Scott Wilke curates his own Milwaukee bicycle museum
It’s shortly after noon on Saturday, and the rare November sunlight is streaming through the windows in the front atrium of the Milwaukee Public Museum. South Shore Cyclery co-owner Scott Wilke is standing behind a table of curious bike license plates and bells. Casting long shadows before him are a dozen or so classic and antique bicycles. It’s a little bit of bicyclist’s nirvana. However, this is only a fraction of his collection—the rest are stored or on display in a defacto museum floor at the shop on Packard Avenue in Cudahy.
The past few years have been good for business, with a secured deal to host a major race along the southern lakefront shoreline and a swank new storefront wall. With the resurgent popularity of cycling (both casual and competitive) in the Milwaukee area, things have been looking up. TCD sat down with Wilke to talk about his massive hobby and even asked his opinion about the infamous collection of bikes the MPM has housed in storage.
TCD: How did you get started down this bike collecting path?
Wilke: I’d been collecting since 1988 or 1989, and by 2002 I had over 200 bikes but they were in three different locations across the city of Milwaukee. Actually, one of the locations was really a trailer sitting in a lot in West Milwaukee, locked up. So it was very frustrating [that way], and so I decided then that either I was going to sell it all off or find a place. And I found a place—the old Cudahy News and Hobby place which at one time in the 1920s and 30s was a Woolworth’s building. We lived upstairs, and at the time the idea was just to have a museum, 7,000 square feet. That’s sort of ambitious, but still.
TCD: What happened next?
Wilke: In 2004, [someone] was having lunch across the street and saw my sign in the window “Old Bikes Wanted.” I wasn’t open yet at that point. They call me up and I go visit them because they have some old ones down in South Milwaukee at a bike shop that had been in business since 1987. It was called South Shore Cyclery. One thing led to another, I bought out part of the company and moved it to my location in Cudahy. So, now it’s a bicycle shop that has a museum.
Wilke: Well, in the mid-80s I was doing a lot of touring. I wanted to learn how to maintain and fix my bike if it broke, so I took a lot of repair courses. I mean, collecting was always part of who I am since I was 16 years old. I collected stamps, comic books, model kits, you name it. When I found there were these old American bicycles, that’s when I got bit by the bug.
TCD: Do you have a personal favorite?
Wilke: You know, I get that a lot. Probably the nicest bicycle that I have for riding is an early 1950s Schwinn straight-bar hornet. That’s back at the shop. There’s nothing fancy about it — none of that streamlined tank and brackets to it — but I think it’s one of the nicer riding bikes.
Wilke: Often it varies among what we get in or is popular. Just recently we acquired this Whizzer motor-bike. It’s a Schwinn frame and componentry wheels, chain, and front shock…then on it was mounted a 1950s Whizzer motor-bike kit. We were lucky enough that someone tipped us off on Facebook about an auction in Dousman. I was the only bidder there for something like that. This was only about four weeks ago. It needs probably…you know, I’ve always loved a little wear to a bike.
TCD: Do you totally restore it? That’s what they’re always moaning about on Antiques Roadshow.
Wilke: Right. And I always say, “no.” I never fully restore a bike, like start from scratch and take the paint off and whatnot. I’ve always just found enough parts to make one good bike. I like to leave a few dents or scratches in there because otherwise it looks too good to be true.
TCD: Now you’re aware of the… well, it’s kind of a controversial subject, but… you know the [Milwaukee Public] Museum has quite a collection of bikes in storage, right?
Wilke: Well, yeah. Actually, I had been aware of that for many years because some very close friends of mine work here at the museum. I’ve never actually seen any of them, I’m aware they’re here somewhere.
TCD: Are you an advocate for “Hey, someday you guys should do something with that?”
Wilke: Well, right. But of course, one has to be a realist. I mean, with my interest in bicycles, that would be my inclination. But we live in a time where we really have to make a best use of money, and I don’t know where that places it on the priority list here. I’m sure the publicity the museum received hasn’t gone unnoticed, though.
Scott Wilke also told us he finds boys’ bikes are more valuable as collectibles than girls’ bikes. Why? Because girls keep their wheels in good condition whereas boys ride them until they break them, making them more difficult to find intact. You can see around half of the collection at South Shore Cyclery located at 4758 South Packard Avenue in Cudahy, Wisconsin. The store is typically open Mon-Fri 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. and weekends until 5 p.m.