Johnson Hall Museum | Here in New England
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.