2016-10-10 / Front Page

Willowbrook marks its last day

19th-century museum winds down after 47 seasons
By TAMMY WELLS Senior Staff Writer


Above: Ayerabella, left, and Diane Harrington of Cornish enjoy the ride Saturday on the 1894 Armitage Herschell carousel at 19th Century Willowbrook Village in Newfield. The museum is open today until 5 p.m. – and will then close after 47 seasons. Its properties and collections will be gifted to several historical nonprofits, the majority to The Curran Homestead in Orrington. Right: Michelle Sherman of Springvale tries her hand at pumping water the old-fashioned way on Saturday. 
TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune Above: Ayerabella, left, and Diane Harrington of Cornish enjoy the ride Saturday on the 1894 Armitage Herschell carousel at 19th Century Willowbrook Village in Newfield. The museum is open today until 5 p.m. – and will then close after 47 seasons. Its properties and collections will be gifted to several historical nonprofits, the majority to The Curran Homestead in Orrington. Right: Michelle Sherman of Springvale tries her hand at pumping water the old-fashioned way on Saturday. TAMMY WELLS/Journal Tribune NEWFIELD — In 1971, Tom Nash was in second grade at Newfield Elementary School, a building that is now the town’s municipal office. One day, his class took a field trip and walked half a mile up Elm Street to 19th Century Willowbrook Village.

In those days, the museum village, which showed folks how life was lived by people in rural Maine from about 1850 to 1920, was comprised of the 1813 Durgin Moore homestead and barns, the Dr. Isaac Trafton house and a couple of outbuildings.

As time went on, the village expanded to offer visitors the opportunity to see – and touch – hundreds, maybe thousands, of artifacts collected by Donald King, Willowbrook’s founder.

On Saturday, Nash, his brother Doug and his sister Sherri Nash-Parry, along with a few former classmates, had a reunion at the museum village.

“I walked around and realized how unique this place is,” he said.

Unique it is. But at 5 p.m. today, after 47 seasons, 19th Century Willowbrook Village will close its doors.

Upwards of 90 percent of Willowbrook’s collections and buildings will be gifted to the Curran Homestead, located near Route 1A – the road from Bangor to Ellsworth – in Orrington. The Newfield Historical Society has been offered some artifacts, as has the Sanford-Springvale Historical Museum and others.

Winding down a nonprofit institution with thousands of artifacts doesn’t happen overnight. Douglas King, son of Donald King and president of the Willowbrook Board of Trustees, said it is his understanding that the Curran Homestead plans to host some winter programs at Willowbrook in the new year – it assumes ownership Jan. 1 – and that there are plans for special field trips in the spring.

Donald King was an avid collector who had a vision and a passion to preserve history. The exhibits he purchased focus on the themes of daily living in a rural setting, from blacksmithing to ice harvesting in the winter to carpentry, carriage making, drawing water, making butter, cooking and more. He acquired carriages and sleighs and farm implements and eyeglasses, ice skates and a cider press – and an antique carousel.

Willowbrook has been a hands-on museum. Visitors are invited to grab a rope attached to a bale of hay and try hoisting it aloft in the barn, or draw water from a hand pump outside. Over in the Victorian kitchen, they can sample soda bread or some other treat created by Ruth Durfee and Johanne Vaters and baked in the wood stove.

Donald King died in 1985. His wife, Marguerite “Pan” King, oversaw the museum’s general direction and operations until 2000.

The recession in 2008 and the ensuing stock market plunge ate heavily into an endowment left by the founder, and despite many and varied fundraising efforts, the museum was never able to recover.

Douglas King on Sunday said the decision to close Willowbrook and gift its collection and property to other nonprofits was simply one of economics. Costs associated with operating the museum worked out to about $35 per visitor, he said, while admission is $15 for adults and $8 for children.

“If we had money, we’d be here for another century,” he said.

Attendance, which averaged 15,000 to 18,000 in the 1970s, dwindled to an average of 6,000 annually over the last several years, despite a number of new programs.

“It seemed no matter what we did, we couldn’t get the numbers up,” said King.

There were bean suppers and membership drives and applications for grant funding. Memberships sold well the first year, but renewals dropped off.

In the end, it just wasn’t enough.

“In 2010, we thought we had only a year or two left, but by being careful, we got another four years,” King said.

On Saturday, Willowbrook was busy – very busy – with visitors roaming through the barns and outbuildings or taking a ticket to ride on the 1894 Armitage Herschell carousel, gifted to Willowbrook by Ivory Fenderson V of Saco. The “portable” carousel was purchased by Federson’s father, cabinet maker Ivory Fenderson IV.

Willowbrook volunteer Janet Maxfield said the carousel, with its 12 pairs of painted horses, was meant for adults, not children, and that folks would dress in their best clothes to ride it. Ladies always had the inside horse; gentlemen the outside. After 14 years of restoration, the carousel opened at Willowbrook in 1991.

Austin Harris, 88, of Yarmouth, was among those taking a ride Saturday. He’s been to Willowbrook a couple of times, but Saturday was his first time on the carousel.

“I loved it,” he said with relish after the ride.

Richard Sherman of Springvale came with his family to take a tour.

“It’s always been here. I don’t understand how a place like this can close up,” he said.

“We’ve been meaning to do this for 30 years,” said Paddy Clark of Cape Elizabeth, who traveled to Newfield with her husband Jon on Saturday.

“This place is remarkable,” said Sue Dunphy of Rye of New Hamphire. She said she’d discovered Willowbrook just a week ago, and was back for her second – and last – visit.

“I’m heartbroken. No one’s doing this era,” said Dunphy of the 19th-century theme that showed transition from an agrarian to industrialized age. “Post-Civil War, everything changed.”

Late Saturday, there was one last bean supper, with two sittings, and the line to get inside stretched down the walkway and out to a side lawn.

“We’ve had a good run,” said Maxfield.

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or twells@journaltribune.com.

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