Johnson Hall Museum | Here in New England
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.”