Rural Missouri Magazine
Keeping memories
on the road

More than just a car museum,
Memoryville USA brings autos back to life

by Bob McEowen

Memoryville USA mechanic Danny Otis shows Arthur and Terry Hattermann of Bartonville, Ill., the engine of a Franklin coach. The father and son are restoring an old Ford and stopped at the museum while traveling from their lake home at Camdenton. Unlike many other car museums visitors to the Rolla museum are free to wander around Memoryville's restoration shop.

Car museums are one roadside attraction that appeal to some people and not to others. Many antique car enthusiasts thrill at seeing row after row of historic automobiles. Others would rather see the old cars revving back to life. One Missouri museum offers something for everyone.

The top floor of Memoryville USA, a rambling, four-story complex just north of Rolla, offers the usual static displays of automobiles. There sits early 20th-century buggies, luxurious coaches by Rolls Royce and Bentley, examples of long-lost marques like Stutz, LaSalle and Pierce Arrow and even celebrity-owned cars, including Paul Harvey’s Nash and a white Cadillac convertible owned by Donna Douglas, who played Elly Mae on TV’s “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

But there’s nothing static about what waits at the end of a self-guided tour of the museum. Wind your way down the stairs and through two more floors of exhibits and you’ll find men bringing old cars back to life. Although the door to the shop is marked “Employees only,” during the workweek visitors are welcome to enter, wander around and observe.

“The cars upstairs are just museum pieces, artifacts. Here they’re living, breathing machines, or at least in the process,” says Charles Meeks of Pittsburg, Kans., who toured the museum recently. “For me there’s a lot more life in this than just looking at a car sitting still.”

Old cars await the restoration process in Memoryville's warehouse.

There’s no shortage of activity at Memoryville USA, one of the premiere automobile restorers in the United States. The business, which employs 18 people, attracts clients from all over America and even overseas.

“At one time years ago we declared ourselves to be the largest in the United States. Anymore that’s probably surpassed. It’s hard to tell,” says Steve Carney, who oversees the shop founded by his father, George Carney, in the early 1970s.

However it ranks in the world of antique autos it’s clear the Rolla shop attracts plenty of work. At any given time dozens of cars sit in various stages of restoration in Memoryville’s baffling maze of workshops.

“Through good times and bad we’ve always kept busy,” says Steve. “Right now we’re bombarded. We’re at least six months behind on work.”

Memoryville’s basement shop is a beehive of activity. A master woodworker rebuilds the coachwork body of a 1928 Buick, while in the next room a nearly identical ’28 Pontiac sees the final stages of reassembly. One 1920s Franklin receives minor engine maintenance while the bare frame of another Franklin sits two cars away on blocks. Like worker ants bringing home the stores, mechanics continuously stop by with meticulously refurbished parts to add to the careful arrangement of components forming alongside and underneath the chassis.

Richard Lotzer, Memoryville's master woodworker, rebuilds the body of a 1928 Buick. The son of the original owner is having the car restored as a birthday present for his mother.

A pair of legs emerges from below a ’62 Corvette as a mechanic makes final adjustments to the classic show car, which has been lovingly restored to showroom originality. Meanwhile other workers update a 1950s Plymouth with modern air conditioning.

The diversity of automobiles and the variety of work performed is typical of this shop, which offers virtually any service a car nut requires.

“Some people want a ground-up restoration. That’s when we take the whole car apart into a million pieces and build it from the ground up,” Steve says. “Some people come in and they just may have an itemized list of work to do. Some people do part of the work themselves and we do part of it, back and forth.”

Seeing all this work performed makes the Memoryville USA museum tour a must-stop for car enthusiasts visiting mid-Missouri.

“I know quite a bit about cars but there’s things I don’t know about. The metalwork for example, the upholstery work, the woodwork,” says Meeks who made a special stop at the museum while traveling to St. Louis. “I’ve never seen any of that done. It’s neat for me to be able to watch somebody who actually knows what they’re doing.”

Cars receiving a complete restoration are stripped down to their chassis and detailed.

Watching Memoryville’s craftsmen work recalls his own mechanical efforts, he says.

“My first car was a ’29 Model A,” Meeks, 57, says. “I was just a kid in high school. I worked on it and didn’t know what I was doing and broke things. Ever since then I’ve thought it would be neat to have a car that was old and yet all new and operates like it should.”

Surprisingly, this enthusiasm for old cars was not always common.

There was a time when you couldn’t hardly give these things away,” says George Carney, who launched Memoryville USA. “Nobody wanted them.”

Long before opening the shop George bought old cars for next to nothing and restored them. Some he hauled out of fields. Others he found stored in barns. One such car had been used in a Chicago bank robbery and was partly disassembled and stashed behind a stack of lumber.

“I was crazy about old cars. It gets in your blood or something,” he says.

George Carney and his son Steve have restored hundreds of antique cars since Memoryville USA opened.

Despite his interest in cars George didn’t set out to make his living from them. His father was a prominent Phelps County businessman who owned hotels and theaters, started a bank and was once mayor of Rolla. George followed in the family business and operated the Pennant Hotel, which stood at the Highway 63/Interstate 44 exchange next to where Memoryville USA now lures visitors with an enormous “Autos of Yesteryear” sign.

But George kept his hands greasy, restoring cars in the basement of the hotel. As his collection grew he dreamed of starting a museum. In 1970 he sold the hotel and launched his restoration business. Naturally, he placed his personal collection of old cars on display in a first floor museum. He also recreated turn-of-the-century Rolla with displays of antique storefronts, including artifacts from his grandfather’s general store and his father’s El Caney Hotel.

As interesting as the museum is, it’s clear that the restoration shop is the center of the business.

Because each job is so different neither Carney is willing to say what a typical restoration costs but it’s common for a complete restoration to total $20,000 to $40,000 or more. And Memoryville doesn’t provide estimates anyway. Customers pay by the month — $32 per hour plus materials — and receive a detailed description of work performed, a parts list and a set of photographs documenting a project’s progress.

Memoryville USA in Rolla is best known as a car museum but visitors can also tour the facility’s restoration shop.

“Everybody just loves the photographs,” Steve says. “Most people will turn them into a scrapbook.”
The Carneys — both members of Intercounty Electric Cooperative — are also reluctant to say how many cars they restore each year. It’s not for reasons of secrecy, though. It’s just too hard to pin down.

“There will be some months that none go out. Then all of a sudden we’ll have two or three,” Steve says. “It just depends on what we’re doing to them.”

A show-quality, ground-up restoration typically takes the longest, often two years or more. Occasionally, less involved jobs draw out even longer if the client is only able to pay a set amount each month or asks Steve to set the job aside for a while.

Often, Steve says, customers bring cars that hold a special meaning. Like the ’38 Nash that Paul Harvey’s wife, Angel, was driving when the couple first met, these cars bring back memories. The ’28 Buick in the wood shop is being restored for the son of the woman who bought the car new. He hopes to present it to her on her 95th birthday.

One of the many parts storage rooms at Memoryville USA is filled to the brim with antique car wheels.

“There’s a sentimental reason why people restore most of these cars. ‘Mom and Pop got married in it.’ ‘I went to school in one like that,’” Steve says, recalling some of the reasons clients offer for restoring a car. “It’s a physical thing that reminds them of a certain time in their life.”

Not surprisingly, as the years march on the notion of what constitutes a classic car has evolved. Cars that were rolling off the showroom floor when the shop first opened are now coming in for restoration.

“When I was a kid it was all the older cars, the teens, ’20s, ’30s, some ’40s. Now we’re getting a lot of ’50s, ’60s and a little bit of ’70s,” Steve says. “It hit me not too long along ago that here we are restoring a muscle car that you could have bought for a few hundred dollars when I was 16 and didn’t think it would be worth that much.”

Still, Steve says, he and his father prefer the older cars.

“Every time I see a Model T I wilt,” George says. “I love Model Ts. They were made to last back then.”

While the Memoryville USA museum is open every day, those interested in touring the shop should visit Monday through Friday. For more information call (573) 364-1810.

This 1929 Franklin is just one of many classic cars visitors will find behind the giant "Autos of Yesteryear" sign on Highway 63 in Rolla.




Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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