Recently (September 17) I found myself in pursuit of the Lehigh Valley Rollergirls who had a scheduled appearance at Allentown’s America on Wheels Transportation Museum. Although I missed seeing the rollergirls (I arrived shortly after they had packed up for the day), I was treated to many other sights at this jewel located along Allentown’s otherwise undiscovered and ignored waterfront district.
America on Wheels is an example of inner city revitalization done right. A masterful meld of old and new, the building’s heart is the former Arbogast & Bastian meat processing offices. At one time this facility was responsible for most of the hog butchering in Pennsylvania. In its heyday the facility processed roughly 4,000 hogs daily. Citing market turmoil, the plant was shuttered in 1984 after the company filed for bankruptcy. (Source: Wikipedia)
The slaughterhouse was demolished during the late 1990’s but the remaining office building was spared and later incorporated into a brand new structure which upon completion in 2008 became America on Wheels.
America on Wheels is a much more pleasant legacy than a slaughterhouse and I was eager to check it out after placing it on my “to-do” list for quite some time. Located at the junction of Hamilton and Front streets the first floor of the old A&B meat building serves as the museum’s administrative office while the second floor of this two-story structure now houses the new Hub Cap Café soda shop.
Upon arrival into the parking lot, my eye was immediately struck by the sight of a highly unusual vehicle fashioned in the shape of a large banana. A four seater, passengers sit single file behind the driver in this open air and apparently road worthy machine.
Also outside the museum were a group of young boys proudly displaying their collection of low-rider bicycles. Representing the Lowrider Connection club, they were eager for me to take photographs of their customized rides.
After enjoying the surroundings outside, I ventured into the museum to explore what they had to offer. The building is well-lit with large floor to ceiling panes of glass and many exhibition rooms to wander through. The facility is immaculate with wide carpeted walkways.
I found truly something for everyone in their halls. From vintage motorcycles, and fixed gear racing bikes to muscle cars, classics, electric cars and even a cutting edge hydrogen car from Air Products, it was a delight for the eyes.
There were several life-size dioramas and one of my favorites was Guy’s Garage, a full-scale and highly detailed mock-up of a vintage repair shop complete with Guy himself, the old-time mechanic. Other displays of note was the restored original Arbogast & Bastian Meat delivery truck and a UPS shipping truck complete with a tower of packages climbing toward the ceiling.
Displays are everywhere in this two-story museum. Even the stairwells are packed with things to see. Some displays are interactive with video and hands on activities. There is also a well stocked library upstairs for patrons to use for research purposes.
After roaming the halls and exhibit space for a few hours it was time sit down and grab a bite to eat in the newly opened Hub Cap Café. Located upstairs in the original portion of the building the Hub Cap Café is a walk back in time. The first thing that one notices upon entering this bright space is the long counter with generous fixed stools (authentic from a 1950’s era soda shop). Along the perimeter are red vinyl clad diner booths and a classic jukebox waits along the back wall.
The jukebox playlist is most certainly retro as is the price to hear a tune or few. A nickel will get you one play, a dime 2 and a quarter will get 5 songs; try getting that in your favorite diner or pub.
Food is basic fare such as hot dogs, ice-cream sodas, pretzels and floats and everything is reasonably priced with nothing on the menu over $5. The counter staff is friendly and the service is quick like a bunny. A truly great way to rest your tired bones and cap off a day exploring the museum.
I spied museum director Linda Merkel during my wanderings at America on Wheels. She is an extremely active participant in the daily functioning of the facility; at one point I spotted her cleaning the restrooms and later she was busy checking on the staff at the Hub Cap café making sure they had enough supplies and food to keep the hungry patrons satisfied. She is quite proud of the museum and her friendly staff of volunteers who strive to make each visitor’s experience unique and memorable.
I saw signs of the Lehigh Valley Rollergirls presence in the Hub Cap Café, they left cards promoting their upcoming bout (this Saturday at Independence Family Fun Center) as well as flyers for future appearances on all the tables. I was also told they were a hit with the crowd performing skating demonstrations in the parking lot as well as inside the museum’s wide passageways.
Often when the Lehigh Valley Rollergirls appear in Allentown you will find their biggest automotive fan, Herbie the Love Bug. Herbie, always a hit with old and young alike was on display outside for photo ops with the rollergirls and fans and was a real attention getter. Everyone loves Herbie the Love Bug.
I remained at the museum until closing time and then explored the grounds before calling it a day. I enjoyed getting a close up look at the original A&B meat building in addition to the view along the waterfront which was quite tranquil in the midst of center city bustle. It makes me wish that the city of Allentown would focus more attention on this neglected treasure (the waterfront district). There is such potential for an arts and entertainment complex. Luckily America on Wheels is a positive and hopeful first step along the path to further revitalization.
If you are looking for a short excursion right in your backyard, consider bringing the family to America on Wheels. Exhibits change every few months so there is always something new and exciting to see. The best day trips are not necessarily a long drive away.
Slideshow pictures courtesy of Deb Boylan
For more information on America On Wheels please visit their website at: http://www.americaonwheels.org/