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The wheels through time roll on: WNC motorcycle museum celebrates 20 years, looks ahead

The wheels through time roll on: WNC motorcycle museum celebrates 20 years, looks ahead

With a quick roll start to crank over the engine of the 1916 Traub motorcycle, Matt Walksler hops off the bike and knocks down the kickstand. The 106-year-old machine rumbles, the smell of oil and gasoline soon permeating the air. He turns to the crowd of a couple dozen folks making a semi-circle around him. 

“If you Google the ‘World’s Rarest Motorcycle,’ this bike will immediately pop up,” Walksler said. “This is the only one known in existence. There is no record of a Traub motorcycle company, either. And it was found behind a brick wall in Chicago in 1967 — its origin still a mystery.”

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Matt Walksler and the 1916 Traub, considered the “World’s Rarest Motorcycle.” Garret K. Woodward photo

The crowd is wild-eyed, with looks of sheer amazement and pure wonder running across each face, whether a young child holding his mother’s hand or an elderly military veteran in his wheelchair. All in attendance are sporting some kind of bike attire (with Harley-Davidson the brand of choice), a red or blue bandana hanging out of back pockets to wipe the grease off one’s fingers.

Walksler turns off the Traub and the onlookers clap in acknowledgment of the special moment. Walksler smiles in appreciation, shakes a few hands extended towards him, and eventually makes his way across the massive showroom to start another antique motorcycle, the crowd growing in size with each bike coming to life throughout the afternoon.

These sights and sounds are just another day at Dale’s Wheels Through Time museum in the heart of Maggie Valley. The roar of engines and the inundation of motorcycles — either within the 38,000-square-foot museum housing over 370 bikes or outside in the vast parking lot — is nonstop. Hundreds of people in seemingly every direction, the familiar and alluring combination of oil and gas wafting throughout the property. 

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The scene is surreal and overwhelming, and yet oddly beautiful and cathartic, seeing first-hand multiple generations of folks coming together for this one true and honest passion in their lives — motorcycles.

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Hannah Pace/Mountain Light Studio

“Wheels Through Time is the premier collection of American motorcycles anywhere in world. But, you know, it’s not your standard museum,” Walksler noted, taking a scarce moment to sit behind his second-floor office desk. “This place is more of an experience, rather than just a building full of old bikes. There’s more history in here than you could see in a dozen or more visits. It’s an interactive experience, which is what’s so neat about it.”

The “Dale” in Dale’s Wheels Through Time is the late Dale Walksler, Matt’s father and mentor, who founded the museum in 2002. A larger-than-life character, Dale collected motorcycles for over 50 years of his life, bouncing from coast to coast for decades, always in search of the next big treasure hunt of steel and history. 

Sadly, after a four-year arduous battle with cancer, Dale succumbed to his illness on Feb. 3, 2021, at age 68. Recently, the museum celebrated 20 years with a weekend of festivities, including an engine crank over of 20 rare bikes, one for each year in operation.

“It’s been a really emotional weekend. Twenty years here in Maggie Valley has really flown by,” Matt said. “And what really makes me proud is that when my dad moved here, this was his dream to do exactly what we’re doing today. I know he isn’t here to see it, but he’d be proud of how things are going, proud of where the museum has come to.”

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The founder of Wheels Through Time, Dale Walksler passed away in 2021. (photo: Wheels Through Time)

At 39, Matt is now the curator and owner of the museum, ultimately carrying the torch of his father’s vision headlong into the next generation and beyond. And though there are a lot of similarities between Matt and Dale, there are also subtle differences. 

“In a lot of ways, he and I are the same. But, I’m not afraid to take a break,” Matt chuckled, his thoughts drifting to his wife and young children. “He never took a break. I mean, this is our lives and it’s what we do. But, for him, he was the most driven of driven people that I’ve ever met in my life.”

Where Dale was gregarious and a true force of nature in person, Matt is humbler in his tone and the way he carries himself around the museum. But, both of them contain this immense wealth of motorcycle knowledge that knows no bounds. The motorcycles both Walksler men have discovered, rebuilt and ridden across America with their bare hands is astonishing — in lore and in method.

“It’s hard to call this work, it really is,” Matt said. “We’ve very fortunate to be in a place where every person that comes over that bridge and into the museum is smiling. You get to meet all of these amazing people from all over the world, and you get to hear their story and their love for motorcycles.”

That, and just like his father, Matt brings to the table a captivating sense of self, especially when it comes to the plethora of YouTube videos and live streaming through social media, something Dale was a pioneer at with his television and internet programs early on in the museum’s history. As of last check, the Wheels Through Time YouTube channel has over 112,000 subscribers.

“It’s about the preservation of these bikes, getting them running again. And the biggest part of it for me was watching my dad with people, seeing the effect he had when he would share his passion with people — that’s a contagious thing,” Matt said. “When you saw the positive effect that Dale had on someone, it makes you want to do the same thing — my biggest goal is to run this museum like he would have.”

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Garret K. Woodward photo

Although Wheels Through Time was created in 2002, Dale’s lifelong love of motorcycles came about in 1967. He was 15 years old and building his first bike when that initial spark of passion and persistence caught like wildfire. By 22, he established a Harley-Davidson franchise in Mount Vernon, Illinois. 

From there, Dale started collecting bike after bike, scouring the United States for rare finds, only to soon open up a museum in Illinois. Eventually, he decided to pull up stakes in the Midwest and put down roots in the legendary motorcycle riding haven that is the mountains of Western North Carolina.

“He took a big leap of faith in moving everything to here in Maggie Valley. But, his idea and vision worked, where now we’re breaking attendance records every month,” Matt said. “Between word-of-mouth and our YouTube channel, the museum is growing every single day. And our goal is to continue to grow the collection, continue to enhance the experience and keep preserving history.”

Strolling through the museum showroom, there are hundreds of antique motorcycles within reach. Priceless machines surrounded by endless memorabilia and trinkets — event posters, advertising signs, a slew of mechanical parts to yet another project planned for the future — all paying homage to the timeless image of a rider on the open roads of America.

“It’s that freedom of American exploration,” Matt said. “It’s in the blood of everybody. Hitting the road on a motorcycle with the wind in your face. It sounds very nostalgic, but it’s real and tangible.”

As a kid growing up in Illinois, some of Matt’s earliest memories are of running around the Midwest with his dad and hitting the road in a quest to track down and salvage another motorcycle.

“My dad would get in the van, point in a direction and go find something. We’d drive hundreds of miles every weekend, heading to antique bike meets — picking parts, mingling with old motorcycle buddies of his,” Matt marveled. “And, being a Harley-Davidson dealer for 26 years, things would find him, too. People would come in and trade their old Panhead for a new Harley — it was a great time for digging up old motorcycles.”

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Garret K. Woodward photo

And though maybe it’s a little harder nowadays to dig up a rare bike by chance or happenstance — with many dusty barn finds already discovered or social media connecting collectors and sellers — there are still steel horses out there ready to be let loose and back out onto the hard blacktop.

“We’re all just temporary caretakers of these bikes — things change hands, priorities change. Where we may find a lot less of that bike in the barn that hasn’t been found yet, there are certainly more people out there who may have been collecting for 20, 30, 40, 50 years,” Matt said. “Each one of those collectors has kept those bikes in running condition, each is a caretaker of the history and story behind every motorcycle that’s cared for and preserved.”

Getting up from his desk, it’s time for Matt to walk down the stairs and back onto the showroom of the museum. There are more rare motorcycles to crank over and many more hands to shake in solidarity of a passion that reaches into the furthest corners of the human spirit and condition. 

Each handshake is a person from somewhere, anywhere, who — almost like the film “Field of Dreams” — perhaps simply found themselves at Wheels Through Time for reasons beyond their own comprehension — all they know for sure is that had to be here, if but for a moment.

“You know, without the story part of all these motorcycles, it’s just a bunch of inanimate objects, a pile of metal. The bikes don’t move without human interaction,” Matt said. “There’s this incredible connection between humans and motorcycles, this connection with history and your own personal memories. There’s a million reasons why people come here — everyone has their own story.”

Leave a comment

1 comment

  • Very nice article Garret. .must ck it out....Happy 20th...!!!!

    posted by Kathy Woodward

    Thursday, 07/14/2022

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