bike shop.
“At the time he owned his Harley-Davidson dealership, there weren’t really motorcycle museums,” says his son, Matt Walksler, who’s now the museum’s curator and executive director. “Initially, he opened the museum [around 1987] as an attraction to his Harley-Davidson dealership, a way to get visitors and customers.” His zest for those old bikes eventually eclipsed his passion for selling new ones, so he began looking for a place where he could run a museum full-time.
He sought a scenic locale with a robust tourism industry, and western North Carolina fit that bill. As he looked for the ideal address, he landed in Maggie Valley, a town with an abundance of hotels. It’s also just a short drive from the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which attracts millions of visitors every year. Given all of its twisty mountain roads, the region is popular cruising country for motorcyclists. In October, they descend from across the nation to throttle through the flaming foliage.
“At the time that my dad was looking at relocating, this was kind of a town lacking an identity,” Walksler says of Maggie Valley. “It needed something really strong to attract people.” On July 2, 2002, Walksler opened his 38,000-square-foot museum just across Jonathans Creek from U.S. Highway 19.
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At 40, Matt Walksler has a grayish beard as long as handlebar tassels. Following in his father’s tracks, he seeks out vintage motorcycles, whether he finds them in the next county or the next time zone. He and his father forged a bond that shines through the metal and chrome of this place. “I don’t know what I miss the most,” he says of his dad. “There was [all] the time we spent wrenching on old motorcycles and going to hunt stuff down.”
His father’s enthusiasm was infectious. “Just being around him for a few minutes would get you excited.” And that excitement empowers Matt to carry on his dad’s legacy. “This museum has always been about rare motorcycles, bikes with character and personality, bikes with great stories,” Matt says. “People often ask, Do you have a list of things you’re looking for? There’s always a wish list, but at the same time, we’re looking for that next interesting story or a bike with a particular personality.”
Matt and his father forged a bond that shines through the metal and chrome of this place.
Like the bike that the museum calls the rarest motorcycle in America — a 1916 Traub. Burks parks himself on a stool beside the brown-trimmed bike with white tires, looking as though he’s about to spin a yarn next to a campfire, and he tells the tale of this unbecoming bike with the unknown name. It was discovered in 1967, hidden in the brick wall of an apartment building in Chicago, and is believed to be the only Traub bike on the planet. “Prior to ’67, there’s no written information about this company,” Burks says. “Really unique bike. It’s very advanced for the time. This thing will do 80 miles per hour if you want to give it a chance.” But the mystery endures: Why was it sealed behind a brick wall, as if in a time capsule, with no message for posterity? And who put it there? As Burks says, “The mystery kind of adds to the bike.”
• • •
Dale Walksler was not only a prolific collec-tor of bikes, but he was also a determined rider. In 1997, he rode a restored Henderson motorcycle from Los Angeles to New York and straight onto the set of the Today show. He had roughly retraced the route of Alan Bedell, who’d made the trip on a Henderson bike 80 years earlier in 7 days, 16 hours, and 16 minutes. Riding a similar 1917 Henderson — one now on display in the museum and, of course, still runnable — Walksler achieved the cross-country trip in 6 days, 1 hour, and 22 minutes.
• • •
Wandering the museum are families, history buffs, and leather-and-denim-clad guests, some of whom are on their own epic coast-to-coast treks. Harvey Freisen of Edmonton, Alberta, wears a faded brown leather jacket with “Indian” inscribed on the back, a nod to his favored motorcycle brand, plus matching chaps. “It’s amazing,” he says of the museum. “I have a dozen motorcycles — old ones — so I’m just absolutely amazed.” He and his wife, Dawn Marie, are on a six-week cruise around the country, sleeping in a tent and ultimately putting more than 11,000 miles under their belts.
Rick Kristich of Largo, Florida, dressed in a jean jacket and black Harley-Davidson cap, moseys among the motorbikes with a camera in hand. He rides a 1955 Harley Panhead “bobber” — meaning that he stripped it of all nonessential bodywork. “I’ve been old-school motorcycle-riding since the ’70s,” he says. “When I got out of the service, I just fell in love with old bikes.” He pays a visit to the museum every time he’s in the area.
Matt Walksler can’t help but wax nostalgic. “This is American ingenuity at its best,” he says. “This country wasn’t birthed, but it exploded on transportation — people’s ability to get places and go places. This is what built our country. It’s mechanical perfection of form and function.”
Then, an air of expectancy fills the space as Burks, the tour guide, says those four magic words: Let’s fire one up. And just like that, the thunder rolls, and you feel the joy of wheeling through time.print it