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Iola Car Show turns 50 this year: 10 questions with Cliff

The July 7-9 Iola Car Show will mark the 50th time Iola has hosted the iconic meet. Old Cars sits down with the original Iola Car Show leader to talk past and future of the show.
Iola Car SHow 50 Years
Cliff Mishler

Cliff Mishler

This year, the non-profit Iola Old Car Show, Inc. organization of Iola, Wis., will be celebrating 50 years of the Iola Car Show. Upon the occasion, the Old Cars staff sat down to talk “car show” with Clifford Mishler, who was credited with the show’s early success by Chet Krause, founder of the Iola Car Show, Krause Publications and Old Cars magazine.

For the 15 years leading up to Iola’s first car show in 1972, the Iola Lions Club hosted an annual chicken roast on the Sunday after the Fourth of July. Following the 1972 chicken roast, Chet Krause discussed with the staff the idea of inviting area collectors to show up with their collector cars at a special Lions Club event scheduled for later that summer, on Sunday, Aug. 27. This second event was billed as an Iola Lions Club Pork Roast and Donation Auction. Krause sent area car collectors invitations to the event, and 14-17 vehicles attended. The next year, in 1973, another invitation went out to collectors to attend the annual early-July Iola Lions Club Chicken Roast with their collector cars, and the Lions Club chicken roast and car show were fatefully tied together.

At this time, Mishler was publisher of Krause Publications’ numismatics division. Given the success of drawing cars to Iola, and Krause’s drive to grow Old Cars, his new hobby publication, Krause charged Mishler with making vintage cars an important annual part of the Lions Club’s annual chicken roast the weekend after the Fourth of July. The show blasted off under Mishler’s direction, and he worked to oversee the Iola Old Car Show until its complete management was handed off to the community through the non-profit Iola Old Car Show, Inc., in 1985. In 1990, Clifford became president of Krause Publications, from which he retired in 2002 after 40 years, and he remains an ex-officio board member of the Iola Old Car Show, Inc.

While Mishler claims not to be an old car collector, he did eventually purchase a 1960 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe very similar to one he bought new and it is occasionally displayed at the Iola Car Show.

Old Cars: What are your past and current roles at the Iola Car Show?

Clifford Mishler: I am simply an advisor, an ex-officio board member. Back in the days I was heavily involved, we didn’t have formal designations of positions. Truly I wasn’t involved in 1972; cars were at the Iola Lions Club pork roast pretty much by Chet’s invitation. Starting in 1973, through, I suppose, 1985 — until the establishment of the non-profit corporation — I was certainly the ‘default director,’ if you will, with the car show. I really handled the back room logistics of making sure it was organized and would come off in an organized manner, but not the registration of vendors or the registration of cars.

OC: How did the idea of the Iola Car Show form?

CM: Krause Publications inaugurated the publication of Old Cars, and that was launched at Hershey in the fall of 1971, and so it was our practice at Krause Publications to go out to all kinds of events to get publicity for the publication and to get subscribers, and we were reasonably successful at that. Chet was always an aggressive person in the publishing business, and in his conversations with the Old Cars staff, which was Dave Brownell and Bob Lichty — they were the old car experts — he came up with the suggestion in the late summer of 1972 that the Iola Lions Club could add old cars to a pork roast, which would be a kind of a donation/auction type of event for the community. Before that, there was no mention of cars or anything like that in connection with an Iola Lions Club event. Chet came up with an idea that he would send a letter to known old car owners in the area and invite them to the Lions Club pork roast. There were 50 or so car collectors invited to the Lions’ event, and if they drove to the event in their collector car, he would provide a meal ticket to them and their spouse. So we ended up with 14-17 cars — accounts vary, but it was in the teens. The general public liked it and the participating car collectors seemed to enjoy the event, so the following year, in 1973, the car element was billed as a component of the annual Iola Lions Club chicken roast, and so that was the foundation of the tradition of the chicken roast and car show. And, of course, the whole purpose was to expose Old Cars and to make more people become aware of the existence of the publication.

OC: When did you begin planning your first car show?

CM: In 1973 I became involved, because of my experience at Krause Publications and in my role at Krause Publications, even though I was not a car collector. I had the capability of being able to draw upon whatever assets that Krause Publications could lend to the event with the old car principals.

OC: How did Chet choose you to run the car show?

CM: I think it was just one of those things that happened. Even though I had only been around Krause Publications for 10 years, by the nature of the publishing business, I was a senior employee. As a senior employee, I felt a commitment to development of the car show, even though I was not a car enthusiast, but I felt this commitment to the event and I made myself available. Chet never told me he wanted me to do this thing or that thing; I was there alongside of him, where the community and Krause Publications staff were concerned. So it was just a natural development or a natural value that I could lend to the event.

OC: How was the show originally staffed?

CM: At the 1972 event, if you will — I refer to it as a precursor event, and I think that is what it really was — there was no advance publicity that there would be cars there — just Chet’s letter to car owners. The 1972 pork roast and auction and donation were simply a Lions Club event. Because Chet had extended this invitation to collectors, Krause Publications showed up with sample copies of Old Cars and did a little sales job for circulation and advertising. So that is the way it ran in 1972. In 1973, it was recognized that perhaps we can build this into not simply a casual event of a few car collectors showing up to eat a meal, we can publicize that there will be old cars on display at the chicken roast, and that would attract a larger audience. At that time, the Lions Club was in charge of the food service, beverage service and parking the vehicles. The Old Cars staff was simply there hosting the collectors and glad-handing them and that kind of thing, and welcoming them to the village and to the event. Then, of course, it just grew going forward. When I look back at the history of the car show, during the period of the 1970s, it seemed that it more or less doubled every year in the number old cars and the number of chickens sold; all of those revenues more or less doubled for the first six, eight, ten years. As that happened, it was recognized that it was getting too big for simply the Lions Club members and the Old Cars staff to handle the event, and that we had to draw in more people from the community to welcome our visitors from out of town. That is the point in which the fire department took over spectator parking and the American Legion became involved and various other organizations became involved and we had hundreds — and, ultimately, thousands — of volunteers involved from beyond the immediate community.

The Old Cars staff was quite involved from a promotional standpoint, where the logistics were handled by the local volunteers. My role became coordination between those groups. I had involvement at Krause Publications and the community. The Old Cars staff didn’t necessarily have the exposure to the community that I had, so I coordinated the two elements.

OC: What was the most difficult part of the getting the show to grow?

CM: I suppose the biggest obstacle over the years was traffic. Initially, people just drove into town on Highway 49 or Highway 161 and found their way to the event grounds. We had to ultimately develop signage and that kind of stuff, and we got the involvement of local, county and state police to help control traffic, and so traffic was probably the biggest inhibitor. It is still the biggest inhibitor to the show, because, ultimately, you can only get so many cars into town when you have two rural state highways that intersect each other going from nowhere to nowhere.

OC: How did the swap meet come about?

CM: Well, my best recollection is that, in 1973, there were a handful — maybe just a couple of people — that showed up with a trailer behind their vehicles with parts that they were interested in selling or trading and, in 1974, I believe, we recognized that element could be developed. So, in 1974 and 1975, the Old Cars advertising staff and publishing staff actively promoted people coming in to vend. I don’t remember if that first year there was a charge for vending, and I don’t know if in 1974 or 1975 that we started charging for it. In 1976, when the show moved out to the new Krause Publications grounds (its current location), we had a truly organized approach to the vendor areas, and it was a sales mission from there.

OC: Were you surprised by the show’s growth?

CM: I certainly don’t think Chet had any premonition of the growth that it would ultimately enjoy. That having been said, I think every year we went into the show with the anticipation that it was going to grow. We would plan for more dash plaques, more food.

In those early years, we didn’t have enough beer on hand to meet the demands of the customers. I remember Bob Dougherty extending the guarantee that if they ran out of beer during the show, he would run down Main Street naked. We ran out of beer, but he didn’t run down Main Street naked. Some of the early attendees might remember that the Bob Dougherty believed that the best way to sell beer was to sell beer in wheelbarrows full of ice. It was rather amateurish compared to what goes on today. It was hometown-type stuff. That is one of the things that the car show has been trying to impress upon attendees. It is a down-home event. We don’t just do it to celebrate old cars and the passion people have for them, but to also showcase the community of Iola — to show it is a good place to live and good place to visit.

OC: What do you credit to the show’s seemingly exponential growth?

CM: Certainly advertising had an element to play in the growth of the show. But it was something more than advertising. It was the openness of the event. Just little things like, a lot of shows have a competition for the best cars and they hand out trophies, and we adopted the attitude that we weren’t going to showcase any particular collector cars. We were just going to invite them to show their vehicles off to the public without getting into the politics of ‘my car is better than your car’ kind of thing. That has somewhat changed over the years in that there is a little bit more of a showcase to the show with the annual featured vehicle display and Blue Ribbon display, but we still try to keep it as an open event where everyone is welcome.

OC: What do you see for the show’s future?

CM: Well, I guess I like to think that the car show will be here 50 years from today. Now, it won’t be the same kind of event that it is today, because human nature changes and times evolve and things like that. I like to think that we will continue to perpetuate this friendly attitude — that it will be an event that will be welcoming to everyone. It may not be as large in number as it is today, because it is hard to get more people into town over the short period of time on these two-lane highways and we’re limited. Where we’re not limited is in our ability to host people and to extract a little bit of their disposable income to benefit the Iola community organizations.

I think it will continue to be a very beneficial exposure element for Iola and the Iola area, and will benefit the area aesthetically and fiscally.

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