Trials and triumphs of early motoring in the 49th state on display

Sharon Thatcher Old Cars Weekly |

This 1910 Chalmers-Detroit on display has been owned by the same
Alaskan family since the 1920s.  Fountainhead Auto Museum Photo

Alaskan travel has been tamed considerably from the days of dog sleds, horse sleighs, boats and shoe leather. Most people credit the airplane, but a museum in Fairbanks is doing something to call attention to the undeniable influence of the automobile.

Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum showcases approximately 55 examples from a 72-vehicle collection at any given time, including several original Alaska cars. Part of its special mission is to showcase the ingenuity of the 49th state’s early motorists, who faced dreadful roads and fierce weather challenges.

Robert “Bobby” Sheldon didn’t just build the first car in Alaska,
he was also the first to drive from Fairbanks to Valdez in a vehicle.
It took him three days to go the 360-miles.
Photo supplied by Candy Waugaman.

The museum was opened to the public June 1, 2009, and is located on the property of Wedgewood Resort, part of a chain of Fountainhead Hotels. The 30,000-square-foot building and the separate lodging facility share company on the estate with the Alaska Bird Observatory, a 75-acre nature preserve, flower displays and an outdoor museum with an authentic miner’s cabin and cache.

The oldest car in the collection is an 1898 Hay and Hotchkiss. Next is the 1899 Hertel. The biggest: a 1936 Packard. Even the first car ever built in Alaska, the Sheldon runabout, is there, newly arrived and on loan for the next five years.

How did the fleet originate? “The collection was started in 2007,” said Museum Historian Nancy DeWitt. Fountainhead Resorts owner Timothy Cerny and his assistant, Derik Price, began a mission to gather a historically significant collection that would draw attention to the resort and at the same time satisfy Cerny’s dream of owning a car collection that could be shared with the public.

During their travels, the two men visited other museums to learn what attracted visitors. As a result, their focus began to narrow on pre-1936 American-made cars with advanced design. Also a priority was collecting the types of automobiles that could be found in Alaska during its earliest motoring days, and to tell the story of the state’s unique motoring heritage.

Although DeWitt noted that rust is not as common as one might expect in Alaska, vehicles were not pampered, and not many museum-worthy survivors exist. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that, in the interior of Alaska, the air is very dry, so the cars don’t rust,” DeWitt said. “In this museum we actually have to put moisture into the air.” But, early automobiles in Alaska “were worked hard and very few survived,” she said.

As a result, the search led Cerney and Price to the lower 48 states. There, he was able to obtain a significant number of vehicles from the J. Parker Wickham collection in New York. Other spectacular cars were obtained elsewhere from across the country.

Fountainhead staff — DeWitt and Museum Manager Willy Vinton — did find a few of those unlikely survivors within state borders. In addition to the Sheldon runabout, there is the first Dodge ever shipped to Fairbanks, a 1916 touring; a 1910 Chalmers-Detroit, owned by the same family since the 1920s; and a bizarre 1926 Fordson Snow Motor, one of three imported to Alaska to support the 1926 Wilkins-Eielson transpolar flight attempt.

The oldest car on display at the Fountainhead is this 1898 Hay &
Hotchkiss. Fountainhead Auto Museum Photo

There is a Toledo steam car in the collection, acquired in the state of Washington, but the dream is to find a later, but more rare, Pope-Toledo for display, since it was one of the first manufactured cars to arrive in the state and to meet the state’s rigorous demands. The earliest mention DeWitt has found so far is a news item about a Pope-Toledo arriving in 1908, four years before Alaska became a U.S. Territory.

Some of the rarest cars on display include a 1901 Rochester steam car, 1906 Compound, 1920 Argonne, 1910 Hudson Model 20 roadster, 1907 Cartercar, 1907 Ford Model K, 1909 Oldsmobile Palace Touring, 1912 Premier, 1912 Peerless and several early Model T’s.

Except for the most fragile specimens in the collection, the cars are driven. “One thing we do is to drive at least one of these cars nearly every night during the summer,” DeWitt said. “We drive a car around the grounds so people can actually see and smell these cars. That makes for an extra special experience.”

The museum also features 50 vintage clothing exhibits, 70 large-format historic photos — primarily displaying deplorable road conditions, horses pulling cars through glacial streams, and frigid travel — and archival movie footage.

The Fountainhead Automobile Museum will hold its first Alaska Midnight Sun Cruise-In June 18-20. This August, it will host an HCCA tour.

For more information, contact the museum at 907-450-2100, e-mail museum@fdifairbnks.com or go online to www.foundheadhotels.com.

Additional resources:
1. Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942, 3rd edition,
    By Beverly Rae Kimes & Henry Austin Clark, Jr.
2. Packard: An American Classic Car
    By Richard W. Luckin
3. Best of Old Cars Prewar
  

 


 

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