An Illinois Community Is Trying to Save a Replica of McDonald’s First Franchise
When Brian Grams sat down at his computer early last week, he discovered his museum’s Facebook page bombarded with messages from area residents, all wanting him to do the same thing: save the McDonald’s Museum.
“I honestly did not know the McDonald’s museum even existed until I came to work and opened up the business Facebook page,” Grams, the director of Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois, tells Food & Wine. “People [were] saying we should buy the McDonald’s and maintain it at its location or move it to [our] museum.”
Grams' Illinois museum, formerly a non-operational farm built in the mid-1800s, was purchased by his grandfather in 1960. It has since been converted to an antique mall with three structural add-ons, expanding from a dealership of antique cars to an auto museum and now a collection of nostalgic items. The Volo Museum serves as home to over 30 exhibits and display attractions, including horse-drawn vehicles, classic cars, and automobiles owned by the rich and famous.
At first glance, that may not seem like a good fit for the future home of McDonald's No. 1 Store Museum, the full-scale replica of Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant opened in April 1955. Built in 1985, the current building mostly follows the McDonald brother’s blueprints and replaced the original structure after it was torn down in 1984. The golden arches that tower outside are the restaurant’s original sign, and those who tour the museum can glimpse original fry vats, soda barrels, milkshake Multimixers, and grills, as well as vintage ads, photos, and a video tracing the fast food giant’s history.
While McDonald’s invested in restoring the site back in the 1980s, area floods going back to 2008 have prevented eager tourists from entering and decreased visitor rates. Despite acknowledging that the Des Plaines property will “always have a special place in our company’s history,” McDonald’s announced that the historic site would face a second and permanent demolition this December, with the company hoping to donate the land back to the city.
“The re-created restaurant… has not regularly welcomed visitors since closing to the public 10 years ago,” McDonald’s said. “This combined with the building’s location and feasibility to reopen and maintain it led us to this decision.”
That news spurred local Volo and Des Plaines residents to reach out to Grams, whose auto museum doesn’t just feature close to a hundred cars, including those once owned by the likes of Michael Jordan, Britney Spears, and Oprah, or seen in Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Mad Max, and Christine. The Volo Museum also pays homage to other aspects of American culture, including campers, music machines, Disney and Warner Brothers memorabilia, old movie theaters, arcades, and even vintage ads.
That is perhaps, in part, why area residents believe Grams’ warehouse is the perfect place to ensure this prominent part of food history lives on, despite initial conceptions. According to Grams, local interest has been so strong that residents are offering to help him transplant the entire replica, located nearly 40 miles south of the auto museum.
“We've shipped a couple of things before, so I know it can be done,” Grams says. “The community around here feels so strongly about this that people who have moved houses before have contacted me saying they are willing to do it at cost. Two companies have reached out, and other people have said, ‘We'll volunteer—whatever we gotta do to pack it up if it'll help you guys.’”
Grams may have the workforce, but there’s still no confirmation on whether it’s happening. Grams took to Facebook last Tuesday to announce the museum had reached out to McDonald's headquarters and launch a poll of support. The museum director tells Food & Wine that he’s heard nothing back yet regarding the impending demolition, which as of last week had no specified date.
“I’m hoping to hear back from them this week, and if not I'm gonna push a little harder,” Grams says.
Grams is willing to accept almost anything the Des Plaines museum hands over, even if it’s just the sign, which he’d like to display in a similar fashion as the Henry Ford Museum displays theirs. Because the replica structure is also not the original building, Grams has considered rebuilding it in Volo and filling it with all the equipment and the accompanying mannequins.
It could be a perfect fit, not just with the Volo Museum’s nostalgic American exhibits, but also their cars. Fast food and automobiles have a long, connected history and Volo would be a near perfect place to spotlight that relationship. Grams says that if he did rebuild the entire structure, he may even add a parking lot and park old cars around the sign.
“My main focus is on the actual artifacts like the sign out front,” Grams says. “Any of the grills and equipment that are inside. Those are the things that have realistic, nostalgic value. I’m sure anything that couldn't be moved over or wasn't worthwhile could be replicated again on site here, too.”
The current replica doesn’t serve any food, and The Volo Museum doesn’t have any plans to if they end up getting their own exhibit. But it seems safe to assume Grams’ Illinois community—which is so passionate about preserving the golden arches' impact on the American food industry—won’t mind.