Unusual up north museum to close in August, everything to go

VOGEL CENTER, Mich. — Kevin Moses was nobody. He wasn’t famous, or popular, or talented. He had few interests or hobbies. Just a regular dude.

"He liked to ride his motorcycle," said his sister, Karla Moses told the Detroit Free Press. "He didn’t do much else."

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Yet there’s an entire museum dedicated to ordinary Kevin Moses and his unremarkable life.

The Museum of Moses sits in very small, very quiet Vogel Center, a farming community about 20 miles southeast of Cadillac, a place so rural that cellphones don’t work here. It’s in a building next to Karla’s old-fashioned general store.

The core of the museum is her deceased brother’s collection of antique Harley-Davidson motorcycles — which was his passion in life — along with memorabilia such as his Harley wall signs, his Harley knife collection and his unopened Harley beer cans.

But really, it’s a museum of Kevin and his random belongings. There’s a Nazareth 8-track tape on display. A well-worn leather cap. His aunt’s antique stove. A green dish somebody once gave his grandma. And there are photos of Kevin all over the walls. Kevin drinking a beer in the woods. Kevin sitting shirtless on a motorcycle. Kevin and a buddy standing outside somewhere.

The biggest photo of all is a life-size cardboard cutout image of Kevin, which stands in the middle of the room, showing him wearing his trademark thick, gray beard and long stringy hair, and his usual outfit of denim bib overalls. He’s looking straight into the camera through sunglasses, and he’s smoking a big, fat joint.

"We call it ‘the eternal flame,’" said Karla, 59, his only sibling. To her, it perfectly summed up Kevin. "My dad was mad when he saw that. He said, ‘Jesus Christ, you couldn’t find a picture with something else?’ But Kevin had been smoking since high school. His medical marijuana card is lying around here somewhere. It expired a week before he did."

After her brother died a decade ago at age 55, Karla and her mother opened the museum, which has become an unusual memorial to one man’s unexceptional life. Yet somehow, this museum about nothing, located near nowhere, has drawn thousands of visitors every year since it opened a decade ago.

But the museum is nearing its end. Now that Kevin’s dad recently passed away too, Karla and her mother Joan plan to close down the Museum of Moses at the end of August, sell off everything inside and move to winter-free New Mexico to retire. And the world will lose a rare tribute to the ordinary and the average.

"We’ve kept him alive as long as we think is probably fair to the rest of the world," Karla said. "And it’s just time for us to move on."

The cancer started as a little red spot on his neck. Several biopsies later and Kevin was handed a death sentence. Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, the doctors told Kevin, who never smoked cigarettes and rarely drank alcohol.

"They said it was too involved to save him," Karla said.

Before that, Kevin had spent his life in mid-Michigan, working as a shop manager for Stu’s Electric Motor in Mount Pleasant, his dad’s business. He lived in the apartment out back. And he stored his dozens of Harley-Davidson motorcycles under lock and key at the shop. Whenever he found a rare one for sale, he’d borrow the money from his parents and slowly pay them back. He was so obsessed, he even named his dogs "Harley" and "Davidson." Otherwise he was, by all accounts, average.

"I don’t want to paint him as a person with a halo around his head, because he wasn’t," said Joan Moses, his now 84-year-old mom. "He was basically a very good person, but if you crossed him there would be a day of reckoning, a size-13 boot stuck in your butt."

He wasn’t very sociable. Liked to keep to himself. He had a few friends. But he never married or had kids.

"One of his favourite sayings was, when people would ask him if he was ever married, he always said he’d had a lot of wives, and fortunately none of them were his," Karla said, laughing.

When he found out he was dying, he didn’t take it well.

"Not well at all," Karla said. "It was a real mental trip for the first two years, ‘cause he know he was going to die and you know it’s like, "Why me? Why me? Why me? Why me?’ There was no answer to that question. Had to be somebody, and it was him. That was the answer to that. At first, you don’t accept it, and then you have to gulp it down."

For years, he had kept his motorcycles untouched in storage, collecting dust and appreciating in value. He didn’t even tell many people about them for fear someone would steal them. But with death looming, he said to hell with it. Why hoard bikes behind a locked door when he could instead ride them on the open road? Might as well enjoy the things he loved the most.

One by one, he rode them out West, he rode them to Florida and back, he crisscrossed his home state from one end to the other. In his last months, he put his 73-year-old mom in a sidecar and rode 3,000 miles that spring, all over Michigan’s highways, 25 or 50 miles at a time, seeing the state’s countryside with her.

He rode despite the cancer visibly eating away at his neck, he rode with the awful freedom of someone who has nothing left to lose and he rode until he couldn’t ride any farther, until just 10 days before his death, with a white bandage wrapped around his neck and his long hair flowing in the breeze.

He died in late summer 2010, at a little house he’d bought in the woods in northern Michigan.

"He was an eccentric character, very much a laid-back individual that didn’t want to be bothered," Karla said. "He did his own thing, in his own time. He did what he wanted, when he wanted. And he didn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone else thought."

His mom, dad and sister scattered his ashes around his house in the woods. They sprinkled some in the wet concrete floor of the garage that would become his museum. And they took the rest to a cabin near Brockway Mountain in Copper Harbor, which he loved to visit in the summer. The rest of his remains are in a bottle of Crown Royal, now another exhibit at the museum.

"When we got to the top of the mountain, I gave everybody two Dixie cups — one with his ashes and one with whiskey," Karla said. "And when we got done that day we were out of whiskey, but we still had some ashes. So we brought what was left of him back home in the bottle."

When he died, Kevin had dozens of motorcycles, almost all Harley-Davidsons, most of them rare or unique. The family began to sell them off, but decided that some were worth keeping and displaying. And Kevin had always daydreamed about a museum for his collection. So they kept his 1936 VLD Flathead, his 1966 Pikes Peak Shovelhead bike, his sparkling blue 1969 Electra Glide, his 1946 Knucklehead, and a few others.

"Let’s build the museum that he always wanted," Karla said to her parents. "And business could use a little help out here in the middle of nowhere, so let’s show everybody who Kevin Moses was."

Strangely enough, people came. So far, 19,000 of them. Some are Harley fans, some come in tours from local nursing homes that have few other day-trip options out here, some are curious passersby who stumbled on the place, some are tourists seeking out this unusual monument to an average guy.

"You don’t have to be a Harley person to realize when you step in here that you may not know what you’re looking at, but you’re looking at something special," Karla said. Admission is free, donations are welcome.

Items belonging to the late Kevin Moses at the Museum of Moses in Vogel Center on Monday, June 15, 2020. The motorcycles and other things Harley-Davidson related that were collected by Moses, who passed away from head and neck cancer in 2010, are all up for sale as his sister and mother prepare to move away and close the museum after 10 years.

Soon, the legend of Moses began to grow, and events sprang up based on his life. There was an annual Bib Bash, for which people would dress up in bib overalls like Kevin used to wear and have a festival. And there was a yearly memorial ride, when hundreds of bikers would show up in this tiny town and take a ride in Kevin’s honour. For an unknown man who liked to keep to himself during his life, he drew a lot of attention in death.

But this is the ride’s last year, and the museum’s last summer. Now, everything must go — all the bikes, all the belt buckles, all the mugs and shot glasses, and even Kevin’s ashes, if someone wants to bid on them, though everything will remain in the museum until its last day. Indeed, people have already put down money to buy some of his personal belongings, including that photo of Kevin and his buddy standing outside somewhere, even though the buyers never met him.

"There’s a lot of people that never knew Kevin who can’t afford a $30,000 motorcycle, but they can afford a $25 sign off the wall, and they just want to have something that was his," Karla said. "I don’t know why. I don’t understand the reasoning behind that."

It just might be because people assume that anyone who has their own museum is important enough to remember, she thought. "We just figured if you build it they will come," she said. But it could be that some people see a little of themselves in Kevin; that in his ordinariness he reflects all those who live quiet lives and are known by almost nobody, but are loved deeply by a few. That a life doesn’t have to be extraordinary to be celebrated.

"He wasn’t nothing special," Karla said. "Wasn’t any better than anyone’s brother or son. Didn’t save any children from a burning house, and he never burned anyone’s house down. He came in somewhere in the middle. He was just a guy who worked for his dad."

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