Isaac Clarkson, “Ike” to his hundreds of friends, had a boyhood dream of being able to collect and display for future generations some of the machines of his youth; here, the dream came true.
Mr. Clarkson for many years worked a farm only about three miles from where the Museum stands today, and it was on this farm that the Elkhorn Antique Auto Museum really began, back in 1946. A fairly successful farmer at the time, Mr. Clarkson one day located the sad remains of what once was a lovely car, a 1909 Hupmobile two-passenger roadster. One of the first cars built by the Hupp Motor Car Co., the little roadster, if it could be restored, would also be one of the very oldest Hupmobiles in existence. The major problem was that it was a mess, to put it very politely. Ike’s first task was to start clearing the location where the wreckage lay, as trees actually had grown up through what was left of the car. The metal shell of the car, the frame and a rusted pair of axles and a mined steering assembly were intact. The engine and transmission, rusted solid from years of disuse, also remained. The parts were carefully removed to Ik’s garage, then the area was combed for any small parts that still remained. What Ike started with was about two-thirds the total weight of a finished Hupmobile and in pretty poor condition. And so the hunt was on: ancient spare parts had to be located, photographs of what the car had originally looked like had to be found, swatches of the original upholstery had to be obtained and mechanical detail had to be unearthed from old books, old memories, any source which may have them. Letters were written, telephone calls made, journeys undertaken, all with the object of learning something new about the rare Hupp, possibly obtaining one part from one source, a couple of bits or pieces from another, a rare accessories from another.
And there was the wreckage itself to deal with. First, everything had to be doused with penetrating oil and the engine cylinders filled with Diesel fuel in an effort to loosen the rusted-in piston rings. Gradually, parts had to be separated one from the other, always using as little force as possible and preserving ancient fittings wherever there was even a chance of saying them. Finally, the metal body-work was all separated into a pile of sheets of battered, rusted plates. The engine was soaked loose, removed from the frame and very carefully stripped down to the last nut and bolt. Now, the Hupp occupied an entire farm building. A few parts were starting to come in from the search. Now, the rebuilding could begin in earnest.
First, every piece of sheet metal bad to be hammered back into its original shape. Thin spots had to be built up with new metal or welding until the thickness of the original part was duplicated. The frame had to be sanded down to bare metal, primed and painted. Body parts had to be primed and painted, the engine and transmission to be rebuilt to “new” condition.
But parts for a 1909 Hupmobile are hard to get and many are more than hard to get: they are impossible to obtain. In those cases, Ike simply got to work in his shop and made the parts from scratch, starting with simple hand tools, bits of metal and an immense amount of patience. Every single piece of wood in the old car (and there was a lot of wood in a ear back then) had to be made, by hand, using hand tools only to cut the pieces and steam to bend them into the correct shapes.
It is not ‘lust as much work” to rebuild an old car as it was to make it in the first place: it is a great deal more work, for the restorer is starting off with something that already is ruined, taking it apart and remaking it to new condition, without original tooling, designs or factory facilities with which to work. Gradually, the 1909 Hupmobile roadster took shape as Ike pieced it together, one part at a time. Wooden wheels were rebuilt from new wood to the old designs, brasswork painstakingly duplicated from original pieces, leather buttoned upholstery handmade from raw materials, working always from photos and drawings of the car when new.
Finally came the day when the little Hupp was rolled from the garage. Fill the gas tank, turn the magneto on, retard the spark and push the throttle lever forward, turn the engine slowly over a couple of times, then snap the crank upward and hope she doesn’t kick back and the Hupp was running like the day it was made.
That 1909 Hupmobile was the first car that Ike Clarkson restored. Today it stands in the Museum, surrounded by dozens more of the more than fifty vehicles Ike either restored hilly or did major work on.
The collection grew as Ike begged and bought wrecks and parts vehicles, single spare parts, old books and shop manuals, traded for items he needed for his lovely old cars. And the word spread about the farmer with the buildings stuffed with ancient vehicles, all in perfect running order, and the visitors began to turn up at the Clarkson farm, sometimes a family preventing Ike from getting any work done for a full afternoon at a time not that Ike ever minded. He was always ready and proud to show off his “toys” to visitors and would spend an ~~.hire afternoon with a group, taking them from one vehicle to another, explaining the fine points and the technical secrets of each, starting up the Hupp or the Master truck, a Model T Ford. Sometimes a single person or a group would be encouraged to take one of the vehicles for a drive, just to see what a Wilys-Knight was really like or how a Model T really handled and it was only with the greatest reluctance that Ike would even accept a small donation for the gasoline that was burned on one of these occasions.
After 15 years of this, Ike had been approached several times by single people and by groups interested in purchasing his collection, or parts of it. At one point, he was offered $100,000 for a part of the collection. The offer was turned down, for the cars would have left Manitoba on their purchase. Instead, the entire collection, numbering, at that point, 47 restored vehicles and about as many more for parts, plus buildings full of farm equipment and antique household effects, were offered to the province. Free.
In the end, it was decided by all concerned that the community had to preserve the fine Clarkson collection of ancient autos, in Manitoba, would be to set up a legal foundation. To this end, the Manitoba Automobile Museum Foundation was set up, the Third Reading of the Bill in the Manitoba Legislature being passed on March 28, 1961; the Bill received Royal Assent on March 30 of that year and an Agreement between the Foundation and Mr. Clarkson was made on April 8, 1961, just over a week after the Foundation was incorporated. The Agreement specified that the Foundation would, within five years, construct a Museum to house the Clarkson collection of vehicles and employ qualified personnel to keep the entire property in good order. Mr. Clarkson, at a small salary, was to become the first Curator of the collection and, during his lifetime, was to have a great deal of input into the enlargement of the collection, trading of items for parts and other exhibits required, and so forth. As well, the Museum was to receive a giant collection, numbering more than 60 motor vehicles and tons of related and unrelated artifacts, from Mr. Clarkson.
The Museum’s first building, a steel structure measuring 56 feet by 300 feet, is currently in use as the main exhibition hail, though other buildings have been moved to the Museum site since or constructed on the site. Currently, the Museum has a small group of local historical buildings, all of which will eventually be restored as a part of the Museum complex and, as well, a large, modem storage building which also houses the Museum’s workshop.
The majority of work on the collection, is done during the winter months and often is done by volunteer laborers from the area, expecting and receiving no compensation whatever for their many hours of loving labour on the exhibits. In common with nearly all museums, there is never enough funding available to do everything which could be done, so the Museum also depends on donations from the community, local clubs and the general public to help keep the collection in good condition and to undertake further mechanical restoration of vehicles, farm implements, furniture and other exhibits.