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Down the Road

Owls Head Transportation Museum, driving, flying in "the day"
By Milt Gross
Sep 22, 2013 - 12:42:03 AM

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It was too rainy and foggy for our planned boat cruise from Port Clyde. We were staying at the Craignair Inn, where the meals are worth the drive. And where they arrange for the boat cruises.

So we aimed our Toyota toward the Owls Head Transportation Museum to see how those in the past got there -- or to wherever they were getting.

It was pouring rain, when we arrived, so we welcomed the indoor activity in a state where most things to do are outdoors -- and when it is not pouring rain.

We went in and met the young man selling tickets, $10 for adults, $8 for old duffers such as obviously he thought I was as that's what I paid, and I forget the amount for kids. Didn't see many kids. Except the older kids who apparently remembered some of the antique and classic cars from their younger days.

I mention the young man, because his father, he said, lived in Cherryfield. I commented that the museum appeared to be bigger than Cherryfield. A good sized museum, which entertained Dolores and I for about 45 minutes through the car and old airplane sections.

Then came the part we didn't like, the air -- not pouring rain as outdoors but hot and humid. So humid we cut our visit short, but not before being fascinated with those oldsters of autos, many of them, ranging from steam to electric to gasoline and even a bicycle-gasoline combination. (Which was even smaller than our Toyota.)

From a website: "In the mid-1970s, three local persons conceived the idea of a transportation museum where the cars ran, the airplanes flew and the bicycles were usable. These three, Tom Watson, then-chairman of IBM, James S. Rockefeller, Jr. and Steven Lang--as well as countless volunteers and some paid staff--built and maintained a time capsule related to transportation. Far from the largest collection it remains one of the best maintained. There's a nice museum shop. Be sure to check out the spring, summer and fall events held on many weekends. During the winter a free lecture series on interesting (mostly New England) historical transportation-related topics is typically excellent."

It's the largest collection I've ever seen, but then my experience is limited to the one in Tremont on Mount Desert Island and a smaller museum in South Paris. Oh yeah, it's also limited to the 1929 Packard and 1929 Buick a childhood friend owned and in which he took me for rides. Another friend owned a 1942 Packard, and he and I went for many rides -- such as swimming in a small lake at Westtown, PA, and flying at the West Chester, PA airport.

One thing I recall on those rides is how those big auto beasts didn't tilt on curves, and how easily the 1942 Packard backed out of an accidentally-entered ditch on one of our jaunts.

My first car was a 1936 Plymouth, then over 20 years old. The roof was made of that back tarry-looking stuff, the windshield cranked open from the bottom, and the heater was a little electric box on the passenger side. I also remember how on hot days it would stall and sit there long enough for me to find my fishing pole and head to the nearest creek (creeks in Pennsylvania that I learned were replaced by brooks in Maine). I also recollect how when you had a flat tire, you had it right where it went flat. Those tires had tubes in them, which in later years became swimming floatation devices.

So I appreciated seeing the old ones in the museum, the 1933 Packard, introduced in 1900 after James Packard purchased the Winton auto in 1898 and found it not making the grade. This led him to create the Packard, which did make the grade, powered by a standard eight-cylinder engine, a Super Eight (Super was not just invented for today's ads.), a twelve cylinder that had formerly been labeled the Twin Six.

According to a written documentary alongside the old big boy, in 1933 a new feature appeared on the dashboard that allowed the driver to select the amount of braking for "custom braking." (Different from now, when I just hit it fairly hard when some idiot pulls right out in front of me, goes 40 for a short time, then turns left, making me brake again to await his not-swift-enough exit.)

In World War I, the documentary states, Packard even built an aircraft engine. Packard also produced a World War II Rolls-Royce Merline aircraft engine.

There are Rolls-Royce cars at the museum too, a few of which I've seen out on yonder highway.

You prefer an MG, the classic British sports car? Plenty of them, the world's most popular sports car, according to a brochure we captured during our visit. This nifty little critter was developed at Morris Garage in Oxford, England, that brochure states in answer to my question of how it grew those initials that those little cars carry.

As fascinating where the old aircraft, much more dramatic to fly no doubt than today's airline trips, one exhibit shows a life-size Wilbur Wright lying on the frame just above the wing and behind the steering apparatus during his brief first flight of any aircraft in December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, NC. (You'll never forget that as long as you see vehicles from that state bragging of that feat on their license plates.) Oh, yes, it was at 10:35 a.m. that Wilbur took his flight.

Wilbur Wright has been taking that first flight a long time at the Owls Head Transportation Museum. Milt Gross photo.

There are bicycles, half-bicycle and those half-gasoline-powered tiny things awaiting your camera, lots of big, big autos that would likely flatten our Yaris or our Scion should they meet suddenly in midstream.

Cyclecars are also present, a short-lived little thingie from around 1910 into the 1920s, according to that brochure. They were sometimes delivered in wooden crates with tops that popped up.

I was struck with the evolution, not of the car itself that rose from the old faithful horse and wagon transport that kept its shape for several years of autos. But I was struck by the tires, small and very thin, like the ones on the wagons and carts that preceded them. They couldn't have gone too fast, if you think about a tight turn on those thin tires.

I much prefer the ones on our Toyotas.

I don't usually do sales pitches, but if you're as old as I am (29.5 plus some number that doesn't matter here) and recall some of those long-ago motorized autos, treat yourself to a visit to the Owls Head Transportation Museum.

Oh yes, and don't wait 40 years for your visit like I did.

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2013

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