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Willowbrook Village Museum slims down

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Posted: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 11:10 am

The future of the 19th Century Willowbrook Village museum in Newfield started to take shape this past Friday.

Seven volunteers and staff gathered to say good-bye to an old friend, loading a roadable aeroplane built in the 1930s into a 53-foot trailer on its way to an auction house in Georgia.

Built by New York resident Frank Skroback, the plane is part of founder Donald King's collection that is the heart and soul of Willowbrook. While the plane is certainly old, it is not old enough to demonstrate what life was like in the 1800s in Maine. At a time when Willowbrook's financial future is in doubt, the plane and other items are going on the auction block over the winter and next spring.

"We needed to access what we have here," Director Amelia Chamberlain said.

When Chamberlain first became director at Willowbrook six years ago, she began the process to trim down the many items collected by King, removing duplicates and anything considered not part of the museum's mission to provide a slice of life in Maine in the 1800s.

That process took on more urgency earlier this year when a $100,000 shortfall prompted fears Willowbrook would close. After a show of support at events during the summer, along with donations, talk of closure ended, but not the efforts to ensure the museum's survival long term.

Willowbrook's board of directors has been discussing a phased plan to sell some of the equipment sheds on Spring Road. Chamberlain said eight buildings, mostly sheds but also the carpentry shop, should be gone by next summer.

Items that are duplicated in the museum's collection will also be sold, along with those that don't reflect the museum's mission to illustrate life in rural Maine between 1830-1920. The items will be sold in several auctions over this winter and spring to help support the museum and its collections.

Exhibits are being regrouped under specific themes. Chamberlain said Willowbrook would become more "user friendly," though not all of the work will be completed by the time Willowbrook opens next Memorial Day weekend. A few displays are going to be maintained until school field trips are completed next spring.

"People will be able to see things they haven't seen before," she said.

Willowbrook's exhibits are spread out over 3.5 acres and housed in 34 structures. During the next year, Chamberlain said, Willowbrook will enhance its exhibits with information explaining how items were used in everyday life, where they came from, who made them, how they changed over time, and what would be the equivalent of these objects in our world today.

King lived in Newfield in the 1960s and loved collecting mechanical antiques like engines, tractors, rototillers, gas-powered pumps and tools, along with artifacts of 19th-century rural Maine like carriages, wagons, coaches, snow rollers, farm implements, bicycles and period furnishings. He completed two historic homes and barns he had acquired. Next came a cooperage shop, a printer's shop, a blacksmith shop, toys, clothing, a one-room schoolhouse, and finally an Armitage Herschell traveling carousel painstakingly restored.

In 1970, he and his wife, Pan King, created the museum with several buildings. These included the Durgin house and Trafton houses and barns, which have been on site since 1813 and survived the Fire of '47. Before his death in 1985, the museum became a nonprofit and King personally paid for most of the 10,000 artifacts and covered shortfalls out of his own pocket. Pan King ran the museum until a few years before her death in 2003.

The couple provided for the future of Willowbrook with an endowment that stood at some $750,000 last year. At around $100,000 annually, the interest had been enough to supplement the $100,000 in annual revenues the museum brought in. But the poor economy and stock market difficulties cut into the interest generated by the endowment.

The transition to a smaller Willowbrook will take time and effort. For example, the plane had been listed with Owls Head Transportation Museum in its Barn Fresh online auction program. Chamberlain said there were many "lookers" but no bidders. Red Baron Auctions in Atlanta, Ga., was approached and the plane was sold in late November.

Willowbrook has more than 50 carriages. Chamberlain said they are being relocated, with 16 set to go to auction. This includes a furniture sleigh too large to easily store, she said.

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