Written By Cari Pierce
It is a rare collection of Carroll County history, a museum of U.S. wars, and a tribute to life at the turn of the century – the 20th Century. Admission is free. All are welcome. Just don’t be surprised to see this year’s Chryslers in the mix. The Village of Wheeler at Wheeler Automotive in Westminster is a unique way for a car dealership to connect with the community; to create, preserve and share a spirited and educational environment with its customers and with visitors who aren’t interested in buying a car, but who just want to spend an afternoon getting a glimpse into history.
As visitors enter the main floor of the Wheeler showroom, the environment is decidedly exciting. The showroom perimeter is a 1900s Main Street – reminiscent of any Carroll County town 100 years ago. In the eyes of Warren Wheeler, owner and president of Wheeler Automotive Group, the Main Street shops are an attempt to recreate some of the old Hampstead environment in which he grew up.
“I’ve wanted to do this for over 30 years,” said Warren, “and now it has taken on a life of its own;” complete with a dedicated curator and several helpers.
Under a ceiling painted sky blue with dramatic clouds, Wheeler Village’s Main Street brings to life a leather workshop, saw mill, clock, print, barber, and jewelry shops, a feed store, dentist, railway station, hotel, general store, one-room schoolhouse, and jail.
The museum makes the storefronts authentic by using local period building materials reclaimed from various properties throughout Carroll County, and by saving some structures in their entirety, relocating and rebuilding them within Wheeler Village.
A peek into the open windows of the shop fronts and buildings reveals early 20th Century life. From the wagon wheels in the sawmill to the third generation jeweler’s bench in that shop, not an element was overlooked in its selection and placement. The most significant element in the village is part of the general store. Warren Wheeler’s great grandfather, William Leslie Wheeler, not only established Wheeler Automotive in 1921, he owned and operated a department store in Hampstead. In Wheeler Village’s general store, his great grandson has preserved the oak shelving and metal scale that furnished William Leslie Wheeler’s place of business in the early years of the last century.
Virtually everything in the Village is from Carroll County. Some of the early parts of the collection came from Warren Wheeler’s youth – growing up
next to Snyder’s Auction in Hampstead and salvaging items from unsold “trash” piles. “Today,” said Warren, “I’m always out looking. I have a little network. The more people come in and get to know us, the more donations we get.”
Downstairs in the Wheeler Chrysler showroom, another level of the collection is on display. As backdrop to the shiny, 2005 model Crossfire, Pacifica, Sebring, PT Cruiser, Town & Country and Chrysler 300, Wheeler offers an outstanding collection of tools, photographs, calendars, newspaper clippings, posters and collectibles from all of Carroll County’s municipalities, several surrounding towns, areas of southern and central Pennsylvania and a few northern Baltimore County locations.
The collections, organized by town, are showcased behind glass and labeled under carved wooden municipal seals. Wheeler has made folders full of photographs and news clippings accessible in front of each collection so that visitors can browse and learn more about the county’s smaller communities – Harney, Cranberry, Sandymount – and several historic buildings such as Westminster’s Main Street Opera House and Cockey’s Tavern.
Special displays in Wheeler’s second-floor museum evoke the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War. Most of the flags, posters, photographs, war ration coupons, uniforms, books and maps in the displays tie those events to Carroll County – exhibiting snapshots of the county’s soldiers, residents and businesses during the battles.
Additional exhibits commemorate Carroll County’s Centennial celebration in 1937, local volunteer fire departments, trains, toys and, of course, a bit of Wheeler Automotive history.
“We started out making our collection historical,” said Warren, “now we’re working diligently to bring it into current times, to update yearbooks and pictures and more as the years go by.”
Some customers kicking the tires on a new vehicle in the dealership have been drawn to a picture of a relative or an item identical to one they grew up with, something that caught their eye among the museum’s displays or the village’s Main Street buildings. On the other hand, some visitors – in to browse the museum’s collection – have walked out with the keys to a new car.
Although this isn’t exactly what Warren envisioned years ago when he thought of starting a museum in an old train depot in Hampstead, he calls the dealership “unique” and, with pride, encourages people to visit.
“Chrysler is the perfect product to have this backdrop, with its retro-looking vehicles like the PT Cruiser,” Warren said. If you visit Wheeler Chrysler to buy a car, with 35 years in the business, Warren Wheeler assures that “our first priority is always our customers.” For visitors of the museum who just want to browse a priceless collection of Carroll County history, Wheeler said, “We’re very receptive to the community coming in and just enjoying themselves.”
The community is taking Warren Wheeler up on his offer. Hundreds of visitors tour the museum every year and several community events – including a concert – have been staged there. How about weddings? “Not yet!” he said.
The Village of Wheeler museum is open during dealership hours: Monday- Friday, 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, and Saturdays from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.