It’s hard to imagine how much the Iola Old Car Show has grown in the past 35 years. From its humble beginnings as part of a local Lions Club Chicken Roast to its place today as one of the largest automotive events in the country, the Iola Old Car Show’s history is an interesting story.
For many years, the Iola Lions Club had held a chicken roast in Iola’s Olson Park. The year was 1972, and one of the Lions Club members, Chester L. Krause, invited some friends and acquaintances to drive their old cars to the chicken roast. The incentive to participate was a tasty dinner that Krause would pay for. There was a method to his madness, as Krause and his company, Krause Publications, had recently purchased Spoked Wheels, a monthly, nationwide newspaper serving the interests of car collectors. (Today, the publication is known as Old Cars Weekly). Krause rightly thought that buying dinner for a bunch of antique car owners would be a great way to publicize his new newspaper.
He was right. Although less than 20 cars made an appearance, the small community of Iola, Wisconsin, would forever be changed. That single event eventually proved to be the catalyst for one of America’s great car shows.
The next year, in July 1973, the event’s name was changed to the Iola Lions Club Antique Auto Festival, Chicken Roast and Donation Auction to reflect its new automotive theme. This was the first “official” year of the show. For the first several years, Cliff Mishler, a member of the Lions Club, took the helm and managed the show from his office at Krause Publications. Mishler and a small team of employees ran the show from the Krause office. Although always a separate entity, there is no doubt that Chet Krause, Cliff Mishler, and Krause were the leading organizational force in the show’s early days. Over the years, the company has contributed thousands of hours of manpower and much of its resources to help with the show’s publicity and advertising campaigns; much of that involvement continues to this day.
By 1975, the show, now known officially as the Iola Old Car Show, featured more than 400 collector vehicles and 86 swap vendors. It overflowed tiny Olson Park and was spilling over on to the Iola Community Golf Course. When Krause built its new facilities on the eastern edge of Iola the same year, moving the show to the Company’s grounds seemed natural.In 1978, with the rapid growth of the show, an additional 15 acres of space was added, making the grounds a total of 60 acres. It also marked the first year of the show officially becoming a two-day event.
Improvements in 1981 included erection of the Tower. The former U.S. Forest Service structure has become the focal point of the show. It serves both as show headquarters during the event and is recognized throughout the hobby as part of the Iola Old Car Show official logo. The year 1982 marked a special year for the Iola Old Car Show. Advertised as a three-day event for the first time, it became the beginning of traditions that continue today. Old Cars Beer, produced by the Stevens Point Brewery, became a hot seller for collectors, as well as beer connoisseurs. The year also marked the first time a scale model Iola Old Car Show collector vehicle was sold. Lasting just two years, the series was discontinued after 1983, then resumed in 1992, and is a tradition that continues today. The show also produces a collector set of commemorative coins each year.
In 1984, continued expansion forced another major reorganization. The show took a significant step by forming a non-profit 501(c)3 corporation. Consisting of 13 non-profit community service organizations (including the Iola Lions Club), the Iola Old Car Show, Inc. was formed with a seven-member board. Jim Bach was named as part-time executive director to manage the show. The offices were moved out of the Krause building into space provided by the Iola Herald newspaper in downtown Iola. When Bach left in 1989, Robert Crase was hired to succeed him as executive director. Subsequently, Joan Schultz, an Iola Old Car Show employee since 1985, replaced Crase after his retirement in 2000.
The 1986 show featured all three 1886 Benz replicas to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the automobile. This marked the beginning of a special tradition, the Theme Exhibit. 1986 was also the first year the show included a car corral. Today, nearly 1,000 cars are offered for sale each year in the car corral. In 1988, the Iola Old Car Show began offering full-color Iola Old Car Show posters, which have become very collectible. With the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s, the show made large-scale improvements to the grounds with the addition of a food service building and several permanent restroom facilities. 1993 marked the addition of the Toy Barn. In 1999, the 14,000 sq. ft. Activity Center was added and has become a valuable addition to the facility and is used year-round.
In 1996, a one-of-a-kind exhibit featured 200 brass-era vehicles from 1915 and earlier. The display was coordinated with the Horseless Carriage Club of America’s “Tour of the Century.” It was also the year of a significant reorganization of the show grounds, which involved adding 500 more swap spaces by moving the car corral to the campground area. The campground moved to a large, 80-acre site just south of the main show grounds. This major expansion included adding modern showers, restrooms, a reception center, new lighting and paved roads. The large project mandated changes in spectator parking areas that, in turn, created changes in traffic routes. This was also the first year for the popular vintage tractor-powered parking lot shuttles.
Later, the grounds grew to more than 300 acres. The continued growth saw the need for additional personnel to help with managing the business, as well as the buildings and grounds. Gene Knutson was hired as director of operations in 1994. He was followed by Mary Schwartz, who became the office administrative assistant in 1995. Michael Mazemke became the show’s first full-time director of public relations prior to the start of the 2000 show season. Mazemke left in 2007 to enter public service. He was replaced by Rick Schlabowske. In addition to personnel, the Iola Old Car Show has added other shows over the years, including the Iola Vintage Military Show in 1991 and the Iola Rod and Kustom Weekend, held from 1995 until 2000.
2003 saw the first year of the International Classic Auction at the Iola Old Car Show. The Saturday auction has added another dimension to the show. In this venue, more than 150 autos cross the auction block each year, giving classic car buffs another opportunity to purchase a quality vintage automobile.
More growth came in 2006 when an additional 152 swap spaces on the eastern portion of the grounds was added. In addition to this growth was the expansion of additional acreage directly west of the car corral. Property that had been owned by the Iola Old Car Show for a number of years was cleared late in 2004 for the expansion of the collector-car auction and worker parking lot.
All the success the Iola Old Car Show has experienced is the result of numerous hours put in by countless volunteers. The volunteers’ efforts have also been beneficial for their service organizations, as the Iola Old Car Show Inc. has distributed $4,331,285.87 since 1984. It also goes without saying that spectators and participants of the show and this great hobby are what make car shows like Iola thrive. A big thank you to all of our participants!