Re-creating a town in an auto showroom


If you're buying a car at Warren Wheeler's dealership, you might find yourself haggling with a salesman whose desk is in "Duffy Zepp's Livery Stables." If you're really serious, you can close the deal down the hall at "Wheeler's General Store." Finally, if you walk away with a set of keys, the sale is announced by the clang of a bell at a faux train station.

This is "Wheeler," a scaled-down version of small-town Carroll County, with storefronts that serve as office walls and carpeting made to look like dirt roads - all in a fourth-generation car dealer's newest showroom.

It is a place that weds the vocation and avocation of Warren Wheeler, who when he isn't selling Chryslers and Kias is likely to be scouring antique shops and auctions for gems from Carroll County's past. Besides creating a replica Main Street in his Westminster dealership, he also has adorned the Wheeler Automotive Group showroom with farm implements, kitchenware and other knickknacks from bygone generations.

"He doesn't just buy, he knows what all these things are," said Priscilla Resnick, who ran an antiques shop in Finksburg for 22 years, and who knows Wheeler from seeing him at auctions and in stores over the years. "This is so authentic. People have to stop and look at these things and talk about what was."

Wood salvaged from a century-old barn is used in a depiction of a sawmill. Another landmark in Wheeler's town: a nod to the general store his great-grandfather ran in Hampstead.

"It's exactly what I always envisioned," said Wheeler, 51, who upholds a family tradition of auto sales going back to 1921. "This depicts what most small towns were like. I wanted to do something to preserve the history and character of Carroll County. The next generation is not going to know what a feed store is, or even a general store."

For years, Wheeler kept his treasures - everything from dusty spectacles to snuff cans to canned-food labels - in storage. But two years ago, he launched his showroom project when property across Railroad Avenue from his dealership went up for sale.

Wheeler drafted a floor plan of his town, with stores and offices along three walls and a train station, house and hotel in the center. He built the town based on what he remembers growing up in Hampstead and by looking at pictures from his great-grandfather and grandfather's time, from the late 1880s through the 1930s.

To build the town, he enlisted Perry Newcomer, a Pennsylvania man who specializes in restoring old barns and buildings.

Newcomer's mother, 85, once used the things in Wheeler's town firsthand. "She looked at all the old grocery cans, and she didn't say a word but I could tell, in her mind she was going through her childhood," he said. "I don't know if it makes them sad or happy."

Newcomer, 48, lived most of his life on a farm in Jefferson, Pa., where he said he learned to fix things. He has spent more than half his life repairing Victorian homes, log houses and barns, but he has never put together anything like this.

"I knew it was going to be a lot of work," he said. "I was up for it. The hardest thing was having to custom make a lot of the materials - railings, face boards and trims."

He recalled Wheeler giving him a box of old locks without keys. His job was to tear the locks apart, make keys, put them back together and put them on the doors to offices and stores that make up the town.

Newcomer found the 100-year-old barn in the Carroll County community of Mayberry, took it apart and rebuilt a smaller version in Wheeler's showroom. He is making it into a working sawmill capable of producing wooden wagon wheels. It is envisioned as being kid-friendly and interactive.

Like other establishments in the make-believe town, the mill is named after a real person - in this case, Newcomer. Divico Hotel bears Wheeler's mother-in-law's maiden name, and the sheriff's office the last name of his father-in-law, Weisenmiller, a former state trooper.

Everything anyone would need living in a rural small town is here - a dentist and ear doctor, a jewelry store, a blacksmith shop, an outhouse, a barbershop and a one-room schoolhouse. There's even a newspaper office, with vintage presses and a typewriter.

In the feed store, pesticides called Rat Annihilator are part of the inventory. A restored buggy sits in front, filled with bags of flour and mash. Fake chickens in mid-squawk are in crates there and at the train station.

"Anytime we get something like this, it increases the awareness of our roots and our history and the value of that," said Barb Lilly, who as the executive director of the Historical Society of Carroll County is looking forward to seeing the showroom. "Certainly it's valuable in making a comparison of Main Street in a real town and a smaller re-creation of that."

Amid the history, salesmen negotiate deals in the jail, which is accessorized with benches that resemble prison bunks. Customers can step inside new convertibles and PT Cruisers spread throughout the floor, but can only gaze at the 1931 Model A Ford that sits in the window.

Standing inside a replica of his great-grandfather's general store, Wheeler pointed out contraptions that haven't seen the light of day in decades - apple peelers, nutmeg grinders and iron stoves. There's also a shelf from the original store that he has restored and stocked with glass containers and crockpots.

There are so many mementos that Wheeler is three-quarters of the way done displays on a floor below the main one, and he plans to develop another area in the basement.

"You see a lot of people who collect stuff, but they never have the opportunity to display it," Wheeler said. "My intention was to get it out so people can appreciate it. One generation can relate to it directly, while others may be seeing some things for the first time."

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