Museum displays allow visitors to ride back in time

Carol Rolf Originally Published August 25, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated August 24, 2013 at 4:24 p.m.
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Nick Hillemann

The Museum of Automobiles on Petit Jean Mountain houses a variety of pre-World War II vehicles, along with several from the collection of the late Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller.

PETIT JEAN MOUNTAIN — Automobile enthusiasts are sure to find something to their liking at the Museum of Automobiles, which sits prominently atop the mountain that is home to Arkansas’ first state park.

Founded by the late Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in 1964 to house his personal collection of cars, the museum is now part of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except for Christmas Day. Admission is $10 for adults; $9 for seniors 65 and older; and $5 for students ages 6 to 17.

“Rockefeller built the museum to house his collection of cars, which were bought mostly from the opera singer James Melton in Florida in the 1950s,” said Alan Hoelzeman, controller of the museum. “That collection was around 25 to 30 cars. He also had some family cars in his collection.”

The museum was designed by the Little Rock architectural firm Ginocchio, Carter, Cromwell and Neyland with a consultant from New York. The wooden roof is made from Idaho spruce. The slate used in the building is from Virginia, and the rock in the garden is from the Rio Grande River. The museum grounds consist of 57 acres.

Following Rockefeller’s death in 1973, his car collection was sold in 1974, and the building and grounds were donated to the state of Arkansas. At that time, the museum was closed. It was reopened in 1976 by a local group of collectors as a not-for-profit corporation, with Alan’s dad, Buddy Hoelzeman, as director of the museum and secretary-treasurer of the board. Buddy holds those same positions today.

“It opened with mostly loaned cars,” Alan said. “We did have some that had been donated, including a 1946 Lincoln Continental Coupe donated by Arrow Motor of California. Since then, we’ve had about 35 cars donated to us.

“The collection does rotate out,” he said. “So every few months, there are some different cars on display.”

Among the cars on display are several from Rockefeller’s personal collection, including the 1951 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 he drove to Arkansas in 1953; his 1914 Cretor’s popcorn wagon; and his 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood 75 with a sterling-silver Santa Gertrudis hood ornament.

The oldest car on display at the museum is a 1904 Oldsmobile French Front; the newest are Rockefeller’s ’67 Cadillac and a 1967 Ford Fairlane 500 Ranchero once owned by Elvis Presley.

“We try to keep the collection as much pre-World War II as possible,” Alan said. “Several are not, but they are cars of significance, such as Rockefeller’s Cadillacs, Elvis’ car, a ’55 T-bird, a ’57 Chevrolet Bel-Air convertible, a ’58 Corvette convertible and a 1963 Lincoln Continental convertible that once belonged to President Kennedy.”

Another car of interest is the 1923 Climber, one of only two known to exist. The car was built by the Climber Motor Corp. of North Little Rock, which operated from 1919 to 1923, building approximately 275 cars.

“It was built for the rough Southern roads,” Alan said. “To demonstrate its durability, it once climbed the steps of the State Capitol.”

Buddy Hoelzeman, who is married to the former “Tootsie” DeSalvo, began working for the museum as an accountant in 1966 and was promoted to office manager in 1968. He remained in that position until 1975 when the museum was closed. He was instrumental in reopening the museum in 1976.

Alan’s older brother, Tommy Joe Hoelzeman, is in charge of the maintenance and upkeep of the cars. The Hoelzemans’ third son, Mark, is an accountant in Morrilton.

“We are proud of the museum,” Buddy said. “We are proud to be able to keep it going.”

The Museum of Automobiles serves as the headquarters for the Mid-America Old Time Automobile Association. It hosts several annual car shows and swap meets on the museum grounds, including the upcoming Fall Petit Jean Antique Auto Swap Meet set for Sept. 25-28. The September event will include a Military Vehicle Rally, hosted by the Arkansas MV Travelers, and the Petit Jean Mountain Car Show and Shine.

“There is no gate fee for the swap meet,” Alan said. “The only admission is to the museum. This event will feature cars, parts, memorabilia, old signs, and arts and crafts items. There will be a little bit of everything, a little something for everybody.”

For more information on the Museum of Automobiles, call (501) 727-5427 or visit www.museumofautos.com.

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