GILLETTE — The COVID-19 pandemic has not discouraged Frontier Relics and Auto Museum owner Jeff Wandler from adding to his impressive collection of neon signs, gas pumps, classic cars and nods to Western history.
He’s moved ahead with an expansion project that was about 80% complete when he closed the museum’s doors for two months because of statewide health guidelines.
“It didn’t make sense for me to stop something that was that close to done, so I decided to roll the dice and finish it,” Wandler said. “I’m an optimist about things. I like to keep things going. I don’t like to be paralyzed.”
The museum, which opened in January 2016 and showcases many items in his family’s collection of antiques, expects to have the expansion finished and ready for visitors around July 1.
“I do have almost my whole collection in here now. By the time we get done, everything I own that I want in the museum will be in here,” Wandler said.
It’s quite a collection. When Domino’s Pizza moved to another location, he bought the building next door to the museum and has turned it into a vintage Sinclair gas station.
“I’ve always loved Sinclair and I have a lot of Sinclair stuff,” Wandler said. “I’ve always loved the dinosaur. It’s just one of those brands. I related to it and I liked it.”
The interior is not yet done, but is shaping into the ultimate nostalgia cave with Sinclair gas pumps and globes, neon signs, a 1920s-era soda fountain, a small drive-in theater, a Winchester firearms display, a dry cleaner and shoe repair shop. Work will continue for another few months, although people will be able to visit the Sinclair station in the meantime.
Inside the old Ford garage in the original building, Wandler has added a few murals and categorized all the vintage gasoline brands like Standard Oil and Mobil. The museum’s store has also been remodeled.
“It will be nice when it’s done done and that’s a little down the road,” said employee Ryan Swanson, who has helped with the work. “This is unique. As soon as you walk into the room there’s just so much neon, so much design. As soon as you walk in it’s exciting.
“We’re trying to make it look nice. We try to make it appealing. There’s a level of creativity involved.”
Wandler said the museum is special because of employees like Swanson.
“That guy gets stuff done,” he said. “He’s a helper at the museum. He restores stuff, hangs signs, does all my electronic stuff, fixes the neons.
“He’s the jack of everything down here. If he wasn’t here I couldn’t have gotten this done.”
While the big day to debut the new look is only about a month away, there’s still a long checklist.
Hudson automobiles need to be transferred from the showcase room in the old Ford garage to the Sinclair station. The cars will join the Sinclair globes and neon sign to compliment the new decor. In the old garage, Wandler will replace the Hudsons with more automobiles from his collection, including a Chandler, Plymouth and Crosley.
The coronavirus has affected the tourism industry across the state and country, and that includes the Frontier Relics and Auto Museum.
It is only seeing a handful of people come in a day since it re-opened a few weeks ago and is impacted by social distancing guidelines that have resulted in the cancellation or postponement of events.
“We are dead,” Wandler said. “We live off functions going on in Gillette like sports tournaments, rodeos, Cam-plex events. That’s where we get our summer traffic and we also live off the tourists that come through here that are going to Yellowstone and to the Black Hills.
“We’re not a necessity by any stretch, so we really rely on tourists and Gillette functions.”
Because of the pandemic, Wandler said he will not buy new items for the museum.
Museums in general are tough to keep open and are not typically moneymakers even when there aren’t other circumstances affecting them, he said.
“I don’t believe this year is going to be a very easy year,” Wandler said. “We won’t do any unnecessary spending this year. We’ll limp it by and hope next year is not a COVID year.
“But it’s OK. I have the money to let this thing by. I can handle floating it for probably the next five to seven years to try to get it mature as a destination. I can cover the overhead for a while then give it the best chance of being a place that people want to frequent through.”
Wandler said he’s gone as far as he can go with collections and expansion and the next step for the museum is to get the word out.
“We need people that are coming into the area to know about us and if people from out of state are into this we want them to find out so they’ll come here and visit,” he said.
“I’ll say we even need the town’s help to some extent. Anything in Gillette to promote this kind of gem we need a lot of help from a lot of people to get people to come in and look at the museum,” he added.