A trip down Memory Lane
Written by April James
Photographed by Juan Alonso
Cars are an integral part of American history. Their birth revolutionized mass production; their production built cities, their sales stimulated an economy. Moreover, cars changed the nature of our social interaction, from a family road trip to a drive-in movie where a young couple might share a first kiss. These experiences are etched into memories and it’s these memories that Jerry and June Smith want us relive.
Many of us have early interests that stay with us as we grew into adults. For Jerry and June Smith, it was a love for cars. That shared childhood passion has matured into one of the largest car collections in the southeast – a collection that has now become Memory Lane, Lake Oconee’s very own classic car museum.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Jerry and June Smith share more than just their initials. The two grew up around cars, whether they were in the backyard under the hood or behind the wheel in a high-speed race fostering a childhood interest in automobiles that followed them to adulthood. Unsurprisingly, Memory Lane begins with a trip down the pair’s own memory lane.
June fell in love with cars when she was just a child. While other little girls were inside playing with dolls, June sat outside and watched her father at work fixing cars.
“My dad was a backyard mechanic when I was a child, and he was my favorite person in the world,” she reflects. “I’d sit out in the yard when he worked on the cars and my hand was small and fit where his wouldn’t. That’s how I learned about cars.”
Jerry too, started working on cars with his father before he took on his own projects.
“My father used to work on cars, and I worked in a garage for a couple of years, so I’ve been around cars all my life,” he says.
The two developed their knowledge of cars by spending quality time under the hood, but perhaps their love for them began with the first cars they owned. Jerry’s first car was a 1957 Chevrolet he built up in the garage but June’s was a gift.
“My first car was a Mercury Comet Caliente,” June proudly reflects. “It was pretty nice, and was black and had red interior.” And besides the aesthetic appeal of a car, both Jerry and June sought an adrenaline rush that could only be experienced behind the wheel of a car.
“I used to go to dirt track races and came up racing automobiles that got me into a need for speed,” Jerry says.
June got her taste of the fast life while borrowing the car of a friend. “One of my best friends lived down the street on the corner and he had a ‘64 black on black GTO,” she remembers. “It was fast and he would let me drive it all the time. I’d race with everybody and I could smoke ‘em!” Now the two have some pretty fast cars of their own amongst the others in their collection.
Some collectors take pride in their displays of shiny Lamborghinis and the latest luxury cars, but Jerry and June Smith are fond of the classics. The uniqueness of each car and the ability to distinguish a Ford from a Dodge from a Chevrolet is important them, and is something they value about older cars. Memory Lane’s collection features cars from 1913 to 2005, and each and every vehicle is American made.
“I started collecting cars about 25 to 30 years ago,” Jerry reflects. “I was fixing up cars and if I could afford them, I kept them.” He started out with three or four cars in his personal stash, and his travels afforded him the opportunity to grow his collection.
“I’d find a sign, buy a car and fix it,” he says. “I started collecting on accident.” Now he and his wife travel around the nation to car shows and auctions to check out what’s on the market and identify the best fit for their collection.
Every year following Labor Day, Tennessee hosts the annual Grand Rod Run, one of the largest events of its kind in the area. Car enthusiasts meet and greet and talk cars and some come out to make purchases.
“We go up to Pigeon Forge pretty much every year to the show,” June says. “If he finds one he likes he’ll say ‘Come on, I’ve got to show you this car,’ and we’ll look at it.” But Jerry isn’t the only one picking out cars to add to the mix.
“It’s a two way street,” she says. Each year she visits Las Vegas on a scouting trip of her own to the Barrett Jackson car collection auction. “If I find something I’m crazy about I’ll pitch one of those little woman fits and he ends up buying it for me,” she jokes.
If the Smiths aren’t at auto shows or national auctions, they’re buying cars in their own backyard from individuals or in local auctions. Since Jerry has a background as a mechanic, he’ll take a car in any condition and will go to work fixing up it up like new.
But what makes a car worthy of being added to his collection? Jerry will check its engine out, look at the style of body on the car and see if it’s a retro model (an old body with upgrades), but it really boils down to choosing cars he likes.
“There’s no rhyme or reason for what I buy,” he states frankly. “If I see it, like it and don’t have it, I’ll try to buy it.”
While neither of the Smith’s can settle on a favorite car, they both prefer those produced while they were growing up.
“I think what you like is what you grew up with and what your dad liked. The sound of the car, everything,” says June. They’re both fond of cars from the ‘50s and ‘60s. There’s a 1957 Chevrolet Belair convertible, a 1957 Ford Thunderbird and a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle in the collection. The couple even has Alice Cooper’s red fire truck and a car Bret Michaels’ band used to have. When dealing with old cars, you’re bound to run into motorcycles so they have Harley Davidsons and Iron Horses among other cycles in the collection.
Memory Lane isn’t a parking lot showcase or a simple garage. It’s more than 4,000 square feet of classic cars and all the things that go with them, located on Scott Road in Eatonton. Visitors from Tennessee, Colorado, and New Jersey traveled during the grand opening weekend in May to rub elbows with Lake Oconee locals and admire the Smiths’ collection of more than 150 cars and 20 motorcycles.
“We had about 900 people show up,” Jerry says of the event, and the following week saw a crowd of about 500. Word of mouth has proven to be a useful tool for the museum and while the two hope to attract new audiences, they design their floor with repeat visitors in mind.
“We’re going to change out the show room every 90 days so things won’t stay the same,” Jerry explains. “If you go to a furniture store and see the same furniture, you don’t want to go back. And we’re fortunate that we can change it about four or five times and not have the same cars.” But Memory Lane is much more than just cars.
“It’s not just the cars, but all the signage from those eras that makes the museum,” Jerry says. “It’s probably as important as the cars are.” Porcelain and neon signs of car logos and other insignia from the past decorate the museum triggering a nostalgia that envelops the atmosphere. They’ve got the old, manual gas pumps on display and more than 200 license plates from 1913 onward.
Although the museum showcases rides and memorabilia from a bygone era, the couple has received a surprisingly positive reaction from kids and teens.
“Not only do people from our generation love the cars, but younger kids love the cars too,” June shares. “They pick out a favorite, and I love seeing the young men right out of high school react to the cars, its nice!” Older women will reminisce about being picked up for their first date in a car they’ve spotted on the floor and gentlemen pick out their father’s first car when they were growing up. Everyone seems to be able to conjure a car-related memory and the couple is glad to share the collection with the public and plans to give back in other ways.
With an admission of $5 for ages 10 and over, people from all walks of life can enjoy the museum, and 100 percent of the proceeds will be donated to local Greene and Putnam County charities.
For now, the couple has entrusted the Lake Oconee Elks Lodge, a local non-profit organization, with managing the funds but eventually they plan to choose different recipients. They’re just happy to be able to share their passion with others and for June, she’s excited to watch her husband’s dreams come true. And what kept him motivated to see the project through?
“Some people love golf, some people love fishing, I love cars,” Jerry says. “It’s all about doing what you love.”