America on Wheels: A museum with a mission

When Wilson Arbogast and Morris Clinton Bastian set up shop in Allentown, Penn., back in 1887, little did they suspect that their hog slaughtering and meat packing plant that would later become one of the largest in the U.S. over its near century of history would some day morph into the city’s America On Wheels Museum — Pennsylvania’s leading institution celebrating over-the-road transportation.

Another local heavyweight founded circa 1900, Mack Trucks, had its first wheels hit the road in 1907, many of which schlepped loads of Arbogast & Bastian smoked hams and meat products across the country. The iconic bulldog brand, which later included buses and army vehicles, forever shaped the nation’s transport industry, putting Allentown on the world map. Mack was purchased by the Renault Group in 1990 and again changed hands to AB Volvo in 2000. Though the entire line of production remained in nearby Macungie, the company moved its headquarters to Greensboro, N.C., in 2009, some 100 years after its birth.

The interwoven story of these two corporate giants is neatly immortalized at the America On Wheels Museum: the former administrative offices of A & B were incorporated into the building’s new design while a permanent Mack exhibit bears witness to a remarkable trucking legacy. “America On Wheels is a special place of learning where the past meets the future,” says Linda Merkel, who’s been the museum’s executive director since its inception on April 13, 2008. An educator by training, she is a firm believer in knowledge transfer where the entertainment value is predicated on a sense of purpose. So it’s no wonder that AOW has been adding a new educational program each year to ensure that all age groups are engaged. “We want to appeal to a broad and discerning audience in addition to automotive enthusiasts,” she adds. Among these programs is AOW’s latest and highly successful Restoration Learning Center where technical know-how is offered through a host of hands-on activities.

Located on the city’s Lehigh River waterfront, the Museum currently has 43,000 square feet with 23,000 of those used to showcase a wide array of exhibits that change every six months, from muscle cars and rare woodies to brass beauties and orphan marques. The rotating exhibits complement the permanent collections that are elegantly spread out across the two floors of the building, all of which honor the human ability to giddy up and go, from horses to horsepower.

But beyond some impressive visuals, there is a bigger though perhaps less apparent story here that speaks to the influence of a museum beyond its walls. A well-known figure in the world of antique cars, Dr. Paul Sable, who is also vice chair of AOW’s Board of Directors and one of the original founders, explains: “The Museum has been the first settler on Allentown’s riverfront as part of a major effort known as Lehigh Landing aimed at renewing the area’s economy. I think it’s safe to say that AOW continues to be a catalyst for growth in this once thriving part of town, if not an enviable neighbor for future occupants of the riverfront.”

Inspired by all that transportation has contributed to the nation since the early 1900s, the America On Wheels Museum is doing its share to help revitalize the community, including reciprocity agreements with other regional museums and attractions, as well as numerous outdoor or public events. Thanks to an innovative tax program knicknamed “NIZ” (for Neighborhood Improvement Zone), Lehigh Landing encompasses a 26-acre chunk of land along the river where developers can tap state and city tax payments generated by business tenants to underwrite construction loans. When the entire redevelopment plan is completed, $250 million worth of investments and some 3,000 jobs will have been created in Allentown.

In addition, AOW’s staff and volunteers are tickled pink about a recent announcement that will soon bring that ever-important next door neighbor: In this case, New York City-based Ruckus Breweries, whose owners are looking at injecting $33 million in a leading-edge concept called “Brewer’s Hill” on a property adjacent to the museum. There is excitement in the air especially since Allentown was home to many now-defunct breweries over the centuries. Once again, another important local tradition is brought back to life.

While a new kid on the block in a fast-evolving neighborhood, America on Wheels is a well-fed child growing fast and making new friends every day: 8,000 visitors marked its debut year in 2008 and that number climbed to 35,000 last year, with every sign pointing toward a sizable attendance increment by the time the museum lights up six candles on its birthday cake, April 13, 2014.

So next time you’re “in the zone,” as it were, along Allentown’s Lehigh River, stay a spell for a taste of the past and a glimpse into the future of over-the-road transportation in the U.S. As you experience the aura of the place and the uniqueness of its contents, you may soon realize that there is more than meets the eye in this special place of learning that just keeps on truckin’. Wilson Arbogast and Morris Clinton Bastian would be proud of their old office space now serving a fully redesigned mission.

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