WEST OKOBOJI, Iowa — Tens of thousands of people travel every year to a classic car museum in the middle of nowhere.
Few people may consider West Okoboji, Iowa an obvious destination spot.
But there sits an estimated $6 million worth of inventory at Okoboji Classic Cars, owned by one man: Toby Shine.
He might be found at the end of a bar insidethe museum sipping a Bud Light, smoking a cigarette and wearing a smile.
Shine comes by in the afternoon to hang out and meet people who stop by what he calls his “man cave.” He doesn’t like the word museum, really. That sounds so stuffy. This place is like any single-story non-descript steel building from the outside. Inside, it’s filled with vehicles from every era, much like The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. But the difference is this is all owned by one man who figured it was a better way to store his collection than in warehouses all over the place.
Once word got out, people came. It never really was intended to be a museum-type deal. It opened to the public in 2013. Now his wife, Sylvia Shine, buys clothing and collectibles for the gift shop, non-profit organizations have big fundraisers there in gallery space near one of the vehicle exhibits with the ability to serve hundreds at a time after hours for dinner. The museum has its own kitchen and caters events with the staff of nearby Yesterdays restaurant.
The Shines, after meeting on a blind date, have been married 59 years.
Okoboji Classic Cars attracts enthusiasts, historians, collectors and families looking for an unusual experience. On any given day, Shine displays 70 or so vehicles in two massive showrooms that are hand-painted with murals to recreate downtown Spencer, Iowa back from a time when America was first sending astronauts to the moon. There are old fashioned storefronts and signs. Spencer is where Shine was born in 1943.
“If I want to visit the names on those stores, I have to go the cemetery,” Shine said.
TripAdvisor gives the site a 5-star average from reviewers who say they’re wowed by 28,000 square feet of display.
“First time to a classic car museum. This place has set the bar so high,” wrote a Tampa, Florida visitor. “You need to see this place.”
Getting there isn’t easy.
You can fly into Sioux Falls, South Dakota or Des Moines, Iowa and rent a car and drive an hour or three.
Or you can just stop while passing through during a journey across America.
People hear about this unexpected tourist stop mostly by word of mouth, through social media and online classic car searches.
‘Captures your imagination’
Author John Dinges, an investigative reporter visiting from Washington, D.C., walked quickly to a Ford F-100 and said, “These were around when I was a kid. That’s a 1955 pickup. I was a freshman in high school. And you know what freshmen think about cars? Girls, that’s one thing, but cars? Oh my God, that’s really where your heart is.”
Dinges, who grew up the son of a Ford dealer in Emmetsburg, Iowa, then turned to say. “I want that 1966 (Chevy) Impala … It’s a convertible. It’s all white. The chrome sticks out about 8 inches on all sides. It’s just a marvelous, wonderful car. It captures your imagination to look at a car like that.”
Dinges, as well as a Free Press reporter and others, visited the museum as part of the annual Okoboji Writers’ Retreat this fall.
‘Force of nature’
Helen Miller, an eight-term former Democratic state representative from Fort Dodge, Iowa visited the classic car museum for the first time during the retreat.
It’s no surprise the collection is such a strong attraction after nearly a decade, she said. “Toby is a force of nature, just a plain old force of nature.”
Shine stood immediately upon seeing Miller, recognizing her and offering a big hug.
“I am seeing an unbelievable collection of cars, more than I ever imagined could be here,” she said.
The Henry Ford in Dearborn at age 5
Meanwhile, Andy Ross, a literary agent from Oakland, Calif., who owned Cody’s Books in Berkeley, strolled past a 1950 DeSoto and then a 1917 Buick.
“This reminds me of the car that Archduke Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, thus beginning World War I,” Ross said. “These cars are cool. When I was 5, I went to The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.”
From about 1960-64, his family lived in Detroit because his father left Neiman Marcus in Dallas to become president of Federal Department Stores.
“I was really into politics back then,” Ross said. “There was a guy running for governor, and I wanted to work for him. So I worked in his campaign headquarters in Detroit. I was running the mimeograph machine in George Romney’s office. I was 16 years old. One day, this kid came in and I was going to have to boss him around. It was the governor’s son. His name was Mitt. And I was Mitt’s boss. We spent the summer of 1962, I think, working together. I lived in Palmer Park. We were both 16.”
George Romney, a Republican, won two terms as governor and his son went on to seek the presidency.
A step back in time
Toby Shine, 79, wants people to reminisce when they step back in time.
He started collecting cars at 16 with no plans to stop. He drag races his ’55 Chevy in Phoenix, Pomona, California and Las Vegas.
Retirement? Not anytime soon. The museum is just a hobby that “got out of control.”
“I’m still working, in the scrap metal business. I shred one of these every 45 seconds,” said Shine, who carries on the Shine Brothers tradition that began with his great uncle in 1902.
This so-called hobby, began with the idea of hosting charity events and then people want to just come in and enjoy the place. When Shine realized the situation, he scheduled meetings to get advice. He went to Disney, which told him to paint bricks smaller as they go higher, to make the buildings look taller when painting bricks on the interior walls of the museum.He went to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, too.
“We were not going to open to the public,” Shine said, noting he recently hosted a charity event for sick kids that served 550 dinners and raised more than $120,000 from the auction alone.
Italso has a body shop, mechanic shop and interior shop in the back, and clients deliver cars from both coasts of the country to get them restored. A Ferrari, Impala and Cadillac sat on site as the latest projects.
Shine isn’t the only one with car show trophies. His customers win them, too.
“We’ve got a good reputation and we’re very proud of what we do,” Shine said, touring the Free Press reporter through the entire operation. Buyers come from as far as California, Arizona, New York and New Jersey to buy cars on display.
“I was at a car show in Arizona where I parked next to a Mustang that looked familiar, and it’s one we built from a shell,” Shine said. “He and I both won our class.”
Jonathan Klinger, vice president of car culture at Traverse City-based Hagerty, a specialty insurer of collector vehicles, had heard of the Iowa museum but hasn’t visited yet. He praised Shine’s business model as a brilliant mix of retail sales and charity and tourism.
Cars that are for sale there ranged in price from $10,000 to $300,00 during a late-September visit.
“Whether you’re coming to buy or just look at vehicles, there’s a consistent rotation. It’s not just a restoration shop, not just a museum, not just a social club,” Klinger said. “And the classic car market continues to remain strong with no signs of overall slowdown.”
From North Hollywood to Okoboji
Looking back, Shine talks of how cars, like his 1962 Chevy Impala convertible, bring back special memories.
“I loved it,” he said. “I married my wife in it. That’s the one we drove home from California in. She was from North Hollywood. Now we live in Okoboji, Iowa.”
If you go: Okoboji Classic Cars is located 810 Jeppeson Rd., West Okoboji, Iowa. Tours run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week with the last tour starting at 4 p.m. In the winter, the museum is closed Sunday and Monday. Adult tours cost $15, children 5 to 10 years old cost $13 and children 4 and under are free.
Editor’s Note: Phoebe Wall Howard, who worked at The Des Moines Register before the Okoboji Classic Car museum opened in 2013, discovered the tourism attraction during a recent writers’ retreat to Iowa. Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-618-1034 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid.