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Going Back in Time at the Pioneer Auto Show

THIS AUTO SHOW COMBINES 275 CLASSIC CARS WITH A DISPLAY OF MORE THAN 100 ANTIQUE TRACTORS AND MOTORCYCLES

Mount Rushmore National Memorial draws 2.5 million visitors annually to South Dakota to see the giant heads of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt sculpted into a mountain. A three-hour drive east is another landmark that has been attracting visitors for just 13 years less than the iconic national memorial: the Pioneer Auto Show in Murdo. Located at the crossroads of Interstate 90 and Highway 83, the Pioneer Auto Show celebrated its 65th anniversary in 2019. That’s a remarkable achievement for an attraction that combines a museum housing 275 classic cars with a display of more than 100 antique tractors and motorcycles as well as enough vintage Americana—think gas pumps, bicycles, typewriters, music boxes, toys and more—to fill the stone heads of those four presidents.

The late Dick Geisler opened the attraction in 1954. A Minnesota native, he moved to South Dakota in 1942 to try his hand at farming. Building on his agricultural success, he purchased a Phillips 66 gas station where he noticed that weary motorists driving across the state loved to stop in his facility and peek at the handful of vintage cars he had parked in the lot. In the way of these things, Geisler kept buying old cars, tractors and seemingly every other piece of nostalgia that he came across until, along with his sons, Dave and John, he opened what was originally called the Pioneer Auto Museum. The elder Geisler passed away in 1973, and now the third-generation of the family operates the museum complex.

Pioneer Auto Show 1953 Packard Caribbean Convertible Photo credit Travel South Dakota
Pioneer Auto Show 1953 Packard Caribbean Convertible - Photo credit Travel South Dakota  

Visitors have the run of more than three dozen outbuildings that are so chockful of items that it can be a bit overwhelming. There is such a profusion of paraphernalia that Mike Wolfe and the gang from the popular TV show American Pickers have visited several times to sort through all the stuff. Because the collection is as vast as the prairie surrounding it, those traveling with a group may want to set up a time and place to meet before entering; otherwise, days may pass without hearing from each other.   

It’s best to get your bearings in the main building, where you’ll find high-end classic cars, including a 1937 Cord and the unique 5,000-pound mahogany wooden car dubbed the “20th Century Unlimited,” powered by not one but two Cadillac engines. The latter project was a four-year labor of love by retiree Jerry Nickel. He got the idea for the car decades ago from a 1955 issue of Hot Rod magazine but waited until his retirement to fulfill his creative dream. Muscle car fans will appreciate the 1968 Shelby Mustang Fastback and a rare 1970 Pontiac GTO Judge convertible, one of only 168 built.

Pioneer Auto Show Vintage circus toys Photo credit Travel South Dakota
Pioneer Auto Show Vintage circus toys - Photo credit Travel South Dakota

Another unusual find is a 1981 Trabant. Sort of a poor man’s Volkswagen Beetle, the Trabant was produced by the millions in East Germany and, in 1989, became famous to TV viewers watching coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall; fleeing East Germans abandoned these cheap, flimsy cars en masse after they made their way to West Germany.

One of the oldest vehicles in the collection is a 1903 Ford Model A, the precursor to Henry Ford’s highly successful Model T. Of course, there are a handful of Model Ts on display, too, including a 1912 Panel Truck and 1920 Fire Truck.

The Italian car manufacturer Lamborghini is known for its exotic cars with six-figure pricing. Nevertheless, the automaker started out as a humble tractor company. On exhibit at the Pioneer Auto Show is a restored Lamborghini C603 tractor; this part of South Dakota is farm country, after all.

Pioneer Auto Show 1880 Regina Music Box still plays for a nickel Photo credit Travel South Dakota 60
Pioneer Auto Show 1880 Regina Music Box still plays for a nickel - Photo credit Travel South Dakota 

Nostalgia seekers will also want to explore Pioneer Auto Show’s Prairie Town, a re-creation of a turn-of-the-last-century village complete with a general store, jailhouse, train depot, fire station, blacksmith shop and more. Some of the structures are antiques in their own right. During the 1930s, radio station WNAX Fair Price gasahol stations—WNAX got into the business to counter the high prices charged by the big oil companies—dotted the Midwest. The refurbished one here was moved from the town of Vivian, South Dakota. Spotting the vintage Coke machine out front, motorists passing by could be forgiven for thinking they’d been transported to 1935.

The collection of motorcycles is appropriate considering that South Dakota is also home to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Held annually in early August, it’s one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world, attracting more than 500,000 visitors. Many of them stop by the Pioneer Auto Show to admire the bikes on display, including a 1976 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide once owned by Elvis Presley.

For motorists driving across the plains of South Dakota, the Pioneer Auto Show not only provides a road trip break but is also a compelling destination in itself. Just make sure you leave enough time for Mount Rushmore.