Despite pandemic, Michigan enthusiast prepares to open new car museum
At a time when pandemic lockdowns have forced restaurants, entertainment venues, and other businesses to close for good, and with thousands more barely hanging on, Ted O’Dell is taking a leap of faith by opening a car museum.
O’Dell, who has spent most of his life in public service (both as an elected and public official), is maintaining his commitment to community by founding the new Jaxon Auto Museum in the same building that once housed the Jackson Automobile Company. The long-shuttered Michigan automaker’s slogan seems equally appropriate for O’Dell’s venture: “No hill too steep, no sand too deep.” COVID be damned.
O’Dell’s move isn’t totally selfless, of course. He admits he’s following his passion for automobiles and historical preservation, and the museum fuels both interests.
“I essentially decided it was time to embrace my passion and share it with America’s car-loving culture,” O’Dell says. “I mean, wouldn’t you rather sit behind the windshield of a Ford Model T instead of sitting through another long meeting?”
For those who agree, O’Dell is hosting a volunteer clean-up day at the new museum— which will initially take up 10,000-square feet in the historic Commercial Exchange Building at 2301 E. Michigan Ave.—on Saturday, January 9, from noon–5 p.m. Details are on the Jaxon Auto Museum Facebook page.
O’Dell, 53, grew up in an automotive family in Oakville, Michigan, a rural community about 45 minutes southwest of Detroit. His father and grandparents on both sides all worked in the auto industry, most notably for Kaiser-Frazer and Ford Motor Company. Today, O’Dell’s brother-in-law manages a Ford dealership. “I grew up learning about Michigan’s automotive heritage, primarily because it was always around me and part of our daily lives,” O’Dell says.
His first car-related memory, at age four, is “driving” the family’s 1968 Ford Country Squire Station wagon on the driveway—from his father’s lap. O’Dell bought his first car at age 16, a 1966 Ford Mustang Sprint 200 that he still owns today. He later purchased a 1948 Kaiser Special, but he immersed himself in automotive history long before that.
“During summer vacation, before I was old enough to have a driver’s license, my father would drop me off at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn early in the morning on his way to work at a nearby Ford plant,” O’Dell recalls. “I would sit and wait for the museum to open and then spend all day there, reading the posted information about the cars on display and trying to memorize the make, model, and history of each vehicle. I wanted to learn as much as I could about each unique car on display. I was especially enthralled with the Model Ts and brass-era cars.”
He still gravitates to those vehicles. In fact, although the Jaxon Auto Museum will focus primarily on Jackson’s automotive history, a Model T is already on display there. And unlike most of the cars that will be part of the museum collection, O’Dell says attendees will be allowed to sit inside the Model T and imagine what it must have been like to drive one.
Although O’Dell is not a Jackson native—his hometown of Oakville is about 50 miles east of there—he says he was aware of Jackson’s automotive history from an early age. “Jackson is steeped in automotive heritage going to the 1890s, when Byron J. Carter invented the Jaxon steam car,” O’Dell says. Some 35 automakers would eventually call Jackson home; the city’s auto industry culminated with the 1954 Kaiser-Darrin sports car.
“I felt as though the history had to be gathered, organized, researched, and then shared in an educational manner with the general public,” O’Dell says of his interest in opening a car museum. “The Jackson automotive history is a story that isn’t being told anywhere else. And there are still a number of turn-of-the-century industrial buildings in Jackson, and I felt their story was important enough to be shared too.”
This is actually O’Dell’s second attempt to create a sustainable automobile museum in Jackson. He recently served as executive director of the smaller Hackett Auto Museum, located at 615 Hupp Ave., which didn’t survive the pandemic lockdowns. O’Dell is much more confident that the Jaxon Auto Museum—led by a different group of car enthusiasts and supported by capital firms and a pending nonprofit—will thrive. “I’ve surrounded myself with community collaborators who are passionate about cataloging, researching, preserving, and sharing the automotive and labor history of Michigan’s six south central counties,” he says. The museum plans to open in April 2021.
“Once the coronavirus is under control,” O’Dell says, “I think people are going to want to come together in a safe manner and explore their community, enjoy our shared heritage, and celebrate the milestones of life with those they love.”
In addition to a modest (to begin with) collection of at least 12 cars, the Jaxon Auto Museum will offer all-inclusive experiences like educational programming, music venues, basic car-care classes, and first-person experiences, such as riding in a classic car, or perhaps learning to drive a Model T. “Let’s face it,” O’Dell says, “the days of dusty old cars lined up behind ropes are gone.”
One of the museum’s planned educational offerings is “The Model T Experience,” a hands-on program in which school children are taught to make an actual Model T car part (a magneto support post) on a lathe and stamp their initials on it—reminiscent of Henry Ford stamping his name on Model T parts. The kids then help museum docents assemble a real Model T truck from a pile of parts within 15 minutes. Upon completion, a docent starts the truck and drives away.
“The entire program is based in and around the basic fundamentals of S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) learning,” O’Dell says.
Looking long term, O’Dells says, “The ultimate goal for the museum is to continue collaborating with professional historic site preservationists, community planners, capital partners, and car enthusiasts to undertake a long-range study and lay out a sensible roadmap for preservation and restoration of the entire 182,000-square-foot building. It’s important to me that this historic site be saved for the next generation.
“Historic preservation—when done correctly—creates economic revitalization based on heritage tourism. It’s a quality of life, a sense of place and community pride.”
And that pride will prevail, O’Dell insists, pandemic or not.