HISTORY WORTH SAVING - Old Car City has over 4000 classic cars, 32 acres and 7 miles of trail and Walter Dean Lewis knows every inch. Listen in as Lewis talks about his family's junk yard, turned photographer paradise. It's History Worth Saving!
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MJ: He was born in a junkyard but over the years he’s become not only a purveyor of used auto parts, but a curator of rare and highly sought after art. He’s even become a noted artist himself. His place is quirky and country but above all - it’s rusty and real - and that makes Walter Dean Lewis and Old Car City, History Worth Saving.
WL: I was born in a junkyard, raised in a junkyard, worked in a junkyard, and that's just my life.
MJ: Walking into Walter’s world must be something like Alice felt while tumbling into wonder land. The facade on the street is impressive, old cars, junk - lots of triggers for hunters of this type of stuff. When I went in the front door there was a wooden lady, dressed like a 20’s flapper behind the counter, her hand had a rope tied to her wrist - above in the rafters a pulley - when you pay at the old cash register, her arm raises and points the way into Walter’s world.
Today Walter Dean cares for over four thousand classic cars, all embedded in history and the trees of Old Car City, his family’s junk yard, some fifty miles north west of Atlanta, Georgia. Walter’s a tall man, white hair matching beard, Hawaiian shirt and jeans kind of guy. He speaks completely in the moment. He’s an obvious creator - but not the kind that’s so wrapped up in the cosmos that they can’t put a sentence together.
Several years ago photographers started showing up to capture the ever changing colors of rust and the rampant growth of the forest. So many photographers and tourist show up each day Walter’s stopped selling auto parts all together and now he just charges for the experience of taking pictures and walking around the 30 plus acres and 7 miles of trails.
MJ: One could philosophize all day about the mechanics of his operation, but not Walter he’s living in the moment, after spending some time with him it’s clear to me, he just loves the cars and people - and he’s glad the money is enough that he’s able to keep it all - just way he loves it.
WL: I like junk cars, and I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have it. What would I do [every morning?] because I was raised right here. Every day, right here, and all my life and, so that's why it's import to me. But why it's important to other people, I guess, is because of pictures. We [inaudible] don't believe the millions of pictures [that's?] been took here for the last five, six years from all over the world. We believe every continent has been here; yesterday was Netherlands and England, I believe, and some days Norway, Sweden, and Australia, and New Zealand, and also yesterday was New York and Wisconsin, and places like that. And about everybody that comes in here when I have time, I ask them where they're from. That's just something I always do, and a lot of time, I wind up asking what they work at and all, and a lot of interesting people come in here.
And so it's interesting to them because that helps them on their portfolio and they take family pictures a lot of the times, graduation pictures, and just all kind [inaudible] people come in, professionals and hobbyists.
MJ: His business model is enough to make any car collector squeamish, but at the end of the day they’re Walter’s cars and for the people who come to see his unique and ever changing display there’s a surprising amount of method to his madness.
WL: Well, first of all, I've hardly ever restored one. And these cars here is going downhill every day. In deterioration, and that was really my intention years ago, to make a showplace here, and watch them go down. And the way they change is kind of a chemical change, especially in the rust and the color and the patina, and so that's one reason why people come, because of the color. And they do change; even different weathers, like ice and snow on them, and then the summertime, the hot heat, the colors change, so it's just a pictorial place for-- it's very interesting to a lot of photographers.
WL: I'd like to be just what it is. I would like leave everything like it is because this is original. This the way it was years ago. We don't change anything. In fact, we got cars sitting out there for 70 years. Hadn't been touched, put there by my mother and daddy. The pine straw is built up on, trees is growing through them. And what it is out there, what we've always-- what I've always thought is, art, nature, and history. And everything just grows wild. And we don't cut anything except the trail. We keep them clean. Everything grows wild. And I'd like to-- I'd like to stay like it is. If somebody don't get on our back someway and change it. So I'd like for it to stay exactly like it is.
WL: And I might tell you, years ago, when I was into the parts. And I was hoping one day this would turn into a showplace. So I saved them, I didn't crush them. Several years ago, when iron got real high and a lot of the junkyards sold out. Cashed in. But I kept mine. And and now people would come look at them. Some people [kind of be?] critical of me not selling them but if I sold them I wouldn't have a showplace. And so I kept them and I did everything I had to do, paid tax and insurance and all this stuff these years, to get to [pulling up?] a showplace. And I know I told Jeff or Tracy here 30 something years ago I was going to try to turn this into a showplace. No, the way I said it it would probably turn into a showplace one day rather than a sales place.
MJ: Now, what do you think your dad and mom would say if you said, "Look, here I am," I don't know how old you are, but, "Here I am. I've been running the junkyard still, but I don't sell anything, but people show up here and they just take pictures?" What do you think your parents would say about this? Would they think you're the smartest man alive or what would they think about all this?
WL: I’ve thought about exactly what you're saying. I think they'd be real proud, real proud that I took nearly nothing and made this, but I'd like to be able to tell my daddy that, "Look, I get 25 dollars and they don't leave with anything. When they got 25 from you they left with part of your inventory, but they only take a picture here." That's one objective or really, I don't know, it just a lot of fun.
MJ: And they leave sometimes with a cup that you've doodled on when you're watching TV at night. He'd probably like that, too.
WL: Oh, yeah, yeah. I about have to do that if I go off anywhere or if I'm riding down the road riding with somebody if I ride very far if I'm going very long from home, I've got to go find me a cup and doodle on it. I doodle on them when I'm going down the road when I'm not driving.
MJ: It’s no secret that Walter loves Old Car City, but what about other romances?
MJ: What about love? You have kids. You have grandkids. There was obviously a little love in your life at some point. Talk to me about that. How does a guy that owns a junkyard woo a woman around these parts of rural Georgia? How does that go for you, Walter?
WL: Well, I'd have to kind of think about that. I don't know. I don't really know what you asked me really.
MJ: Well, let's think about it. I mean you meet a girl. Talk to me about how this all went down in your life. You meet a girl. You have a junkyard. And what do you say to her when she says, "Well, what do you do?" You say, "Well, I have a junkyard." You don't say you draw on cups back then. I mean walk me through that. How did how did that go?
Well, at that particular time, when I met my wife, I was driving this truck. And then on the side, I would trade whole cars. Then, later on, I got into-- I got a loan. I felt comfortable enough to quit my job, saving some money and getting a loan to go into the parts business. And my wife always went along with about anything I wanted to do. And she kept the kids in church and kept their teeth brushed. And I didn't have to worry about it. I never did have to say, "Go to church." Because she kept them in there. And kept their teeth brushed. And she just always went along with whatever I did.
MJ: Kind of a love story. A family affair out here I guess you could say.
WL: I guess so, yeah.
MJ: It’s obvious once you step foot onto Walter’s property he has an incredibly vivid imagination - he’s a constant creator.
WL: Well, most nights I doodle on my cups but when I'm doodling on my cups I'm thinking something happening here I guess, or what project I want to continue or even what project I want to start. We have new projects here every day. I mean, we might work in two or three days doing one project and then we on another. Right now we're building a-- what we call a Old Car City rose, it's made out of metal and it looks like a rose except it's rusty metal. I'll show you one before we leave but we're doing that project now and then another project we got lined-- we got several projects lined up but we want to build an old-timey toilet up on the hill. Let it be functional but it be old-timey and we build it out of rusty tin or old wood and shape it like it used to really be here. We've, they've all around here back, 30--
MJ: Like an outhouse.
WL: Outhouse, yeah. Yeah.
MJ: Talk about the souvenirs because you make everything here at Old Car City. Nothing comes from China or from anywhere else. Everything is made right here, either from something that's here or came from here, I mean, a piece of [inaudible] or any of that. There's all kinds of stuff in here in your souvenir shop.
WL: Yeah. That is our policy. Anything anybody buys here that it came from here or we made it here. I've tried everything in the world. And some of it is sales. It's not big time. But I'm hoping one day I come up with something different and that's what makes anything if it's different, and I'm hoping the rose will be different and makes a hit, but nothing has made a hit. But we'll take little plaques. It might be whatever size the board is we found out here or need to cut off to be, but most of them average around 18 inches long, and we'll put sayings on like, "Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it," and things like that, and then we'll put [Old Car City?] on it. We sell more of those than anything, but we're hoping the rose will do good.
MJ: Where do you come up with the idea for your painting? You have subliminal messages in a lot of your paintings. You showed me the one of the inmate with the two right hands and you showed me the lady looking at the horse. Where do you come up with all that stuff?
WL: Well, I guess that has to do with what you asked me earlier about what I think about at night and sometimes I'll just be riding down the road and I come up with an idea that sounds like it might be worth trying. I try it and this is what I've always done. So I guess it's easier for me because that's what I've been doing. And I guess I never really thought about it the way you ask it, but that's the only way I know the answer.
MJ: At the end of the day, Old Car City is a place you have to experience - go meet Walter Dean Lewis - take some pictures and then let everything soak in for a bit. It seems like everyone is talking about “doing their best to live in the present - I’m going to be in the moment.” I hear that all the time, and for a sentimental guy who produces a show on history, I admit living in the present can be a personal challenge.
But, I’ve come to think Old Car City is best enjoyed that way, in the present. Its a place were moments from the past still actively exist - you can physically see the hand of time and the elements changing these objects - those who came before us once cared for - maybe and even loved.
WL: This is Dean Lewis, Old Car City. Y'all come on down and you'll get some smiles. You'll see things old that you don't see other places and still old-timey junkyards exactly the way it was in the '30s and ‘40s.
MJ: And you can leave with a cup.
WL: You can leave with a cup [laughter].
MJ: I’m Matt Jolley and that’s History Worth Saving.