With aurora season well underway in Alaska's Golden Heart City, Fairbanks' biggest draw might be northern lights displays set against star-splashed night skies.
North of downtown, however, an under-the-radar museum offers an engaging alternative to the region's popular aurora adventures and outdoor activities.
Fairbanks developer Tim Cerny opened the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in 2009, after building a collection of vehicles that played a significant role in automotive history. In addition to gathering gems such as an 1898 Hay Stanhope Phaeton, reportedly the earliest American-made, four-cylinder, gas-powered automobile in existence, or a 1917 Pierce Arrow that has twice won First in Class awards at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, Cerny acquired cars that arrived in Alaska years before the territory became a state.
The 30,000-square-foot facility also houses an extensive collection of vintage apparel that is displayed alongside cars of the same era.
"It's not what people expect to see in Fairbanks," museum manager Willy Vinton told me when I visited earlier this year.
But as he strolled through the showroom rattling off technical specifications, historical tidbits, even original advertising jingles related to every car he passed, Vinton demonstrated the meticulous approach that the museum team takes when selecting, researching and restoring vehicles. The 90-plus antique cars rotated through various displays look like they just rolled off the sales floor. Nearly all have been returned to driveable condition, as well.
"In the summer, we sometimes take two or three out a day," Vinton said. "If you're not going to drive them, you might as well just take a picture and put it on the wall."
Select museum exhibits explore Alaska's transportation history and showcase the challenges of establishing motoring routes across a terrain so vast and varied. Large, sepia-tone prints show carriages parked beside turn-of-the-century buildings or navigating wood-plank bridges strung across glacial streams. In other shots, drivers smile sheepishly beside vehicles buried in snow or mud.
Set against photos of early 1900s racing events is a replica of the Model T that won Alaska's first organized automobile competition in 1917. Modern-day museum volunteers built the facsimile using parts gathered from throughout the state.
Robert Sheldon drove the original of that Model T for 36 miles to win the 1917 race, which took place 12 years after he built Alaska's first automobile. He used a marine engine, buggy wheels, two bar stools and some tin to create the vehicle based on photos — Sheldon had never seen an automobile in real life — and the museum shares that story, too.
The Alaska section also features a model roadhouse, an old-time Tokheim-brand gas pump and an engine that once powered Alaska's first telegraph system. Visitors can don period costumes and climb into a vintage automobile for photos or marvel at relics ranging from a sparkplug collection to antique snow-moving machines.
Cerny said he believes that the unexpected mix of vehicles, memorabilia, fashions and historical Alaska highlights broadens the facility's overall appeal.
"If we can get somebody to open the door, we've got them," he said.
The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, located on the Wedgewood Resort grounds, opens on Sunday and Wednesday afternoons throughout the winter. Daily summer hours will resume in mid-May.