Wisconsin Auto Museum 

Celebrating A Silver Anniversary

John Gunnell - October 20, 2011 10:00 AM


Jim Rugowski brought his 1953 Nash-Healey roadster out to a show celebrating the Wisconsin Automotive Museum’s 25th anniversary.


A 1928 Kissel stops in front of the building under one of three signs indicating the Kissel-Nash-AMC cars spotlighted at the Wisconsin Automotive Museum.


Dale K. Anderson, seen here with a Kissel White Eagle, has directed the fortunes of the museum since it opened to the public in July 1986.


All types of cars can be found at the museum. This four-cylinder 1929 Plymouth sold for just $695 when it was new.


This Willys racing car is part of the Southeastern Wisconsin Short Track Hall of Fame added to the Wisconsin Automotive Museum in 2006.


Restored 1930 seats line the impressive 600-seat theater that inhabits a part of the complex where mushrooms once grew in silt on unused loading docks.


Rare 1946 Nash tow trucks were built on one-to-a-dealer basis so Nash stores could tow with trucks bearing the company’s logo.


The Nash name plays a pivotal role in the museum’s collection.


This Sun test station was a common sight in repair shops and service stations in the neighborhood.


Nash Ambassador show chassis dates from 1941, the last year that this engine was offered as a Twin Ignition Six.


Chester l. Krause donated his 1902 Rambler Runabout to the Wisconsin Automotive Museum. Other vehicles on display are on loan from collectors.


There is some representation of the ’60s with this 1966 Olds Toronado.


One of the 22 Kissels on exhibit at the museum looks like it’s ready to fuel up from a rare twin-cylinder gas pump.

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In a relatively short span of time, a once-unwanted 165,000 square foot canning factory, where mushrooms used to grow on silt-lined loading docks, has become a 12-acre educational and arts hub. The Wisconsin Automotive Museum is a world-class entity devoted to Badger state automobiles.

Hartford, Wisconsin, home of the Kissel Motor Car Co., celebrated the grand opening dedication ceremony of the then Hartford Heritage Collection Auto/Industrial Museum on Aug. 15-17, 1986. The dates coincided with an old car show held in Hartford at that time and marked the 80th anniversary of the Kissel Motor Car Co. Hartford sits north of Milwaukee in southeastern Wisconsin.

“Hartford” or “The Kissel Museum” — the names most Wisconsin car collectors still use to refer to the museum — has always been about Kissels, although never just about Kissels. Kissel Kar Klub members helped launch it, but so did donors, state and local officials and representatives of the Classic Car Club of America, the Antique Automobile Club of America and the Wisconsin Chapter of the Society of Automotive Historians. There were 46 vehicles displayed then, 14 were Kissel Kars. The first donation to the museum was actually a John Deere tractor.

Today, the Wisconsin Automotive Museum is Wisconsin’s largest car collection and features an ever-growing display of 105 vintage autos and automobilia. The car collection now spotlights 22 Kissels (built in Hartford from 1906 to 1931), as well as Nash-AMC vehicles built in Kenosha from 1916-on and Hudson, Essex and Terraplane models.

The museum is also home to the Southeastern Wisconsin Short Track Hall of Fame and the Kissel Kar Klub and a partner of the Nash Car Club. It has a valuable porcelain sign collection, as well as more than 900 model cars and 300 auto-themed whiskey decanters.

Executive Director Dale W. Anderson has been a driving force behind the museum since it was incorporated, in 1982, as a private, non-profit organization. “It started way back when I took over the Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Development Corp. here in town,” Anderson explains. “The chamber was looking for a draw and I said, ‘you built cars here for 25 years; that should be a good draw.’ The concept took a while to gain support. It took eight years before they said, ‘You might have an idea there.’”

By then, Anderson was involved in buying 40 acres of land that the cannery owned for industrial development. He convinced them it would be a good idea to donate the whole property to the non-profit. “We got title to the property — 12 acres of land and 165,000 square feet of buildings — in 1984 and in 1985, we moved out all the junk that was left,” Anderson recalls. “In 1986, I borrowed $65,000 from the local housing authority for commercial rehabilitation and the museum opened to the public. About 10 years ago, the community recreation center was looking for a place to build and we gave them five acres and got out of the parking lot business.”

At the museum’s grand opening ceremony in 1986, Anderson laid out his expansion plans to the assemblage. He told his visitors that the museum had already been so well received that expansion was necessary to house the privately-owned cars that were on a waiting list to get in. Over the next 25 years, he never let up on the accelerator, driving the Wisconsin Automotive Museum to the “winner’s circle” in every heat.

From the start, a variety of antique and classic vehicles were acquired through a combination of owner consignments for limited periods of time and permanent charitable donations. While the core collection of Kissel Kars was always impressive, there were four-wheeled attractions for enthusiasts of FoMoCo cars, GM brands, Mopars and independent and imported automakers. Display room was never a problem in the expansive facility.

On Sept. 25, 1993, the Hartford Heritage Auto Museum and the Nash Car Club of America opened The Nash Room as a collection-within-a-collection. At that time, 4,000 square feet of space was set aside for the exhibition of 10 to 12 Nash vehicles, along with advertising, signs and special displays and other Nash memorabilia. The initial Nash exhibit included a Rambler Convertible Landau, a Nash Metropolitan convertible, a 1939 Nash convertible and everything from Nash tag toppers to sales catalogs.

Including the second level, the Wisconsin Automotive Museum now offers more than 75,000 square feet of exhibit space for permanent and changing displays. In addition to vintage vehicles, visitors can see an impressive collection of old-time service garage equipment and special attractions like a Saab that was driven over one million miles.

Anderson has built up a personal relationship with every car he showcases. “We own that Model T, this 1910 Sears, that buggy over there and the old sleigh underneath that wrap over,” he notes. “Chet Krause donated the 1902 Rambler and the Nash-Healey coupe over there came from Vince Ruffalo.” Anderson reveals that he’s working on more Kissel donations.

“As you can see, I don’t have Duesenbergs and Auburns and Cords and any of those fancy cars, because the theory I operate on is that I want to have cars people remember,” says Anderson. “They tell me ‘Grandpa had this car’ or “That’s the first car we fooled around in’ and they like the upstairs, where we have the newer cars best. They always find their first car or their father’s first car there.”

The director says he has gotten attendance to rise from 10,000 to 12,000 visitors per year. “But, I’d really like twice that,” says Anderson. “I used to put out 35,000 pieces of literature at Wisconsin Tourist Information Centers, but when they shut them all down, the state took away my main means of advertising.”

With all the things going on at the Wisconsin Automotive Museum these days, it’s again hard to predict future growth and the direction that things will move in over the next quarter century. Efforts to open a Wisconsin Hot Rodding History Gallery were announced early in 2011, but are more or less on hold for a while, according to Anderson. Like all entities, Wisconsin Automotive Museum needs more paying customers to grow (as well as more volunteer labor). The Wisconsin Hot Rodding History Gallery may be the next big expansion if the museum in Hartford continues to thrive as it enters its second 25 years.

For Your Information

Wisconsin Automotive Museum

(262) 673-7999