Some months ago, before I started this blog the Plain Dealer ran one of my columns about the Canton Classic Car Museum. With the Cleveland Auto Show starting this weekend, I thought it might be timely to show excerpts from the Canton story along with some of the photos that didn’t make it into the newspaper.
An automobile museum is usually just a repository of shiny cars from eras long past. This is much more than just a car museum.
The best way to describe the Canton Classic Car Museum is “eclectic”. To be sure they have the cars. There are beautifully restored Classic autos from the golden age of automobiles to giant chrome beasts of the late twentieth century. Some are behemoths and others so tiny or frail that it is hard to imagine they once traveled on a highway with other vehicles. They even have special interest cars, one of them a rare Amphicar that will also float; there is another vehicle, a 1957 BMW Isetta, with only one door that doubles as the windshield. But the Canton Classic Car Museum also mixes our romance with transportation along with our attachment to, well, things. Things connected with the various eras in which we grew up.
Everything from old advertising signs to an art-deco floor lamp that resembles a woman. Street signs and bird cages stand among things like beer-can model airplanes. A soft-sculpture of a woman made from nylons is posed in front of a classic Lincoln Automobile. You will find a life-size cut-out photograph of movie actor Clark Gable standing beside a 1937 Packard Convertible similar to the one he once owned. A rack filled with antique hats is placed next to the old “Paper Moon” photo backdrop that once created souvenirs at Meyer’s Lake Amusement Park. It overlooks a gallery filled with automobiles from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. Persian carpets and antique chandeliers fill another car gallery competing with the classic Cadillacs, Lincolns and Rolls Royces of another time. Scattered throughout the museum are bicycles and children’s toys of the immediate and far past.
One of the jewels of the auto collection is America’s longest serving police car. A 1937 Studebaker that served the Canton Police Department for an incredible 59 years!
The heavily armored police car was commissioned in an era when Canton was plagued by a crime-wave. The town was known then as “Little Chicago”. The customized armored Studebaker was mainly used to transport money between many of Canton’s industrial plants and banks, but in 1959 it survived a hail of bullets when it was used to breakup a stand-off with two armed robbers holding hostages in a farmhouse just outside of town. The old police car finally was retired in 1996 and donated to the museum.
The museum started as the personal collection of the late Marshall Belden, a local businessman who was also a car collector. In 1978 he went looking for a place to store his cars. He purchased what had been from 1917 to 1951 a large Canton Ford dealership. The building became the home to the Canton Classic Car Museum
There is also display cases packed with all kinds of collectibles and Canton related ephemera, some of it belonging to President William McKinley. The Belden family is related to the late President. Marshall Belden’s wife, Florence, is responsible for the hundreds of unusual and sometimes even odd collectibles. She also adds a sense of humor to what might otherwise be stuffy exhibits. Things like a statue of a small dog sitting next to the tire on a classic car. (The dog is doing what dogs do when they find a tire.)
There is a “Presidential Gallery”, a balcony where life-size photos, among them several former U.S. Presidents, along with the Jolly Green Giant and Miss Piggy look down on visitors looking at cars. In another part of the structure a 1930’s service station complete with gasoline pumps fills one side of the room that is otherwise sprinkled with an antique fire truck, a motorized home milk delivery van, some classic autos from the 50’s and 60’s and here and there are pinball machines, a Whizzer Motor Bicycle and an antique one-horse sleigh. In the interest of full-disclosure I should point out that two of the cars on display, the 1957 BMW Isetta and 1959 Nash Metropolitan, are vehicles that I used in my program, “One Tank Trips” that aired on Fox 8 TV for twenty-five years.
Guided tours of the sprawling museum can be arranged and hosted by the museum’s executive director, Char Lautzenheiser, who has been with the museum for over twenty years and has an encyclopedic knowledge about automobiles. In fact she loves cars so much that she named her two sons, Cole and Chase, after classic cars. (The Cole Automobile was manufactured in Indiana and the Chase in Syracuse, New York.) A former model and TV spokesperson she gives an entertaining tour that brings to life the stories of many of the cars and the exhibits at this one-of-a-kind museum.
The Canton Classic Car Museum, Corner of Market Avenue and 6th St., SW, Canton, Ohio 44702, 330-455-3603, www.cantonclassiccar.org