Dreams on wheels


Of course I’ve heard of the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum, with its fascinating fixation on pre-1920 warplanes and classic cars. But how often are you in Owl’s Head, Maine, not far from the Canadian border?

Luckily, I was there last week and had a wonderful tour of the slightly eccentric place, which has a room just for unusual engines (including a massive, 19th-century steam monstrosity).

Walk in and one of the first things you see is the 1900 Clark Ornithopter. Wasn’t it logical to think the way to achieve controlled flight was with flapping wings padded with feathers? James Clark of Bridgewater evidently thought so.

Historical displays told me Sir George Cayley not only invented the modern spoked wheel, but also just missed controlled flight. He built a model helicopter in 1796. His 1804 glider was the first man-made object heavier than air to fly and in 1849 he got a small boy aloft. He had the principles of flight down cold, but age caught up with him.

Another dreamer was William B. Stout, who built his first Stout (a sort of streamlined minivan with an aluminum spaceframe and way-early unit-construction body) in 1932. Can you imagine Stout’s nerve in charging $5,000 for his creation when a conventional luxury car was $1,200? The Owl’s Head car, one of five left of nine built, is battered but reportedly drivable (as are most of the museum’s cars and planes). Parked next to the Stout is a 1938 Eliot Cricket III, a marvelous homemade bug with a stainless-steel body.

Many of the planes are mounted on the ceiling, so it pays to look up at Owl’s Head. I enjoyed seeing a fierce-looking 1917 Fokker DR.I and a nemesis, the 1916 Sopwith Pup, complete with rotary engine. Both had dummy machine guns mounted for authenticity’s sake.

Kings of the road also were on display, including a 1933 Packard 10th Series Convertible Sedan and a glorious 1929 Duesenberg Model J Town Car. On the more modest side was an exhibit based on the "Tin Lizzie in Maine." Millions of Ts were produced and in Maine they were converted to ice saws and powered sawmills, among other prosaic uses.

Museum Director Charles Chiarchiaro, originally from Connecticut, has been leading Owl’s Head since it was founded in the early 1970s, with input from Thomas J. Watson Jr. of IBM fame and other sometime Maine residents.

"We were originally going to be just an aircraft museum," Chiarchiaro said, "but people started donating cars, planes and whatever, including all manner of whimsical bicycles and carriages." The buildings are vast, but the collection is bigger, and much of it is in storage.

Museums are struggling these days, but Owl’s Head is staying afloat with frequent car auctions and other fundraisers. One of those was last week and the grounds were littered with such delectable auction offerings as a 1935 Auburn Boat-tail Speedster and a 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454 muscle car. My favorite, though, was a rough and unrestored Packard ambulance from the ’30s. "We take anything," Chiarchiaro said.

For a really fun time, visit the museum Sept. 26 to 27, when the historic Richard C. Paine Jr. collection goes under the hammer.