Founded in 1974, The Owls Head Transportation Museum is an operating, nonprofit museum with a strong focus on educational initiatives. Located on the Maine coast near the Knox County Regional Airport, the Museum is a place where machines of a bygone era are celebrated through conservation, preservation and demonstration.
Unlike many transportation museums, the Owls Head Transportation Museum operates our collection of aircraft, ground vehicles and engines at a number of special events conducted throughout the year. Care and maintenance of these historic vehicles requires the attention of a large volunteer workforce that, under the supervision of a professional staff, ensures that our collection is in operating condition. While the Museum is open all year, the summer event season offers an unparalleled opportunity to see our collection in action during scheduled airshows and ground vehicle demonstrations.
The Museum started with a handwritten note on the back side of a graduation program. It was mailed to Jim Rockefeller, who had a grass airstrip on the side of a mountain in Camden. The message was from Tom Watson, who had his own grass strip next to his North Haven Island summer home in sight of the Camden Hills. The two had met previously through their love of aviation. That handwritten message read: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have some old airplanes flying around Owls Head.” There was no question mark at the end of the message. Tom was head of IBM, and he didn’t use question marks.
This small gesture catalyzed a much grander plan. Jim, a builder of boats and airplanes, asked his friend Steve Lang if he would like to help spend some seed money that Watson said he would put up—if a place to fly old airplanes at the Rockland Airport could be obtained, and if the flying might be supported by the community in some way. Tom enjoyed combining business with pleasure. The word “museum” was bandied about as a plausible excuse to fly old airplanes. Cars were not mentioned at the time. The undeveloped land at the end of old Runway 17 was obtained from Knox County under the concept of a cultural park. It had been earmarked for an industrial park, which did not sit well with the locals. Owls Head was delighted to unload the problem. There was no access road. The seed money was spent to put in a dirt road. Paperwork was drawn up to form a nonprofit museum with a mission based on demonstrating the flying of old airplanes.
Next Lang and Rockefeller came up with the idea of a rally featuring old planes, cars and engines to arouse interest. In 1975, wings, wheels, old engines and contraptions of all types and people of all backgrounds gravitated to the first official Museum Rally. A 1912 Curtiss Pusher flew overhead, while vapor engulfed a Stanley Steamer whistling by. High wheel bicycles, chugging old engines, and hundreds of antique cars were enjoyed by thousands of visitors at the first event of its type ever held in Maine. From the inaugural rally, the Museum began to grow.
In 1976 Charles Chiarchiaro was offered a full-time job by Rockefeller and Lang. This followed a car ride to West Paris, Maine to save a steam engine from the wrecking ball. The talk was not focused on objects alone, but more importantly on the people of Maine and the vision of a museum where skills were shared, vehicles demonstrated, and imaginations ignited. Orchestration for the 1976 second Annual Rally and grand opening of the new museum began. The dirt road, covered with oil weekly to keep the dust down, brought visitors to a 40’ x 80’ building with two planes and two cars.
Like the start of any enterprise, stuff happened, some of it less than ideal. With the cold winds of winter pipes froze. With the warming winds of spring it was a challenge to hold back the flood waters. Sometimes overcoming challenges are what makes the place. An increasing number of trustees, volunteers and eventually staff formed a cohesive team, with the realization that a museum without the dedicated involvement of all types of people cannot be a true museum, no more than a house without people can be called a home. The Museum is a community of energy, excitement, collective human resources, compassion and commitment. This was the founders’ vision, and has in great part fueled the Museum’s success. The collection has grown from two automobiles, two aircraft, a high-wheel bicycle and a 100-ton steam engine to an internationally recognized collection of landmark vehicles and related technology. The combination of people and a collection that is maintained and exhibited in operating condition provides a special experience. This has become a detail and a calling card that has served to distinguish our museum throughout four decades.
The Museum has always upheld the principles of its founding mission, with the key aspects being demonstration and collection of ground vehicles, aircraft and related technology, while some of the following components are included in our mission, to educate, excite and inspire is a given. Mission determines collecting philosophy and Owls Head focuses on the pre-1940 period of transportation history. The collection and displays incorporate comparative exhibits to compare, contrast and promote perspective on the evolution of transportation.
Our outdoor exhibit area, the north end of Runway 17, is the host on event days for jet aircraft, muscle cars and cars from all decades, custom motorcycles, commercial vehicles, and even bulldozers. It is a platform where one moment an A-10 jet aircraft flies by, followed by a 1912 Curtiss Pusher or 1913 Etrich Taube. It is the stage where the collection can be demonstrated in context. Contrast, comparison, innovation and antics focus the spotlight on where it all began, while providing a fun learning experience.
It became apparent from day one that volunteers were not only the backbone of the Museum, but also a collective resource of experience, skills, vision and commitment. From retired clam diggers to the vice chairman of a Fortune 500 Company, they have worked side by side to deliver the Museum’s mission. They have built aircraft, educated, maintained, conserved, dug ditches, swept floors, and supported all events, programs and services.
Volunteers are attracted in many ways—by word of mouth, interest in our collections, the occasional media appeal, and through collaboration with our medical community. Physicians prescribe the Museum as very good medicine. The place provides a sense of gravity, connection, and above all the ability to witness measurable results from participation. It provides purpose and camaraderie. The volunteers are the Museum’s greatest resource, second only to the collection. They are the hands on the stick, throttle and wheel. The majority do not fly planes, drive old automobiles, or operate related contraptions. They work in the Library, educate, give tours, work in the Museum Store, are receptionists at the ever-important front desk, help with office tasks, work in the 100-acre nature park, and assist in so many other areas. The common thread is to deliver the mission collectively, and above all to make smiles, inspire and excite. They are now over 200 strong, and their ongoing cultivation as our most important resource is and will always be a necessity.
The Museum has always collaborated with the local and regional community, which grows ever larger. This includes: Open House Days, free admission to retired military and anyone under 18, flyovers of and historic ground vehicle participation in community events on request, assisting with local fundraising efforts, allowing discounted facility use by area nonprofits, reciprocal Museum admission and membership benefits, use of grounds for community safety and fire training, and public use of the 100-acre campus with its seven miles of hiking, ski and nature trails. The Museum has also given assistance after global disasters such as 9/11, the Great Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
While the Museum has always offered educational workshops for children and families, 2014 marked a very exciting commitment to refocus on our mission of education. Since 2014, the Museum has continued to work to foster partnerships with local organizations and introduce our initiatives to high school students eager to participate in our newest programs. The result of one of our most exciting collaborations was showcased at our 37th Annual New England Auto Auction™ in 2014, the result of a one-year partnership with the Mid-Coast School of Technology, a 1914 Ford Model T express pickup, was sold for $15,900. A portion of the proceeds were used to provide a scholarship for a high school student pursuing a post-secondary degree in the automotive restoration field. To date, the Museum remains dedicated to our partnership with the Mid-Coast School of Technology, as well as other educational institutions. In 2015 our youth volunteer corp grew tremendously, with volunteers as young as 13 joining the museum family. Both the aircraft restoration and ground vehicle restoration programs benefited greatly from the addition of youth volunteers and the Museum looks forward to continuing to welcome volunteers of all ages.
Your ongoing support will bring new images, memories and smiles. We have never felt better about the opportunities the Museum will be able to offer with its focus on family, education, community partnership, the ever-increasing level of excitement, and ability to inspire. The Museum has come a long way, but it is just a start.