by Jeff Barnes
I’d passed the little Nebraska museum called “Chevyland U.S.A.” on I-80 for decades without stopping. Always had to be someplace else, and the one time I was driving by with another car-loving friend we both assumed it was closed and or abandoned.
There was no sign inviting us to get off at the Elm Creek exit. No “open” sign ablaze in its front windows. Letters had fallen off its main signage. The grounds looked unattended and the building interior was dark, with no cars or people seen around the building. We could see the Chevrolets through the large front windows of the metal building, but they were packed and looked more like they were in storage than in a display. The director of another car museum had told me he’d heard of some legal situation that had it closed.
But this past Sunday I had some free time after an engagement further west and decided I’d stop at Chevyland and try to at least peek through the windows. I got off at the exit and found the mile-long gravel road to take me there. I was happy to find no gate to keep me out and pulled up to the building – and there was an “open” sign on the door! I grabbed my cameras.
I walked in and found a room filled with display cases and shelves packed with model cars. The elderly man behind the counter said hi, and then I made the mistake of saying “I’ve wanted to see this for years – I thought this place was closed up.”
“Why would you think THAT?” he said, obviously perturbed. “We’ve been open for forty years!” Rather than dig a deeper grave, I stammered “I – I dunno.” “We’ve been open for forty years,” he repeated. “Don’t know why you’d think we were closed…” I told him I was happy he was open, paid my $6 and walked through a hollow-core door to the cars.
You immediately walk into the “old car” smell, which I really hadn’t smelled for longer than I can remember – and it was great. The first car you see is the bright red 1958 Impala, which may well be the cherry of the collection. I was born in ’58 myself, and always enjoy finding one in place of a ubiquitous ‘57.
I snapped some photos to study later because I had a lot of ground to cover. I looked down the length of the metal building and saw there must be seventy, eighty – wow, maybe a hundred cars in here. My five-minute-peek-through-the-window was turning into a full expedition for which I hadn’t budgeted time.
Just as it looked from I-80, cars were jam-packed in here. There didn’t SEEM to be a rhyme or reason for the collection, other than being a focus on Chevrolet (I found out later he wanted to get the sport/coupe for every year, not the sedan). But I also found a Laser 917 kit car, a fire engine from the Syracuse VFD, an MG, motorcycles, bicycles, and other things.
It was incredible to behold – but also kind of sad. Dust covered the cars and some had bird droppings. Tires had gone flat. There was interpretation on some of the cars but not all, so with the overwhelming numbers, the crowding, and the weak lighting, you really couldn’t appreciate the car before you. Decent photography was next to impossible.
From newspaper articles posted in the museum, I found out the owner – Monte Hollertz – was a central Nebraska farmer who had bought a new pickup in 1964. He couldn’t wait to take delivery from the western Nebraska dealer so his local dealer got a small plane to fly him to the truck. On the way there, Hollertz noticed out the window a rusting ’32 Chevrolet in the backyard of a farmstead. He found that car on his return trip, bought it, and fixed it up into a dirt-track racer. He then bought another Chevy to restore and now was hooked. Profits from farming went into buying and restoring the Bowties. He scoured southern Nebraska and northern Kansas car lots and farms, buying cheap and fixing up.
When I visited with Hollertz on the way out, I asked about the gorgeous ’58 Impala. “Originally, I found this ’58 convertible that the guy wanted $50 for – I offered him $30, he took it, and I brought it home and fixed it up,” he said. “I met a kid who had this ’58 and talking with him, he said what he REALLY wanted was a convertible. I showed him the one I had, he liked it, and we traded straight up. So I only have $30 in this.”
For most cars, he didn’t worry about the cosmetic aspects – he was mostly interested in getting the motors going. The cars filled his barn, so he then started a museum in a closed skating rink in Minden (home of Pioneer Village which also has an amazing auto collection). A year later in 1975, he bought the land on the interstate and built the new museum.
More and more people came, and he bought more cars – at one point he had 115, with all but four years covered of every sports model Chevrolet built between 1914 and 1974. But now interest has dwindled and Hollertz is into his eighties. Posted letters testify to his fight and failure against the state of Nebraska to erect a legal sign near the interstate to bring people to his museum. Since admissions won’t pay for it, he’s had to sell a few of his cars to pay the taxes. I asked him how many cars are now in the collection – he doesn’t even know at this point.
I don’t know how many mom-and-pop car museums are left in America, but it’s probably fewer than Hollertz has cars. I know I hear about more closing than I hear about them opening – heck, CHRYSLER even closed its own museum last year! So while it’s here and while you can, the next time you’re tooling down Interstate 80 in central Nebraska, how about pulling in at Chevyland U.S.A.?