By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
The cars and memorabilia that surround them have long been a passion for Gillette’s Jeff Wandler, but not for that open road, off-in-the distance experience.
Instead, they were projects he and his dad, Leon, shared.
Now they’re something he and his wife are sharing with the world.
Wandler’s Frontier Auto Museum in Gillette is stuffed full of not just rare and vintage cars, restored to show-quality perfection, but everything you can think of that might go alongside them.
A Place To Hang Out
Neon globes advertise gas station companies of old. A horse-drawn carriage pulls a fully restored fuel tanker. And huge dealership placards, such as a Ford sign, hang over couches arranged to share a foosball table or other game between them.
There’s even a bed near a small library of regional history, which invites people to sit or even lay down for a spell and read.
“I wanted this to be a place for people to hang out,” Wandler said.
Tables are set on top of old bicycles with stools. Coloring pages, meanwhile, are all neatly laid out on a table, waiting for children to come along and brighten them with color and life.
In addition to all the automobile and petroleum memorabilia, there are also neatly appointed shops, tiny slices from by gone eras — all the places you might have visited back in the day, if you were lucky enough to own one of the vintage cars.
There’s a 1930s barber shop, a tiny little inn, and a cute vintage department store. There’s a shoe store named after one grandson and right next to it an old-fashioned laundromat named after another.
In front of those two stores, there’s even a miniature drive-in movie theater, where visitors can sit and watch one of five movies.
Each station is named after someone Wandler knows.
“It’s all sentimental,” he admitted.
Like Father, Like Son
Wandler readily admits he gets his love of collecting from his late father, Leon.
“He loved Hudson cars,” Wandler said. “And he collected a lot of them. And he collected Winchesters, antique Winchester guns. He loved antique firearms.”
Wandler himself started collecting things as a child. He never even really thought about it. It just seemed natural to him, growing up in a family where collecting played such a big role, to pick things up and keep them.
Rocks and fossils were initial attractions. And old bottles found at a nearby farmstead.
“Old, old silverware and just weird stuff,” Wandler said. “You know just old relic types of rusty junk.”
But not only did Wandler pick stuff up old and quirky stuff to keep. He built shelves on which to display them all and show them off to friends. Even his comic books, and many of his toys, were carefully arranged for show and tell.
“I just always had things around me that I liked,” he said. “I liked to just think that naturally, I am a collector at heart.”
Making Up For Lost Time
After he became an adolescent, though, Wandler went through a bit of a partying phase.
“I was kind of, you know, more or less the black sheep of the family,” he said. “I partied a lot.”
But when he turned 30, he quit doing that. He put his energy into something new, something more lasting, something he could do with — and for — his dad.
“That’s when I started getting gas pumps and signs and this type of Americana stuff,” he said. “I just kind of went crazy with it. Then my dad and I moved an old gas station and fixed it up out on our ranch.”
Soon the restored shop was itself full of memorabilia and Americana. That was a time before old gas station memorabilia became the fad it is today. These things were inexpensive, and could be picked up for quite reasonable sums.
“I filled up a company training room with it all,” Wandler said, chuckling. “I never quit collecting. This (museum) is 20 years of doing that.”
Eventually, Wandler had collected so many cars and so much cool stuff, he realized he really should just do a public museum.
“What else do you do with it after you have accumulated all of it?” he said. “It’s ridiculous to have just a man cave at a ranch. Hardly any people see it.”
A New Adventure Begins
One of Wandler’s friends in Minnesota had recently put a collection into an old dealership. That was such a good idea, Wandler decided he would do the same thing. He bought the old Ford dealership in Gillette. A new car adventure had begun.
“The building behind me went for sale and the building beside us went for sale, and we just ended up over six years turning this into what is more of a world class museum now,” Wandler said. “So anyway, it’s just really came from a collecting disease.”
These days, Wandler isn’t doing as much collecting.
“This museum is full,” he admits. “I’ve even got things that are not in here now because there isn’t room.”
Plus, knowing he has a museum, many friends and community members bring him things to place in the museum. And, now that automobile memorabilia has become a fad, they’re almost too expensive to collect. Almost.
“I still get one now and then,” he admits.
But his focus on his new mission. Sustainability for the museum, and attracting the world at large to come see it.
“We need to bring more people to Wyoming,” he said.
He’s hoping to attract people on their way to Yellowstone, to entice them to make Gillette and his museum a lunch or dinner stop along the way.
“We literally probably have 20 to 25 good restaurants in town,” he said. “Over there is one called The Coop, that’s rotisserie chicken. We’ve got an excellent local fire-baked pizza. We have three really good steak houses.”
Sustainability Is Key
One of the key points Wandler is wrestling with for the future of his museum are ways to bring people in to see it.
“So I’m here with this old school thing, and I need people to come here,” he said. “It’s a boring story really. If you’re 18 years old and you grew up playing computer games and you work on computers, you don’t care about an old Studebaker car.”
Wandler doesn’t want to shock people into coming, and he’s not into things that are hyped for their outrage factor.
“This is not a gimmick,” he said. “So, it’s really hard to sell this in this world that we live in.”
Adapt And Overcome
But not only has the world changed in what it favors, there’s a severe labor crunch going on across the state. Gillette, with a lot of oil and gas in the region, feels that perhaps more acutely than the rest of the Cowboy State.
Staffing something like a soda shop or burger joint would require labor that’s just too expensive and hard to acquire. Plus, the museum lacks the space for it.
Instead, he’s turned to VRBOs and Airbnbs. A row of quaint cottages across from the museum are available to rent.
“That’s helping a lot in the winter especially,” Wandler said.
He’s also turned the front part of the museum into an antique shop, which his daughter, Briana Brewer, runs.
Wandler was soon looking at a book of regional history that Emily Mills showed him.
“I just love this book,” she said.
As they started looking at the pictures together, Wandler was already thinking of new things to put in the antique store and museum. Clearly, his collecting days are not done. Not quite yet.