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Rust and roots

Used cars that were trashed years ago have now turned into treasured additions at a unique junkyard in White, Georgia
Nature transforms junkyard cars into art 04:38

"Rust and roots" is an up-close look at what happens when vintage cars meet untamed nature. Tracy Smith leads us into the woods:

In a forest an hour's drive north of Atlanta, an unusual museum has taken root.

It is, says Dean Lewis, "a 34-acre piece of art."

It also happens to be something else: a junkyard.

Lewis is the owner, and one could say, the curator, of Old Car City USA, in White, Ga. -- quite possibly the most stunning junkyard you'll ever see.

"I don't think anyone else has 4,200 whole American cars 1972 and older," he said.

And if they do, no one keeps them in a garage quite like this. Detroit may have designed these rides, but Mother Nature has done all the detailing -- from the big-finned Cadillacs, to the rare 1941 Mack milk truck.

One of the 4,200 vehicles on display at Old Car City USA. CBS News

Some cars have grown right up with the trees; others have become two-ton flower pots.

This wild ride started in 1931, when Dean Lewis' parents bought a plot of land and opened a general store.

"No electricity, no paved roads," Lewis said. "Gas was 19 cents a gallon. Apples one cent each. Later they bought an old junk car or two, sold parts. Made another dollar in Depression time. Several years later I was born. Born in a junkyard!"

Old Car City USA owner Dean Lewis with correspondent Tracy Smith. CBS News

Smith asked, "When you were a kid, you played around in all the junk cars?"

"Oh, I drove 'em a million miles. Never moved an inch!"

After high school, Lewis spent a few years saving up money working as a truck terminal manager, and then -- one by one -- he started picking up used cars (more than 4,000) and hauling them home, so his parents could sell off their parts.

For almost five decades, the Lewis family had the best car parts business around.

Clint Brownlee

But as many of their cars rusted and rotted and began to merge with the landscape , Lewis had an epiphany -- to turn what was a junkyard into a museum.

"Over 30 years ago I told my son and daughter, Jeff and Tracy, that this place would probably turn into a showplace one day rather than a sales place," Lewis said. "And it has."

A showplace, indeed. Every year hundreds of visitors pay $15 to stroll around ($25 if they want to bring a camera) just to take in that strange, organic harmony of rust and roots.

Melody Andrews is one of dozens of photographers who travel here every week, from as far away as Thailand and Sweden.

Melody Andrews

"I live in Detroit -- Motor City," said Andrews. "And I thought what a great idea to come down and see what the cars look like from the 1950s.

"This is the absolute best place I have ever been to shoot. There's so much here to do, to see, to learn and to smell. You could smell the oldness of the cars. There's history here."

America's history, really. We love our cars, and Lewis is no exception.

"I would imagine every car has a story. This one in particular?" asked Smith.

"My dad in 1965 bought this car for my wife right after we got married," said Lewis. "And she drove it for years. And now it's been here for 40 years. I saved it like I've saved every car I've ever had. Never traded anything in."

"All of the cars you've ever had are in this junkyard?"

"Almost every one, yeah. I don't throw anything away."

And while the cars are the stars here, you'll also find a lot of Dean Lewis -- and his unique sense of humor -- along these six miles of trails, like wind chimes made of hubcaps and tailpipes.

Lewis' best friends are also a part of this place, like his childhood buddy, "Fast Eddie," who wrote a theme song for him, called "The Old Car City Blues":

Of the thousands of cars here , Dean has restored about a half-dozen. He says they're technically for sale "for the right price," but really, it's hard to imagine he'd let any of them drive off.

Smith asked, "What do you say to people who say you're letting history rot away?"

"Well, they're getting another life," Lewis replied. "And they'll be remembered by the pictures."

So he's preserving them in a living auto show for the ages -- and if you ever decide to stop by, don't worry, there's plenty of parking.

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