Gillette’s Frontier Auto Museum Stuffed Full Of Rare And Vintage Cars Restored To Show-Quality Perfection

Dan Smith

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Rene Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
[email protected] The cars and memorabilia that surround them have long been a passion for Gillette's Jeff Wandler, but it's never been a passion for that open-road, far-flung experience. Instead, they were projects he and his father, Leon, shared. Now they are what he and his wife share with the world. The Wanderers Frontier Auto Museum in Gillette features every car imaginable, not just the rare vintage cars that have been impeccably restored as the exhibits.
The Frontier Auto Museum is full of vintage cars and Americana. (Renée Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

place to hang out A neon globe advertises an old gas station company. A horse-drawn carriage tows a fully restored fuel tanker. Also, a giant dealer placard, such as a Ford billboard, hangs above a sofa positioned to share his foosball table and other games. There are beds near the small local history library where you can sit or lie down to read. “We wanted this to be a place for people to hang out,” said Wandler. A table is set on an old bicycle with stools. Meanwhile, the coloring pages are all neatly arranged on the table, waiting for the children to brighten up with color and life. immersive experience There's also a well-maintained shop with all the auto and oil memorabilia, plus a little slice from the good old days. All places you might have visited in the past if you were lucky enough to own a vintage car. There's a 1930's barber shop, a small inn, and a cute vintage department store. There is a shoe store named after one grandson, and right next to it is an old fashioned laundromat with another name. In front of these two stores is also a miniature drive-in movie theater where you can sit and watch one of the five movies. Each station is named after someone Wandler knows. "It's all sentimental," he admitted.

If the father is the father, the child is also the child Wandler is quick to admit that he got his passion for collecting from his late father, Leon. "He loved Hudson cars," said Wandler. "And he collected a lot of them. And he collected Winchester, an antique Winchester gun. He loved antique firearms." Wandler himself began collecting things as a child. He never really thought about it. Growing up in a family where collecting played a huge role, picking up and storing things seemed natural to him. Rocks and fossils were the first attraction. And an old bottle I found at a nearby farm. "Old, old silverware and just weird stuff," said Wandler. "I only know the old relic type of rusty junk." But Wandler didn't just pick up and store old and odd things. He built a shelf to display them all and show them off to his friends. Even many of his cartoons and toys were carefully arranged for the show and Teru. "I always had things around me that I liked," he said. "Naturally, I liked to think of myself as a die-hard collector." make up for lost time But once he hit puberty, Wandler went through a bit of a partying phase. "I was more or less the troublemaker in my family," he said. "I party a lot." But when he turned 30, he stopped doing it. He put his energy into something new, something more permanent, something he could do with and for his father. "That's when I started getting gas stations, signs, American stuff," he said. "I fell in love with it. Then my father and I moved an old gas station and fixed it on our ranch." The soon restored shop itself was filled with memorabilia and Americana. That was a time before old gas station memorabilia were in vogue today. "I filled the company training room with it," Wandler said with a laugh. "We never stopped collecting. This[museum]has been doing it for 20 years." Eventually, Wandler had collected so many cars and cool stuff that he realized he should create a public museum. "What else do you do after you collect it all?" he said. "It's ridiculous that a ranch only has human caves. Few people see it."

Beginning of a new adventure One of Wandler's friends in Minnesota recently had a collection at an old dealership. It was such a good idea that Wandler decided to do the same. He bought an old Ford dealership in Gillette. A new car adventure has begun. "The building behind me went up for sale, and the building next to us went up for sale. It took us over six years to transform this into the world-class museum it is today," Wandler said. "Anyway, it really just came from collecting disease." Wandler doesn't collect much these days. "This museum is full," he admits. "I don't have space, so I even have things that aren't here right now." Plus, knowing he has a museum, many friends and community members bring him things to place in the museum. And now that automotive memorabilia has become fashionable, they're too expensive to collect. "I still get it now and then," he admits. However, he is focused on his new mission. Sustainability of museums and attracting people from all over the world. "We need to bring more people to Wyoming," he said. He hopes to attract people heading to Yellowstone, inviting them to make Gillette and his museum a place for lunch or dinner on the way. "Literally, there are probably 20 to 25 good restaurants in town," he said. “There's a rotisserie chicken over there called The Coop. Sustainability is key One of the key points Wandler is working on for the future of his museum is how to get people to see it. "So I'm here for this old school thing, and I need someone to come here," he said. If you grew up and work with computers, you don't care about old Studebaker cars." Wandler doesn't want to shock people, and he's not interested in hyping up people's resentment. "This is not a gimmick," he said. "So it's really hard to sell this in this world we live in." adapt and overcome But not only has the world changed for the better, but there is a serious labor crunch across the state. Gillette, which has more oil and gas in the region, probably feels it more than any other cowboy state. Staffing like a soda shop or a burger place requires labor that is too expensive and too hard to come by. Plus, the museum doesn't have the space for that. Instead, he turned to VRBO and Airbnb. A row of quaint cottages across from the museum are available for rent. "This is especially helpful in winter," says Wandler. He also turned the façade of the museum into an antique shop, run by his daughter Briana Brewer. Wandler was quickly looking at a local history book that Emily Mills had shown him. "I love this book," she said. When they started looking at pictures together, Wandler was already thinking of new things to put in antique stores and museums. Clearly, his collection day isn't over. not yet.

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