Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Riding on the BB&T

For the past three months Roanoke Valley locations of Branch Banking and Trust have doubled as the BB&T Short Line Railroad. Each branch has trumpeted VMT to their customers for a month, selling gift shop items and museum memberships, displaying images from our collection, giving out brochures and discount ticket coupons and boosting the museum’s offerings to customers.

Each branch has also hosted a VMT Feature Day with free hot dogs, snacks and drinks. A museum rep has been on hand at each one to greet customers and answer questions. Bob Hudson has joyfully given rides in his 1924 Ford Model T Huckster Wagon. Bank employees have been both good cooks and great sports.

I worked one of the Feature Days last week. Some customers, doing their banking during their lunch break, glanced briefly at the displays and grabbed a bag of Doritos or a ‘dog on their way out. Others took more time inside and out and climbed aboard the Model T for photos or a ride.

Those who had time to talk offered interesting stories. A mechanic at Norfolk Southern’s Shaffers Crossing shops talked enthusiastically about his work, a reminder that playing with trains can be a hoot regardless of its size.

One woman asked detailed questions about VMT’s exhibits to help plan an extended family outing. Her sisters and their families will visit from Sweden the end of this month, and she wants to take them someplace interesting and “real,” with authentic slices of area history. Her comments highlighted again the museum’s popularity with international visitors.

Since the beginning of the year, we have welcomed guests from at least thirteen different countries. Many of them read about us on the Internet and visit our web site. They plan their trip to America to include a visit with the 611, 1218 and our other exhibits. The passion for trains reaches around the world, and nothing in Roanoke offers anything more unique and intrinsic to our area than those giants slumbering in our rail yard.

Conversations with other customers underlined another reality. Too many residents of this area know little or nothing about VMT. We must do a better job of getting our story out in Virginia. As we promote the history of the high iron, we face the high irony of German, French and Japanese tourists traveling thousands of miles to see what area residents won’t drive across town to visit.

My favorite encounter of the day was with an elderly woman who animatedly described the train day trips she made from Bedford as a child with her father, visiting the market and other downtown Roanoke spots. This was the depression and apparently many of their rail jaunts were done sans tickets, on freight rather than passenger cars. The two of them often interacted with other non-paying travelers and she reveled in the sights of the hobo camps, though dad refused to allow her to sample the contents of their open-fire cookpots.

“How I cherish those memories—if only I could make that trip once more,” she bubbled. “I would gladly pay the railroad and sign any liability waivers they demanded for one more chance to ride to Roanoke in a freight car.”

Thanks to BB&T management and staff for treating us so well. And thanks to that lovely lady for reminding us of what we as an organization are really about: reliving history and rekindling priceless memories.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, June 16, 2008

Madness and Gladness

This year the Virginia Museum of Transportaton celebrates its 45th anniversary. That has sparked my curiosity about the earlier years of VMT history. Since I have only lived in Roanoke a dozen years, I knew little about the Wasena Park era, before the flood of ’85 wreaked its havoc.

Learning about those early days gives a clearer perspective on VMT’s present. For example, a current topic of debate—sparked by the Museum Management Consultants now-infamous report—focuses on whether we should be a transportation or a railroad-only institution. It’s a debate, however, you cannot realistiically have without under­standing how we got to where we are now.

History shows that the museum had a broad transportation focus from day one. The first two items on display (that’s right—we began as a two-piece band) were a N&W loco­motive and a fire truck. Soon the J611 loco was added, followed by more railroad equip­ment, trucks, buses, autos and planes.

One photo I found, obviously taken from the bridge above, shows the museum in the middle of a car show. Rows and rows of shiny automobiles are being prowled by spectators while proud and protective owners stand by their treasures. Southwest Virginia’s love of the car played an important role in museum life even then.

Fast forward to 2008 and you find VMT celebrating the grand opening of its new Advance Auto car gallery, followed two months later by the seventh annual incarnation of that steel and wheels invasion known as Star City Motor Madness. Held the last Friday and Saturday each June, the event turns Roanoke into hot wheels heaven.

“Madness” includes two events: a Friday night cruise on Williamson Road and a Satur­day show downtown. Last year approximately 15,000 cars, trucks and motorcycles gathered for the cruise. The combined events drew over 80,000 people. Two features I find especially appealing are the free admission for spectators and the money raised for VMT (which helped pay for the auto gallery, by the way).

Friday, June 27th (6pm to 10pm) classic and special interest auto­mo­biles, trucks and motorcycles will assemble for a cruise on Roanoke's historic Williamson Road, which still maintains that feel of Rt. 11 when it was this region’s version of Rt. 66. Two locations will be available for cruisers to park and let spectators get up close and personal, with food and entertainment within easy reach.

Saturday, June 28th, 2pm to 7pm, the car/truck/motorcycle show will occupy a large section of downtown Roanoke including Elmwood Park. The featured vehicle this year is the Corvette, and more than 100 of those beauties will shine. The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky will have a display and General Motors will exhibit a prototype of the new Corvette ZR1. Music, special programming and kids’ activities will add to the fun. George Barris, “King of Kustomizers,” will be present.

More is happening than what I have mentioned here. To find it all out, go to http://www.starcitymotormadness.com/ and check out all the details.

It’s easy for train lovers to get tunnel vision over transportation issues and even feel some resentment at the automobile for stealing much of railroads’ glory in the last half of the 20th century. However, our love affair with cars has that same passion for travel, adventure and mechanical power that has stirred railroad enthusiasts for so long. They are both key parts of America’s story, and the current gas cost explosion should heighten our appreciation for each.

To have Motor Madness in Roanoke is exciting, another thrill in a region so rich in transportation heritage.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fast Facts and Upcoming Acts

More musings about museums and money ….

I brainstormed last time about some of the ways individuals can help the museum, from making cash donations to purchasing memberships, from using one’s Food Lion cards to shopping in our Destinations gift store (though not with your Food Lion card). With VMT membership, by the way, you get discounts on gift shop purchases. And if you’re a dad, it isn’t too late to chuff some hints about items you would love to see rolling into your station for Father’s Day. Whoo-whoo!

Here are a few financial fast facts to chew on:
* The Museum spends $ 111.76 per day for heating, air conditioning and water (over $40,000 a year). That doesn’t include telephone and internet service.
* Insurance necessary to keep our doors open (not employee health or benefit coverage) is $ 79.19 per day.
* Our real estate taxes paid to Roanoke City come to $ 36.56 per day.

I didn’t include this in the previous blog, but another way you can help financially is to donate materials. Here are some of the urgent items currently on our wish list:
* 2008 Quickbooks Premier software (single user version)
* Cases of copy paper (maybe drop off a case every month for six months—like a pledge; the I dream of a ream campaign, maybe?)
* Staples gift cards that we could use for printer ink cartridges
* Repainting of the gallery floors in the main areas—that hasn’t been done in quite a while
* Carpet cleaning for our conference room and office hallways
* A projector that can do power point presentations—we have the software; we just need a horse to pull it (so to speak)
* A roll or two of stamps

Used items would be a great help in some instances. When businesses upgrade equip­ment (note the projector mentioned above), they may end up with quality stuff that needs a new home and will end up in the dumpster if a place isn’t found. Be on the lookout for opportunities like that and call us to see if we can use the “strays.”

Amid all the needs is one piece of good financial news—since our cars and trucks and trains seldom move, rising gas prices haven’t hit us that hard.

* * * * * * *

Meanwhile, in other news (I’m a television anchor wannabe) ….

The museum’s African American Heritage Group and the Norfolk Southern Corpora­tion are sponsoring our annual Heritage Celebration on the 21st of June to coincide with Roanoke’s Juneteenth Freedom Celebration. The NS Exhibit Car and a locomotive simulator will be at VMT all day long. That night Dr. Benjamin Dixon, retired Vice President for Multicultural Affairs at Virginia Tech, will speak. The program runs from 6:30-8:30pm and is open to the public. Seating is limited. NS employees with ID's will be admitted for half-price all day.

* * * * * * *

VMT’s newest photographic exhibit, Images of Rail: a Photo History of the Norfolk & Western, opened recently. It includes 38 of the more than two hundred photographs that are in the similarly-named book by Nelson Harris. The framed prints hang on a background painted to look like the side of an N&W passenger car. “Harvested” from VMT files, the photos depict crews, equipment, buildings, engines and the rugged landscape that N&W trains traveled from the late 1800s on.

* * * * * * *

In case you missed the news, on May 1 the museum held the grand opening of the Auto­­motive Gallery and its first feature: From Mud to Mobility: 100 years of the Virginia Department of Transportation. VDOT and Advance Auto partnered with VMT to create the new gallery. The sponsors of Star City Motor Madness have also played a significant role (more on that in my next blog).

Visitors can view automobiles from every decade in the 1900s including a 1904 curved-dash Olds, a 1948 Packard Limo, and a 1963 Studebaker Lark Taxi. Also displayed are photographic billboards, informational displays, and a unique collection of Virginia li­cense plates dating back to 1917, long before anyone had ever heard of a “personalized” car tag. Com2VMT and CRPL8s.

Labels: , , , ,