Johnson Hall Museum | Here in New England
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?”