All photos/art by Jared Charney
A word from our editor Mel Allen: When you have written about New Englanders for over 35 years as I have for Yankee, sometimes the faces and stories tend to blur one into the other. Not so with Bill Johnson, whose wildly eccentric collection of Americana formed one of the more unforgettable small museums in New England (“The Keeper,” Yankee September/October 2011). His Johnson Hall Museum in Wells, Maine, was a testament to one man’s thirst to collect everything that told a story, and any visitor to the museum would find Bill Johnson more than happy to share these stories. He was one of a kind, and when I learned that he died suddenly Saturday, Feb.1, 2014, at age 73, while bidding for yet more “stuff” that he could somehow cram into a nook and cranny, I thought he would not have wanted to leave this earth any other way than to be in the midst of treasures and the stories they promised. It’s obviously too soon to know what will happen to the museum and his priceless collection. His wife, Jo Johnson, was quoted in the Portland Press Herald as saying that for now nothing will be touched. There will be a celebration of his life Thursday February 6th at the museum, where every single item in its own way celebrated one man’s insatiable love of the simple and not so simple things that we touch and that make each of us unique and worthy of a story.
There’s a man whose love of history isn’t quenched by browsing antiques shops and museums, but whose need to touch and smell and possess the stuff of the past is as real as the air he breathes. His name is Bill Johnson. You can usually find him either sitting inside a large, white-columned building set back from Route 1, about two miles before entering Wells, Maine, or roaming his 15 green acres, bordering the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Inside the building (which served from 1923 to 1940 as Elsie Libby’s Colonial Tea Room) and all along its broad porch, and strewn here and there along the land, as casually, it seems, as a child’s flung-down bicycle, rest the physical remnants of his feverish ambition to seemingly own and in some way preserve nearly every building and artifact that once touched people’s lives in years long past.
I learned about Bill Johnson, and what he calls the Johnson Hall Museum–sometimes the Johnson American Museum–from a reader who implored us on a notecard to pay a visit. She recalled touring “a wild collection” and described Bill Johnson, her tour guide, as “a wild person.” She added, “We were charmed, interested, and entertained.” When Johnson asked her what was the most interesting thing she saw there, our correspondent replied, “You!”
A quick Web search shows that the few people who have stumbled onto the place have felt similarly compelled to tell the world. “You gotta see it to believe it. Best $5 tour ever!” gushed one blogger after a visit this past May. There are photo postings by people who wandered in, not knowing what was there, and who promptly took dozens of shots, some of them strangely beautiful, of tired old buildings and rusted machinery, and curiosities such as a towering wooden moose. So off we went to find Bill Johnson.
The man responsible for collecting all of these buildings and countless hundreds of antiques and relics of cultural pop art (including Elvis memorabilia) sits contentedly in a chair inside the front door. Parked in front of the driveway is a gleaming silver 1937 LaSalle, which he soon points out is the vehicle he uses to chauffeur brides to the unique wedding reception that awaits inside.
“The best dance floor within 100 miles,” he boasts, then cautions, “You have to appreciate old junk if you rent the space. Otherwise you go down to the VFW hall.”
A sign out front indicates that “Jo Johnson, M.D. Ophthalmologist” shares the space. Another prompts, “Enjoy your pictures. $5 restoration donation. Much obliged.” The room is cool and softly lit. I find a round-faced, pleasant man, bearing a passing resemblance to the actor Anthony Hopkins. He’s hitting 71, but his gray hair hangs to his shoulders in a pigtail. It’s immediately apparent that he enjoys conversation, because “everything I have has a story.”
It’s Sunday, and he’s joined by his wife of 34 years, Dr. Jo Johnson, who’s happy to show off her office. “Most unusual waiting room in America,” Bill Johnson says. “Probably the world,” adds his wife. On a desk rests a device labeled “Complaint Department.” There’s also a pushbutton that sets off a reaction that ends with a mousetrap going off. “He entertains my patients,” Dr. Johnon says. “He’s like the cat who brings a mouse home to show you. Only it’s not a mouse he’s bringing home; it’s always something.” When patients open the bathroom door, they’re greeted by a large painting of a nude woman. Most of her patients like it, she notes: “If they don’t, they go to the other office in nearby Saco. It’s more conventional in my other office.”
Dr. Johnson is trim, with short, dark hair, and at about 5-foot-7 stands taller than her husband by nearly a forehead. She comes across immediately as having the generous spirit of a woman who loves her man and who long ago decided to do her best to make room for what he brings home, much like couples who have learned to live with one partner’s need to rescue dozens of stray cats.
“I come from a long line of paper-bag and string savers,” Bill Johnson says as we survey a packed front room–everything from Hannibal Hamlin’s campaign flag and a statue carved by Union prisoners at Andersonville, to Nantucket baskets, to photographs of Wild Bill Hickok. Each time he swings around, he plucks something to show and tell. “I’m sorry to say I have things I’ve had since I was 10 years old,” he explains. “I’ve just upgraded in quality over the years. Just the accumulation of a Yankee over the years.” He knows the story behind everything he touches, and it’s apparent that without the story there’s no joy of ownership.
“His mother tells that when he used to visit his grandmother, he’d stand up and look in the china closet, and because he was so little everyone would start screaming at him,” Dr. Johnson says. “And his grandmother would say, ‘Leave him alone. He won’t break anything.'”
Johnson wants visitors to know he doesn’t collect these things just to own them, but because they matter, and what matters is the story of where they once stood, to whom they belonged, what was happening in the world when they were once looked at and touched. His family goes back 10 generations in southern Maine, and those ties breed patience. He grew up on a dairy farm, and as a boy delivered hay to Elsie Libby, whose tearoom was the fanciest eating place around. Franklin Roosevelt stopped by in 1932 shortly before his first election and complained that her $1.50 lobster was too expensive in a Depression. “Governor,” she replied crisply, “this is a short season.”
At times, Johnson has waited decades to claim an item he wanted, staking out various antiques shops, using all his gifts of persuasion to hopefully pry something loose from their shelves to his. He waited years to get this place; it had gone just about to ruin since Mrs. Libby had closed the tearoom. She died in 1973, and it took him seven more years to own the tearoom, the ballroom that came with it, and this small parcel of her 1,000 acres, which spilled down to the sea.
Johnson was once one of the most popular auctioneers in the region, with people crowding the lawn here just to laugh at his repartee. “But he’d get upset,” his wife says, “when he had to auction pictures of people’s relatives. He’s very sentimental.”
If people come inside and Johnson senses that they view this as a sort of sideshow, a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” in the middle of nowhere, or if they’re here to fill their car trunks with a windfall of antiques that he has little desire to part with, he finds a way to quickly discourage their lingering.
But if you stop by with genuine curiosity, you may find that an afternoon slips away. If he senses a spark, he’ll lead visitors through his collected life, in words and often song.
He guides a visitor through a jaunty walk around his office and antiques emporium, home to clocks of all sizes and shapes, music boxes, organ grinders, Victrolas, posters, paintings, every this or that you can imagine–and then to the ballroom, with its player piano that he can’t pass without playing and singing along. Behind the ballroom is the original kitchen, complete with china to serve 100 guests.
Then he slaps on a pith helmet and heads outside, past a plow and a tractor; an abandoned Depression-era service station and an 18th-century blacksmith shop; a one-room schoolhouse from the 1880s and a faded cabin from the former Sandy Cove nudist colony; a stray cabin, its paint blistered off, from an old Route 1 cottage colony (House o’ Comfort: A Dollar a Night); abandoned railroad cars and a railroad depot; 19th-century jail cells from his native Berwick, built by P. T. Barnum’s brother; an old-fashioned soda fountain plucked from a Rochester, New Hampshire, drugstore; an ice house, which launches him into a talk on the role that ice exporting played in New England; and a midcentury Spartan trailer. He glides through the Spartan’s interior with loving steps, passing his hand over the woodwork, pointing out the original plumbing. “This is a time capsule,” he says. “Where else can you find this?”
He stops in front of a caboose. “From 1890,” he says. “It was advertised in the Portland paper. I told Jo about it, and she said, ‘We don’t really need a caboose, do we?’ I said, ‘Let’s go look at it.’ So we went, and she saw it and liked it.”
And then Johnson may let slip that down the road in Kennebunk there sits an 18th-century former tavern that he restored to a fine dwelling for his wife and son Andrew, now an opera singer in Vienna. Over time the house was awash with his finds, and, rather than fight it, he and his wife moved across the street to a tidy ranch, leaving the house to the lovely ghosts of his obsession.
On a hillside he shows off a parsonage that arrived on trucks. As many buildings as there are standing here, there are more waiting to join them. Each building moved here has put him in some sort of conflict with the town fathers of Wells, who still don’t know quite what to think. What exactly is he making here? The structures keep showing up, a village of misfits that to Bill Johnson are beautiful, still filled with the life that once happened nearby.
Every one of his buildings needs care and mending, which he says he’ll get to, but judging from his wife’s knowing eyes, he may not, not now anyway, not when he has so many other things to do. He talks of building a boardwalk around the land so that visitors can take it all in.
Then there’s the 19th-century Baptist church, where his stepfather prayed every Sunday. It took him four years to gain a permit that would allow him to disassemble it and move it to his hillside beside the parsonage. Then came one project after another; the months wore on and the permit expired, and now in the summer of 2011 he has to reapply. And 20 miles away is a one-ton steam engine he’s bought; he has to figure out how to get it here.
He wants to do so many things, and he could probably do all of them, except for the fact that he rises so early and heads off to flea markets and antiques gatherings, waking his wife up, first when he leaves, and then when he comes back. “He says to me, ‘You gotta see this,’ and it’s like he sees something and he’s got to have it,” she tells me.
There was a time when Johnson sold as much as he bought. Now, his wife says, “His usual excuse for not wanting to sell is ‘You have to ask the boss.’ That’s supposed to be my clue to say, ‘Oh, we can’t possibly part with it.'” She sighs softly, whispering, “There are things he doesn’t understand. Like there’s this little problem: The more buildings he moves here, the more they tax us, and the property’s not earning any money. So it’s a problem.”
I pose the question to the collector himself: “What if someone comes in and says, ‘I love this–I want to buy it’?” “They usually don’t appreciate it as much as I did when I bought it,” Johnson replies. “If you’re a collector and it says Antiques, everything has to have a price. But you hang out a sign Museum, you don’t have to sell anything.”
Smiling, he finishes the tour inside the old railroad depot. On the wall is a sign: Trojan Ice Cream. Beside it, Climax Ginger Ale. “Now, where are you ever going to find another?”
“You know,” he sighs, “you can’t save everything.” I steal a glance at Jo Johnson, and I see in her eyes a truth she knows. Maybe he can’t, but that won’t stop him from trying.
When I leave, he says, “Be sure to put my telephone number in. I can take care of a busload of people. If they book me ahead, I can take care of them.”