Located roughly halfway between the Atlanta, Georgia, and Greenville, South Carolina—near the entry to the Blue Ridge Mountains—is the small town of Toccoa, the county seat of Stephens County, Georgia. Some know the town, population 8400, for Camp Toccoa, the WWII paratrooper training camp depicted in the HBO TV series Band of Brothers. Toccoa is also where James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” began his singing career, and it’s the birthplace of actor DeForest Kelley, who played Dr. McCoy on the original Star Trek TV series.
Last year, Sean Mathis was looking for office space for Lake Shark Media, a marketing company in in Lake Hartwell, Georgia, that he runs with his wife, Torie. Mathis asked his realtor, Dee Dee Arrowood, if she could show him a building that also had a garage to store his 1959 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. He inherited the car from his grandfather, who bought it new in California. As a boy, Mathis would get occasional peeks at “Pop’s ’59” in the workshop where his grandfather carefully stored and maintained it.
Arrowood took Mathis to to a former Chrysler dealership built in Toccoa in 1939. A 1951 Cadillac was parked in the showroom.
“As soon as I walked into the building, the giant timber beams and wood ceiling got my attention,” Mathis says. “I could see past the wood panel offices and dark hallways and stacks of tires.”
But Mathis couldn’t see using it as an office building. Instead, he told the realtor that the ’59 Cadillac had inspired him to maybe “someday” start a small car museum in such a building. He imagined a co-op type arrangement, where individual owners and collectors could loan their classic cars for display and also offer them for sale on consignment.
Arrowood told him that the building belonged to her father, Larry Dodd, who owned a construction company and was assembling his own car collection. She made a call, and Dodd drove over.
“I told Larry my concept of what I would do with the building, hypothetically, if I owned it,” Mathis says. “He asked if we would do it together, and I said I couldn’t do it without him. That was pretty much the extent of our conversation.”
Three days later, a call from Arrowood took Mathis completely by surprise. Dodd loved the museum idea, and he wanted to get started.
“She told me her father was at the dealership knocking down walls, and that I should go over there,” Mathis says. “When I arrived, Larry’s crew had already started gutting the building. I had to create a business plan and start creating an actual business.”
A race for cars
A tight schedule for the planned spring opening had Mathis scrambling for cars to display. Through his marketing efforts, including a website, social media, and local magazine stories, he had already made his Cadillac a local automotive celebrity. Building on those efforts, he spread the news about the museum.
The news spurred the local car community to pitch in. Owners and collectors offered cars and other items to display. A man who loaned a couple of Model A Fords also set up a service center-like display around the vintage gas pumps inside. Another gentleman, John White, loaned his 1910 Sears, 1911 Brush, 1917 Ford Model T, and 1924 International Harvester.
“Nobody knew about these cars,” Mathis says. “Now, John comes into the museum, sits next to his collection and talks to people about them.”
On June 9, 2017, the Miles Through Time auto museum opened to the public and hosted what Mathis says was Toccoa’s largest-ever car show, with 100 vehicles. The museum continued to attract a variety of cars for display and now represents more than a century of automotive history.
After learning about the museum from the Model T Facebook page, two sisters from southern Georgia brought in a 1922 center-door Ford Model T that had belonged to their father. For the one-year anniversary celebration, White brought in another Model T. Some visitors who recognized it as once having belonged to their family were able to buy it from him.
The Model T’s “new” owners plan a full restoration by a local, Bobby Jordan, whose work can be seen in a 1931 Ford Model A and a 1956 Jaguar XK 140 in the museum. Jordan also had restored the first car sold through the museum, a 1927 Model T roadster owned by the man who installed the building’s internet service.
The inventory turnover is all according to a plan to keep displays fresh, and Mathis offers a season pass for $25 to make frequent visits affordable. He set up Miles Through Time to be a welcoming hub for the area’s car culture. A lounge offers rocking chairs, glass-bottle Cokes, and free coffee. There’s a “cars and coffee” get-together the second Saturday of each month, and a local car club is planning a regular cruise night there.
Some of the cars are becoming stars, too.
“My Pop’s ’59 is in a movie being filmed,” Mathis says. “It’s the fourth movie that has used cars from the museum.” (More feature films are shot in Georgia than any other U.S. state.)
Miles Through Time isn’t just about the past. Mathis had four Tesla chargers and two universal electric car chargers installed. In July, the museum hosted “Teslas in Toccoa,” and one of the attendees bought the yellow 1977 Pontiac Trans Am now on display.
Plans for growth
Dodd owns the Miles Through Times buildings, which include the showroom and a large, separate service area. A mechanic and painter are already working on cars there. There are plans to expand the museum’s offerings by joining the buildings with a third structure, and the service area could offer additional mechanical and restoration specialties.
Mathis says he will set up a non-profit to run the museum. And, once he has streamlined his processes, he wants to offer a business template for others who might wish to establish similar operations. (Mathis created a database of auto museums in the U.S. and posted it on the museum’s website; there are about 150.)
“The neatest part of the museum is that is constantly changing, oftentimes weekly,” he says.