Tucked-away Willowbrook welcomes you to the 1800s

Strolling into the restored carriage house here to look at America's largest collection of 19th-century sleighs, carriages, milk wagons, and pungs, you're apt to walk right by their slightly zealous proprietor. With khaki pants, shirt , and hat, oil millionaire Don F. King Sr. is very intentionally dressed to look like the gardener.

''If people knew who I was, I'd get a hundred and fifty thousand more questions than I already do,'' says the gray-haired, goateed retiree.

In 1965, this quixotic collector boldly bought the center of Newfield and acquired every 19th-century artifact he could get his hands on within a radius of 100 miles, he says. He read everything he could find to verify authentic country Victorian living. And in 1970, he opened Willowbrook Restoration Village , an exceptional ''nostalgic look at another era.''

Now $3 million worth of acquisition and 12 years of restoration later, these seven acres of homesteads, barns, stables, and sheds are touted as the only village of the kind in the country and America's largest free-flow museum. ''Free-flow,'' according to King, means the few attendants don't keep you from touching the pianos, organs, gramophones, farm machinery, tools, relics, household furnishings, bicycles, sleighs, and carriages.

As many as possible of the 11,000 items are not under glass, and there are no ''hands-off'' signs. Visitors are meant to use the meadows, yards, and benches to slow their pace to a leisurely stroll. Then they can take time to soak in the charm of this quiet country village in the frame of mind of the times, ''the times'' being approximately 1850 to 1900, when Newfield was a major center for designing and building all manner of horse-drawn vehicles. The area and buildings have been painstakingly kept as they were in the 19th century, without paved walks or driveways. Guests are urged to wear comfortable shoes, and to mind where they're going on the creaky wooden stairs, through low doorways, and in crossing the dirt and gravel roads.

''I toured the US since the time I was a kid, and every museum I saw was very restrictive - don't-do-this-or-that signs everywhere, glaring attendants, . . . '' King says. ''I said if I ever have my own, there will be none of that.'' You'll be hard pressed to see anyone looking even remotely official in the 27 buildings and sheds that make up Willowbrook, since it has only nine employees, four of them running the gift shop and restaurants.

Those include the restored homesteads of William Durgin and Dr. Isaac Trafton , Amos Straw's country store and stables, and Mr. Durgin's barn. This restored property stands today as it did 100 years ago. King also added sheds to house farm machinery, a print shop, bicycle shop, tool shop, and a one-room schoolhouse - modeled after one built in Parsonsfield, Maine, in 1810. He built a ''Trades of Yesteryear'' town which includes a photo studio, barbershop, toy shop, and a bank. With these additions and other exhibits, Willowbrook is twice the size it was 12 years ago.

You're not apt to run across Willowbrook by accident. Its seven acres stand off the beaten track near the New Hampshire border, just off Route 11 in York County, and about 30 miles inland from Saco, Maine. If you do find it, you're apt to drive by the small sign on Amos Straw's horse-drawn milk wagon. It gives the impression of being another touristy ice cream parlor-gift shoppe-cum rest stop.

But those who stop are pleasantly surprised to find real history here. Loads and loads of it. A former master mechanic and lubrication engineer, Don King felt that Americans' recollection of the 19th century was fast becoming a lost art. He thought the proper way to preserve it was in a Maine community that had flourished during that time. Now all the buildings are completely restored to the splendor of the 1800s - a gay time, he says, at the center of the ''great mechanical revolution'' in America.

The loft of the Durgin Barn is only a hint of what's to come: a Fleur de Lis Cutter (with high runners and a horse hitched on the side); a double-seated formal sleigh (''one of the finer of the times,'' says a small sign); a mountain wagon (note the high clearance for rocks, the lanterns and whips); a 1790 covered crescent sleigh (a small oval window permits you to look out the back); and a Ladies' Spring Cutter with collapsible seat. There's even a US Mail pung (a boxlike sleigh drawn by one horse).

The sleighs and carriages are painted their original colors - bright reds, greens, yellows, and black, with wool and fur blankets draped over the newly upholstered seats. Staff member Bill Reed says the carriages are usually found painted black and are stripped down to their original colors.

Unsuspecting visitors are often overwhelmed. Those who haven't left open the better part of a day find themselves making plans to finish up the next morning.

''We had no idea,'' says one stymied visitor, speaking for a group of latecomers as Don King validated their tickets so they could return in the morning. ''This is the most astonishing, priceless collection I've ever seen. We've just come too late to see it all.'' King smiles a knowing smile. He knows his visitors have spent about two hours in the first two buildings - and have 25 to go.

What is impressive here is both the quantity and the quality. King says that in 1965 when people found he was looking for these vehicles, they called from miles around to see if they could unload theirs. He ended up buying the whole contents of barns and attics and became the prime restorer and preserver of the town's antiquity. After a few years he reduced his collection by 30 percent. What's left is the cream of the crop.

Adjoining the sleigh exhibit under a ''duck or bump'' sign is a room of headless mannequins. These ladies' forms are dressed in the formal attire of the late 1880s as well as in picnic bloomers and lace-trimmed velvet and satin dresses. Hanging on the wall are white, tie-down dust caps that protected women's hair when in horse-drawn transit. To the side is a vast ballroom with a piano, Chautauqua organ, all manner of horns, a ''concert hall gramophone,'' and the first silent moving-picture projector in Maine.

Another flight down - past the locksmith, harness shop, shoe shop, creamery, and laundry - is the farm machinery: wooden bean and pea threshers; an early riding cultivator; horse-drawn manure spreader; vast, wooden snow rollers used to flatten out a path of snow in the deep Maine winters. The list goes on: bean and cranberry winnowers, corn huskers, riding sulky plow, all sitting on gravel floors beneath rough-cut, exposed wooden beams. Outside, the gurgle of a running brook cutting across a well-manicured meadow and into and out of a mill pond adds a timeless sound to the historic sights and smells. In the background is the distant silhouette of a mill.

How did it all start? ''Pure, basic stupidity,'' says King wryly. ''Nothing intelligent about it.'' He bought the four original buildings for use as a hunting lodge. After filling them with his burgeoning collection of artifacts, a woman in town said he should turn the whole enterprise around and make a museum of it. ''I listened,'' says King, ''spent three million, and now I'd like to give that lady a swift kick in the left knee,'' he says with a wink. Actually, Mr. King feels very strongly about turning the millions he earned in the oil industry into a worthwhile enterprise that everyone can enjoy.

He says that in 1967, ''you couldn't give the stuff away. Folks were glad to have someone come to their housesholds and barns and drag it away. People were soaking all these old cabinets and dressers in the rain to get the veneer off to use the pine.''

He met Georgia Perry in 1968. She is now director and prime restorer of the village, in charge of all restoration and management. Mrs. Perry had moved from Texas with no prior knowledge of restoration, nor of the crafts necessary for restoration - wallpapering, painting, upholstery, carpentry. She learned by careful, on-the-job experience and now supervises a year-round restoration staff of five other women. Two men are employed to do the more sophisticated carpentry and heavier work.

''It's worked out just beautiful,'' remarks King. He says he lets Mrs. Perry make all the decisions. ''We have no directors, no committees, no boards. We just all sit around the restaurant and decide what should and shouldn't be done.''

King says he purchased the Trafton homestead for $5,000. He then sank $85,000 into the structure alone - before filling it with the brass beds, children's carriages and toys, one of the first bathtubs (with a wooden seat) in America, and the first shower (''Kilborn's Quick bath'' - like a hanging sprinkler can with a lever arm). An unmarried maiden's room, children's nursery, music room, parlor, maritime museum, and kitchen grace the house's three stories.

Across the road is the Durgin Homestead. This was the last large home left in Newfield after a 1947 fire leveled 80 percent of the town. Durgin's was a stagecoach inn for coaches running from Waterboro to Standish. Since the hills were too steep for 19th-century train engines, this short coach line connected two railheads from Boston to Portland. Overstuffed scarlet velvet furniture accents the entire lower floor. A tulip wood piano with violin on top graces the parlor. Over it is a picture called ''The Recital'' - the first attempt at three-dimensional photography in America.

In one room, King points out an early love seat, known as a tufted fainting seat, covered with maroon velvet. An elegant dining room table with eight china place settings highlights the back room. To the side is the library with an Eastlake cylinder desk, 1886 Encyclopaedia Britannica, a small organ from Concord, N.H., and a stereopticon.

Running between the four original buildings are sheds covered in corrugated tin, housing farm machinery. Knowing men dislike the word ''museum,'' King's long row of covered sheds is intended to appeal more to them. The sheds contain planters and seeders, steam engines, an extensive carpenter shop, horse-drawn equipment, a boat shop, barrelmaking shop (cooperage), and a cider mill.

One small shed holds an arresting tool shop. Two of the more intriguing items are a lathe large enough to turn porch posts (''There's not another in America, '' says King) and a copying lathe. Put, for instance, a baseball bat on one side of the lathe, a rough piece of wood on the other. A metal arm follows the contour of the bat, much in the fashion of modern keymaking machines. The other half of the lathe turns out a perfect replica. King says when he bought the lathe for $500 it was just a mass of rust. He sandblasted it, painted it, and restored it.

''And every item in the village is restored to perfect working order,'' King says. Asked about one stopped clock in the doctor's house, King said the women often don't find the time to wind them. Everything else - from drills and saws to pianos and organs - King will gladly demonstrate.

King says the whole enterprise is therapeutic. He makes the purchases (''very few right now; there's no place left to store anything''), designs the displays, and picks out all the colors.

He is very serious when he says ''everything is left up to the women.'' He says he has no idea of what kind of budget the village runs on and leaves every detail - except what to purchase - to them. Mrs. King says she and her husband have the status of volunteers and work here every day without pay.

His latest acquisition is a 24-horse, 1886 carrousel ''found under a few haystacks of straw'' in a barn in nearby Saco. In one small attic of the Trafton homestead, King and his restorers spray hot emulsifying oil onto the surface of the a wooden horse. This brings out its original color. Snapshots are taken, then each horse is sanded to bare wood and repainted to the original colors.

The dozen or so restored horses are on display in the carriage house. But King intends the steam-powered carrousel to be running soon - instead of going up and down like most merry-go-round horses, he says his will canter.

King says his only concession to the 20th century is the Christmas Etcetera Shop on Willowbrook's grounds, which boasts one of the largest gift emporiums in Maine. Other commercial aspects include the restaurant and the Amos Straw general store, exactly restored to the way it was on opening day in 1836. Here you can buy cheeses, penny candies, syrups, pickles, and jams and spreads of all kinds.

Willowbrook is named after a sign one of the workers found on the property. Since that discovery, willow trees have been planted across its small acreage. Despite minimal advertising, it attracts about 20,000 visitors a year. It's open from mid-May through September, though the staff works year-round restoring the artifacts. And as King is quick to announce, Willowbrook is completely privately funded. He won't raise the admission price ($3.50 for adults, $2 for students, children under 6 admitted free), and he disdains federal money that is available.

''This isn't a museum, it's an entertainment,'' he says. ''Why should taxpayers pay for my fun? I can't take it with me, so I might as well put some of it out right here for everyone to enjoy.''

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