Time Stands Still: A Trip to the Dells Auto Museum

Think “Wisconsin” and you’re apt to conjour images of cows, cheese, farmland and Lambeau Field. Truth be told, there’s a lot more to “America’s Dairlyand” than beer, brats, dairy and the Packers. Wisconsin is a land of subtle beauty, tens of thousands of lakes, booming metropolitan areas, and plenty of vacation hot spots.


Located just north of Madison (the state’s capital) is Wisconsin Dells. Wisconsin Dells is a major hot-spot for tourists “in the know,” as it offers a great atmosphere for a summer family vacation by providing plenty of family friendly activities. The kids can play at one of nearly a dozen water parks while Mom and Dad can enjoy adult-friendly activities that include some great night spots.

One of the more popular attractions in Wisconsin Dells is The Dells Auto Museum, which plays host to approximately 25 classic cars and a wide assortment of interesting automotive memorabilia. The Dells Auto Museum is owned and operated by a father and son duo of Dick and Lance Tarnutzer. Together, they have an impressive collection of classic cars, of which they show 25 per summer at the Dells Auto Museum.

“Well, we had 400 cars,” says Lance Tarnutzer. “Unfortunately we suffered a major fire at one of our storage facilities a few years ago, and that fire caused us to lose a lot of our favorite cars.” Lance is refering to a 1999 fire that quickly consumed a 20,000 square foot warehouse that housed nearly 100 of the Tarnutzer’s more favorite cars. The fire ravaged the collection and left a majority of the cars as nothing more than rusty lumps of vintage sheet metal.

“We lost cars like our Plymouth Superbird, some Shelbys, a GTO Judge convertible, a Buick GS Stage 1 convertible and a bunch of other irreplaceable cars,” says Dick Tarnutzer. Dick began collecting cars in the late 60’s, and has prided himself on maintaining what was once the world’s largest collection of Indianappolis 500 pace cars. “But,” he says with a strong hint of sadness, “We still have a lot of great cars, and we’re always adding a few here and there.”

The museum sits just off Highway 12, next to The Deer Park and across from Riverview Family Park (an amusement park complete with go-karts, various rides, miniature golf and more). The building is a bit rustic, but it matches its surrounding environment well. A vintage dry-cleaning delivery vehicle greets visitors as they enter the museum’s front door.

Once inside, there is a nicely appointed gift-shop, complete with various literature, posters, t-shirts, models and other automotive memorabilia. Oldies tunes play in the background, as the Dells Museum staff chats cars with like-minded enthusiasts and afficianados.

Pay a very nominal fee, and the staff will lead you through closed doors to the museum’s impressive arrangement of historic automobiles. On this visit, there are 23 vehicles parked in the museum, and each bares an informational card that tells a story about the car’s origin, price and current value.


There’s a 1986 Indianappolis 500 Pontiac Fiero pace car with less than 10,000 miles, as well as a bright white (with hugger orange interior) 1969 Chevrolet Camaro SS Convertible Indy 500 Pace Car. A massive 1959 Ford Fairlane “Retractable” sits at the end of one aisle; a 1906 Oldsmobile rests at the other end.

“We try to circulate fresh cars into the museum each year,” says Lance Tarnutzer. “Each spring, we decide which cars we’ll show, and we move the collection around to accomodate them.” Tarnutzer is refering to the act in which volunteers and employees drive these timeless classics from just outside of Madison to the Dells. It’s quite a sight to behold as 20-some muscle cars, antiques and vintage rides parade down the Interstate each spring.

The cars are washed and detailed, the museum floor is repainted (green) and the cars are carefully parked and arranged. The entire process takes a few weekends to complete.

As mentioned earlier, there’s more to the museum than just its great showcase of highly desirable cars. Many visitors venture in to see the large memorabilia collection that includes antique gas pumps, signage and other interesting literature. And still more come to see the large antique doll collection (it’s valued at well into the six-figures).

So, the next time you’re in Wisconsin, do yourself and your family a favor and consider a vacation to Wisconsin Dells. There are plenty of waterparks, quality hotels, outstanding restaurants and even a casino, should you get the itch to try your luck. However, if you don’t feel like gambling and feel more like betting on a sure thing, take an afternoon and visit the Dells Auto Museum – you’ll be glad you did. And yes, you can buy a beer and a brat with a side of cheese at just about any restaurant in the Dells area.

(The Wisconsin Dells are located approximately 50 miles north of Madison, Wisconsin on I-90. The Dells are “open” from Memorial Day to Labor Day each summer, with some attractions like the large hotels (many complete with world-famous indoor waterparks) remaining open all year.)

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