So why is one of America’s largest and oldest annual classic car events held in one of its smallest communities? Iola, Wisconsin, has a population of 1,301 residents, neither a stoplight nor a McDonald’s, but for one weekend each year, some 120,000 people gather there to celebrate old cars, the parts that keep them running and the people who preserve them and keep viable this segment of American culture.
Why Iola? Because it’s where Chet Krause was born … well, he was born six miles to the east but was a lifetime resident until his death last month at the age of 92. It was in 1972 that Krause went to the local Lions Club and asked if he and his friends could add a car show to the club’s annual pig roast and auction.
Forty-four years later, the Iola Old Car Show generates some $3 million in economic impact on north-central Wisconsin with a substantial amount of that money going to the more than 130 local organizations that supply 30,000 volunteer hours to stage the show and to a long list of charities that benefit from the event.
The show is held on a 300-acre site (served by a free shuttle bus service) that is owned by Iola Old Car Show, Inc., and that also houses the offices of Krause Publications, a company that traces back to 1952 when coin collector Chet Krause produced his first copy of Numismatic News.
Krause grew up in a farm family, learned to be a stone mason and served as a mechanic in Patton’s 3rd Army in World War II. He came home after the war and became a builder, erecting homes, churches and even a 105-foot ski jump hill. His last building was a 40×40 structure in downtown Iola that would serve as the initial office for what started with his hobby of coil collecting but would become a $100 million-a-year publishing empire that included numerous books, annuals, magazines and hobbyist newspapers, including Old Cars Weekly.
Krause’s Standard Catalogs have become something of the bible of American collector car hobby. Each year, I migrate back to Michigan for the summer but those catalogs and the four-volume Beaulieu Encyclopedia are such important reference sources that they make the trip with me.
Annually, the Iola Old Car Show includes a swap meet (this year there were 4,200 vendor spaces), a Car Corral where individuals can sell their classics, a campground (with as many as 10,000 weekend residents).
And new this year: the campground added a new feature: a vintage motorhome and camping-trailer area in which the unit had to be produced no later than 1975; musical concerts two of the three nights of the show; and a special show area for cars owned by those ages 25 or younger.
And while it’s the Iola Old Car Show, it’s actually a group of shows. There are the featured marques — this year they were vintage trucks and the Dodge Charger (next year the featured marques are the Chevrolet Camaro — celebrating its 50th anniversary — and its cousin, the Pontiac Firebird, and the other street-legal versions of the pony cars that competed in the original SCCA Trans Am racing series).
The 2016 show also had its Blue Ribbon show area (think concours d’elegance but for cars that actually are driven), pre- and post-war show fields, and a space for “modified” and customized cars. There also was an area where manufacturers and others — this year including Ford, Chevrolet and Elio Motors — showcase their newest vehicles alongside such local Wisconsin companies as the Ringbrothers, The Automobile Gallery, Vintage Works and Toys for Trucks.
Photos by Larry Edsall