RAYMOND — For those interested in history, vehicles or the movies, the Northwest Carriage Museum, right off of State Highway 101 in the heart of Raymond, is a destination that invites exploration.
This year the well-appointed museum at 314 Alder St., that includes 28 historic horse-drawn vehicles, is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
“One of the comments that we get a lot from first-time visitors is that they had no idea that a museum of this quality was right here,” said Jerry Bowman, 59, curator. He and his wife, Laurie, 56, director of the museum, are transplants to Pacific County from Southern California nine years ago after early retirements. They have embraced small town living in general and the carriage museum in particular.
The museum began with the donation of 21 carriages to the City of Raymond from the private collection of Pacific County residents Gary and Cec Dennis. Gary is the grandson of S.L. Dennis, founder of the Twin Harbors’ area stores, The Dennis Company. A non-profit organization was formed, grants were secured and the Northwest Carriage Museum was built. Gary’s son and daughter-in-law, Randy and Amy Dennis, were the drivers behind creating the museum and remain active board members.
The building, with its rustic pine floors, professional signage, specialty lighting and classy, small gift shop, helps to show off a fine collection of horse-drawn carriages from the 1850s to the 1920s. Each one — from those that had heavy daily use such as the 1895 Studebaker buggy and the family Rockaway to those that spent less time on the road, such as the ornate carved panel hearse or the sophisticated bowed front Brougham in which wealthy people were chauffeured — has been restored to mint condition and tells not just a story about itself, but also about the time, people and prevalent attitudes of the day.
The collection includes the C-Spring Dress Landau carriage – costing $1,500 in a day when the average yearly wage was about $200 to $400. The driver’s seat was elevated for prestige. It also includes a 19th Century Hansom Cab used as a taxi in New York City in which a small trap door in the roof of the buggy allows passengers to hand up their money before the driver releases the latch to let them out. (“It prevented the driver from getting stiffed,” Bowman says.)
Then there’s the surrey with the fringe on top, which some folks might assume from the famous song in “Oklahoma!” is some sort of fancy courting rig. Turns out the surrey was the sturdy, family vehicle of the day and the song is a little like saying “the station wagon with the wood on the side” for sweethearts in the 1970s.
With the informative signage, one can learn a lot from a self-guided tour, but Bowman or another docent is more than eager to talk about each carriage if visitors show an inkling that they’d like questions answered in person.
“I’ve always been a history buff and I’ve loved doing the historical research associated with the museum as well as a little bit of the woodwork and restoration work,” Bowman said. “I love being here. I love talking to all the visitors. And, I’m proud that the museum has gained a national reputation for carriage knowledge and information.”
For instance, Bowman passes along this bit of information that gives a different perspective to the romantic “olden days” that a movie can’t supply: In major cities the stench from the horses and their waste, was an ongoing concern. In the 1890s, the United States had about 25 million horses, compared to about 4.5 million today, Bowman said. In New York City about 300,000 horses were in the city each day – and each was responsible for about 25 pounds of manure. Workers in wagons would go through the city streets shoveling manure all day long. Then the pile of manure was taken out on a barge and dumped into the river.
“In fact, when the first automobiles – also known as horseless carriages – came, they advertised them as ‘the solution to pollution,’” he said.
For movie buffs, four carriages will be especially fascinating. There’s the intricately carved panel hearse from the 1880s that was part of Hollywood stunt man Ace Hudkins’ stable of carriages he rented to movie companies for use in their films. The hearse shows up in “Gentleman Jim,” starring Errol Flynn, the story about heavyweight boxing champion James Corbett.
Then there’s the C-Spring Victoria, a very elegant ladies’ carriage once owned by 20th Century Fox and used in “The Little Princess,” starring Shirley Temple.
Another elegant carriage, the Landaulette, that was used in the 1940s movie, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” starring Rex Harrison, is also proudly on display.
But it’s the 1890s Brewster Carriage, the Shelburne Landau, that can be seen in the movie “Jezebel” and was also ridden by the Belle Watkins character in the epic “Gone with the Wind” movie, that seems to garner the most awe. It’s displayed next to a running loop of the classic film.
While many might be star struck by the carriages that have been in the movies, it’s the oldest vehicle in the museum that is likely the most valuable, Bowman said. It’s a road coach from the late 1850s in England, which was used to deliver the mail through the countryside on the London to Exeter route. Looking like a stage coach, this carriage is especially amazing because the road coaches that delivered mail took such a daily beating — heavily loaded and traveling on rough terrain — that most only lasted three to five years.
Bowman said it’s likely this particular one must not have been in service long, perhaps replaced when the train took over the route in the 1850s or 1860s.
In addition to the carriages, the museum includes a mock up of a 1890s school house, where children can sit at desks, write on the chalkboard and ring the school bell. While you can’t touch or climb onto the carriages in the main display area, this area features a mechanical horse one can drive, a wheelwright shop to learn from and a replica of a 3-Spring Democrat wagon one can hop aboard. There are even various costumes available to enhance pretend play and picture opportunities for children and adults.
From May 1 through Sept. 30, the Northwest Carriage Museum is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday. During the off season — from Oct. 1 through April 30 — it is open five days a week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children 6 to 18 years old, with children under 5 years free. In addition, a family price of $10 is offered. Group tour rates offer $1 off per person plus a 10 percent discount of anything in the gift store. Call ahead to schedule group tours, Bowman said, adding that the museum can even sometimes accommodate after-hours tours for a group and can tailor tours to fit any timeframe or schedule.
Last year the museum gave 32 tours to everyone from school classes, Scout groups and church youth groups to car clubs, service groups, RV clubs and senior citizens groups. On the tours, visitors learn from museum staff dressed in period costumes about the individual vehicles as well as the day to day life in the 1890s.
If it seems like the Bowmans are especially accommodating and passionate about the museum, that impression is accurate. Jerry had worked as a senior vice president within Bank of America’s technology division and Laurie had worked as a human resources and personnel director at a small consulting firm in Southern California.
When they decided to retire early and get out of the rat race, they literally started driving up the coast to find a small town that appealed to them.
“I always wanted to live in a small town and I knew that with his personality and outgoingness that Jerry would love it too,” Laurie recalled. “When we got to South Bend we thought it was a cute little town. It reminded us of Maine. When we stopped at a local campground, Jerry went to check us in and didn’t come back for an hour. He came back boasting of his new friend, Louie, who owned the golf course. He was making friends already!”
The couple found a home in South Bend and moved in 2004, jumping into small town life with both feet. Jerry has served on the city council, remodeled the local community center and is a certified hunter education instructor. Laurie volunteers her time with a first grade reading program and was president of HAVA, a local animal welfare group, for five years. Their museum involvement began in 2007.
“It‘s just been a natural fit and we couldn’t believe that our little small town has this,” Laurie said.
“My dream would be to add on to the museum some day,” her husband added. “I’m very proud that the museum has become a destination point for people – even from out of state,” he said, noting that they’ve had visitors from almost 48 states and at least 20 different countries.
“I’m also glad that our museum can play a role in helping our local economy. People come to see the carriages and then they have a bite to eat in town or buy some groceries or gasoline. And, of course we refer people to local businesses all the time,” he said.
“It’s really worth the stop,” added Laurie. “And the drive to Raymond is beautiful.”
Each fall the museum hosts an Oktoberfest event, complete with German food, drink and an oompah band. This year, on Saturday, Sept. 22, that event will be combined with the 10th anniversary celebration. On that day, admission to the museum will be free. That evening the museum will feature dinner and dancing for adults for $15 each from 5 to 9 p.m.
For more information about the Northwest Carriage Museum, check out the website at www.nwcarriagemuseum.org or call the museum at (360) 942-4150.