“It’s rare that we start this up, so you guys are getting a treat today,” Matt Walksler told the growing crowd.
As people filed in around the fabled 1916 Traub motorcycle, possibly Wheels Through Time Motorcycle Museum’s most popular exhibit, Walksler’s smile grew into a grin. The Traub motorcycle, found behind a brick wall in a Chicago suburb decades ago, has a distinctive low rumble that fascinates onlookers, from casual fans to motorcycle aficionados alike.
But as thrilled as spectators were to see the bike roar to life, they leaned in even more eagerly as Walksler explained the strange history and unique specifications of the machine.
“I like hanging with people,” he said after speaking with the crowd. “That’s one of the best things about this.”
Matt Walksler is the son of Dale Walksler, who brought to fruition his vision for the now-world-renowned Wheels Through Time, which opened its doors in Maggie Valley in 2002. The museum has since attracted tourists and celebrities alike. Dale’s passing on Feb. 3, following a four-year battle with cancer deeply saddened the community he helped to create.
“Those who have visited Wheels Through Time know that Dale’s passion was not just something to be observed but rather experienced,” his obituary, which was shared over 23,000 times on Facebook, reads. “Whether it was listening to his vast knowledge and stories of transportation history or watching him start a motorcycle, his was a passion that was infectious. It inspired in many that same desire to preserve and celebrate American motorcycle history. His genius rested on the latter portion of the Wheels Through Time logo, ‘The Museum That Runs.’”
Following his father’s death, Walksler decided to take the helm, noting that, for him, like his father, it’s a labor of love.
“When I came here, I did what I could to be my dad’s shadow,” he said. “Very early on his passion spilled over to me.”
While there were periods when Walksler was away exploring his own ventures, he felt compelled to come back to Maggie Valley and carry on his father’s legacy as well as he could.
“My dad operated at such a high level, so I do my best to emulate that,” he said.
Back in the shop behind the museum, which many folks know as a backdrop of the popular show “Dale’s Channel,” Walksler reminisced over countless hours he and his father spent working to restore motorcycle after motorcycle, sometimes working until 2 or 3 in the morning.
“We’d talk in the museum and hang out with people throughout the day, and we called our time in the shop the 6 to midnight gig,” he said, adding that he and his father would fix and restore upward of 14 bikes per year.
Inside the shop, as Walksler tinkered with various two-cylinder engines, noting the intricate differences from one to the next, he discussed the future of the museum, which is now open, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Monday. The hours will likely be set to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. before too long. Basically, he intends to continue running the museum as ambitiously as his father did.
“This museum is my father’s legacy, but even more powerful, this is American history, and it needs to be preserved,” Walksler said.
And that’s fitting, considering Walksler seems to possess the rare combination of skills his father had. Running the museum requires not only a vast knowledge of anything with two wheels and an engine, but also strong technical skills, the ability to connect with people and an interest in preserving history.
While Walksler seems to possess all of those traits, the way he interacts with people indicates that may be his favorite part of the job. He said the biggest thrill is when he can pique someone’s interest.
“There may be a woman who’s coming in just because her husband wanted to check it out, and she may seem bored at first, but by the end of the day, she’s the one that wants to stay and check everything out,” he said.
“Without the human element, it’s just metal,” he added. “It’s about the people and the stories.”
To keep the museum running, Walksler and crew are auctioning off a newly restored motorcycle, as it has done every year since 2002.
“It’s a way to build new exhibits and enhance the current ones,” he said. “It’s our biggest fundraiser every year.”
This year, it will be a 1948 Harley-Davidson Panhead “dressed” in black and chrome. Tickets can be purchased online or at the museum, and the raffle will take place in front of a live audience on Saturday, Nov. 20, at the museum. Second prize is $10,000; third prize is $5,000.
With a successful raffle and ideally visitors returning from all corners of the world once the pandemic subsides, Walksler said he’s looking forward to continuing the labor of love he shared with his father for years to come.
“It’s our mission to continue to improve and grow the business and the museum in my dad’s vision. He was a remarkable individual from a business standpoint and set a great example,” he said. “We’re going to do our very best to continue to operate with the same passion and vision my dad had when he built this place.”