History Museum's Pedal Car Exhibit Drives New Traffic | WGLT

History Museum's Pedal Car Exhibit Drives New Traffic

Mar 12, 2018

A tourist from Miami who was raised in Kankakee couldn’t believe his good fortune to stumble into the opening of a new pedal car exhibit that opened this weekend at the McLean County Museum of History.

Tim Blake, 71, said he was in town for a wedding and checked out the Bloomington-Normal Convention and Visitors Bureau glossy magazine at his hotel, looking for some history about Abraham Lincoln he could explore while killing some time.

On Saturday when Blake went to the McLean County Museum of History on the courthouse square in downtown Bloomington, he found more than just Lincoln. He was astounded to discover 47 pedal cars, stacked up on metal racks in all colors of the rainbow. 

“I had that one as a kid,” Blake said as he pointed to the Murray Tractor. “This is really wonderful,” he added as he continued to peruse the glittering and gleaming child-sized cars assembled three high on industrial gray shelves.

Beloved Bloomington-Normal community member Bruce Callis’ love of history and cars are combined in the new Pedal Power exhibit that opened this weekend.

The exhibit features a wide variety of miniature cars spanning 50 years of pedal car production from the 1920s through the 1970s. Callis was a car enthusiast and in addition to his antique cars, he began collecting pedal cars to give him something to look for when he would go antiquing with his wife Nancy.

His son, Kevin, said it was a labor of love to research and then restore the minis.

“It became something he was really passionate about; how to find them, learning the history of each car, and then studying the advertising from that time to learn the available color schemes that were available and which one of those did he want to recreate," Kevin said.

It also gave Bruce Callis, a State Farm executive, something to do with his grandchildren, including Michael, son of his daughter Kim Callis Ready, who lived in town. Michael became his grease monkey partner who enjoyed cruising in the latest, newly-restored set of wheels.

Kim Callis Ready said she had a warm feeling walking through the exhibit and seeing everyone, especially little kids, marvel at the mini cars. She believes her dad would be thrilled with the exhibit.

“It makes us feel great as a family. Dad was very involved in the community and he loved sharing his hobby," she said.

Callis Ready recalled her father's excursions to car shows with his grandchildren

"He also had full-size antique cars, so we would go to shows with them and sometimes bring the pedal cars and it was a real joy for him to watch his grandchildren interact with other children in the love of the pedal cars," she said.

Kevin Callis said it is gratifying to see the wide eyes of young children and older visitors recalling their younger years when they had pedal cars. He knows his dad would be thrilled with how his legacy is being used.

“He had a fondness for the museum—the mission. He supported it in many different ways over the years so this is kind of full circle. It’s his personal passion with history, personal passion for the museum and to know that this exhibit for the next few years and many years into the future (this collection) will help support this museum just makes it so special.”

The Pedal Power exhibit will run through spring 2020. A couple of the cars will be saved as a permanent addition to the museum’s collections. The rest will be sold with proceeds going to support the museum’s mission of telling the extensive and varied history of McLean County through programs which serve people of all ages.

Industrial Works of Art

Curator Anthony Bowman said it was daunting at first to figure out how to display so many cars. But he said he and designer Susan Hartzhold were inspired by the way Callis stored the pedal cars in the commercial garage he used to for his vintage car collection and the miniature versions of the classics of the day. Callis started collecting in 1988 until he died 10 years later.  

"(My Dad) had a fondness for the museum. Its mission. He supported it in many different ways over the years so this is kind of full circle."

“Susan was really taken with how they were displayed on metal racks and shelves,” he said. Bowman decided to mimic the look and was able to source the urban-looking shelves that hold the cars in the exhibit.

Picking which ones to display among the large collection of 53 available for donation was also a challenge.

“Some were duplicates so I picked the better of the two. Sometimes I picked one that was unrestored so I could give kind of that before-and-after look,” said Bowman, who also looked for cars that represented manufacturing and designs from each of the decades.

Bowman did plenty of research, with much of it coming from the Pantagraph newspaper archives. The exhibit includes some design blueprints which emphasize the cars as what he came to appreciate as “industrial works of art.”

“These are real creative endeavors and there are true artists behind these," he added.

Does he have a favorite? It is a metallic blue and white Studebaker Strato Jet that he used as the template for the photo opportunity cut-out that greets visitors as they walk through the exhibit doors.

“I had been drawn to those fins since the day I saw it and actually it’s the same design used on our T-shirt making, so I really wanted to get some mileage out of that one,” he said with a chuckle.

Meltdown Graphics was on hand to create T-shirts for visitors, with the first 40 through the door receiving a free, commemorative tee.  

Another highlight includes a color home video, circa 1963, of Bloomington resident George Perkins and his little sister Kleo patrolling the sidewalks of his childhood hometown of Prophetstown, Illinois, behind the wheel of a pint-sized police car.  

Above the video screen are photos of well-known community figures such as historian and labor leader Mike Matejka and former museum Executive Director Beth Whisman on their pedal cars. Bowman says he would like to create an online photo album featuring others behind the wheel of the mini cars and he encourages contributions via email.

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