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Plans, Trains and Automobiles

Squeezed by big-bucks developments, the eccentric Forney Museum is ready to hit the highway.

At the time, the company had several hundred salesmen in rural areas all over the country. And after the firm newsletter ran a picture of J.D. with his renovated Kissel, Forney's employees realized their boss had a soft spot for antique cars. Several of them found that J.D. would even accept vintage cars as payment for his welding equipment, and a stream of old autos that farmers had hidden away in their barns began flowing back to Fort Collins on the company's delivery trucks.

Over the years, J.D. built up a collection of dozens of cars, which his employees would drive in parades in towns all over northern Colorado. Eventually, J.D. put up a building in Fort Collins to house the collection and allowed the public to visit.

In the mid-1960s, developer Gerry Von Frellick built Englewood's Cinderella City, one of the largest shopping centers in the country. Looking for attractions to draw visitors, he invited J.D. to house his collection in the mall. By 1968 the collection had outgrown its space in the shopping center, and J.D. had forged an alliance with a local physician whose passion for railroads matched J.D.'s love of the automobile. Together they came up with a plan to create a new transportation museum in the Central Platte Valley.

James Arneill was a prominent local doctor who loved railroads and collected railcars and steam engines. He and J.D. struck a deal with the owner of the old Denver Tramway powerhouse, and in 1969 the Forney Transportation Museum opened to the public.

While J.D. was quiet and thoughtful, Arneill was a flamboyant man well-known in Denver society circles. He enjoyed hosting luncheons on the old Pikes Peak dining car he donated to the museum, which still sits in the yard outside the building. Arneill would even hire a veteran black porter to serve lunch while he and his friends spent hours over cigars in the dining car, telling railroad stories and remembering the good old days when elegant meals were served on fine china and dining-car tables were covered with white linen.

In 1970 the museum snagged one of its most important acquisitions when the Union Pacific Railroad donated one of its "Big Boys," the largest steam locomotive ever built. The 132-foot-long engine, which weighs 1.2 million pounds, ran for years between Green River, Wyoming, and Ogden, Utah, hauling mile-long freight trains over the Wasatch Range.

Moving the Big Boy to the Forney's new home will be one of the more difficult problems faced by the museum's small staff. Jack Forney says it will probably have to be cut into four pieces, trucked to its new home and reassembled. Since the railroad tracks along the Platte River have been torn up, moving the locomotive by rail isn't an option. Forney says his staff is already talking to railroad museum officials around the country, trying to figure out the best way to handle the job.

"It will be like Humpty Dumpty trying to put it back together again," predicts Charles Albi, executive director of the Colorado Railroad Museum, which is working with Forney's contractor on the plan to move Big Boy up I-25. But Forney is so confident that the museum will soon have a bigger, better home that he's already going ahead with the renovation of an 86-foot-long Union Pacific snowblower whose enormous rotary blades once cleared ice and snow off railroad tracks in Wyoming and Utah. "It could be that same snowblower opened up the tracks for the Big Boy," he says, a railroad buff's gleam in his eye.

The Forney Museum is not high-tech; in fact, it's downright gloomy and unkempt. But the museum's fans believe that's all part of its oddball charm.

In an era when museums increasingly model themselves after meticulously groomed family theme parks like Disney World, the Forney Transportation Museum is an eccentric exception, mirroring its founder's whims rather than the stratagems of marketing consultants. While the museum staff scrambles to patch broken windows and shore up walls in the 1901 building, the dozens of antique cars collected by J.D. Forney provide a fascinating tour through American history.

Inside the building, visitors walk down aisles covered with worn carpet between dusty cars that don't seem to have been touched in twenty years. Some of the vehicles have been extensively refurbished, while others beg for attention.

A 1907 Nyberg eight-passenger limousine still has the original upholstery with a fleur-de-lis pattern, lanterns on the side, a copper hood and brass headlamps. The car was entombed in Chicago in 1912 when the carriage house where it was stored was walled over. It was rediscovered in 1960.

A 1926 Packard sedan features an electronically heated carburetor and a battery set in the fender. A 1916 "Dodge Brothers" Roadster looks like it's still in good enough shape to be driven down the street.

However, antique-car buffs say the collection could use more attention. "It's an interesting collection, but the condition of the cars is a turnoff," says Terry Johnson, who serves on the board of the local chapter of the Classic Car Club of America. "They have some wonderful cars there; it's just disappointing to see them in such a dilapidated state. Jack's just never had the money to take care of what he has."

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