Why is JFK's hearse in the middle of Kansas? This man wants to help his hometown thrive.

Alice Mannette
Hays Daily News
The Cadillac Hearse that drove JFK to the airport in Dallas.

There is just one week left to view the 1964 Cadillac Hearse that transported President John F. Kennedy's body from Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas to Air Force One on that fateful day in 1963. The infamous automobile arrived in Hill City in April. It was part of the opening of the Graham County Auto and Art Museum, a new tourist attraction that is bringing visitors to the city. 

Stephen Tebo, who grew up in Hill City, decided to give back to his hometown. Tebo, who lives in Colorado, has collected unique cars for more than five decades, and his collection was written up in numerous publications. 

"I bought my first (collectible) car in 1976," Tebo said. "Between that and 2000, I only had 16 (special) cars."

Now, Tebo several hundred collectible automobiles on his property in Colorado. He will bring about half a dozen every few months to display in Hill City. Others in the area have more than 30 automobiles on display at Tebo's Corner as well. Tebo thought this museum would help his hometown.

The museum's beginnings

In 1968, Tebo obtained a mathematics degree from Fort Hays State University. While at school, he opened a coin business to pay for his classes. Eventually, he obtained a master's degree, moved to Colorado and bought property in Hays, always wanting to keep a tie to western Kansas.

Toward the beginning of the year, Tebo was tearing down a building that he owned in Hays. A friend, Fred Pratt, said he thought it would be good for Hill City if they opened an automobile museum. Around the same time, a downtown property came up for sale.

"We found people to reconstruct the building (from Hays) and it fell into place, one part at a time," Tebo said. 

The building is right across the street from where Tebo pumped gas whiling attending Hill City High School.

"I've always been a little bit of a gear head," he said. 

Although Tebo said he never had a car during high school, his father gave him a Model 8 "rust bucket." He fixed it up and drove it during the summer, as it had no heat.

Following the museum's opening in April, each weekend, more than thirty visitors are making the pilgrimage to Hill City, about half an hour north of WaKeeney from Interstate 70.

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What's in the museum?

Since arriving in late April, the hearse was one of the anchors for the inaugural exhibition of classic automobiles. In addition, there is the Model T from the movie “Paper Moon” and several vintage motorcycles. 

Also on display is a 1936 Cadillac convertible, a 1929 Pierce Arrow, a 1924 Duesenberg, and a 1922 Ford Model T. In addition to a '53 Jaguar, there are collectible cars from the 30s, 40s and 50s.

"He refreshes his collection every quarter," said Matt Newsome of MAPRagency.

Tebo has other collectable cars at his home in Colorado that he will rotate through the museum. These include several Model A's, antique red fire trucks, vintage Cadillacs and several cars and jeeps actors and actresses drove on set. 

He also has the 1965 custom white Rolls-Royce limousine that was once owned by John Lennon and the 1929 Cadillac limousine that was custom-made for President Herbert Hoover.

"It was made for him by the president of Cadillac at the time," Tebo said. 

The hearse, which he has held onto since 2012, and the rest of the current classic vehicle collection( along with an exhibit by five artists) is available for public viewing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday at 322 West Main St. Admission is $5. Call (785) 871-7862 for more information.

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An economic boost for a small town

Whether it is a restaurant, a unique museum or a gift shop, a destination location brings visitors and life to small towns.

"Whenever you bring 700 people into the community some of those people are going to spend money in the town," said Phyllis Weller, the secretary-treasurer of Graham County Auto and Art Museum. "That is our goal. We want people to spend money in our town."

Weller said anything any small town can do to bring tourists to their town is vital.

"Every small town needs to have something that brings something to their small town," Weller said. "They don't just go to the museum. They may buy gas, eat at a restaurant or go into shops."

By bringing a destination museum into this town of less than 2,000, Hill City is giving its downtown a small boost.

"I think people enjoy seeing one-of-a-kind things," Tebo said. "We're thinking it will  in a small way help the local economy."