Retiring director says volunteers are 'heart and soul' of transportation museum
Owls Head — Since the beginning of the Owls Head Transportation Museum in 1974, volunteers have been “the heart and soul” of the operation, said Charles Chiarchiaro, the museum’s only executive director in its history.
“I was the first employee in 1976,” he said. “But I was a volunteer for a year first.
“We began with 15 volunteers, two cars and two planes in a 40-foot by 90-foot hangar, the building we’re in now,” he said in an Aug. 13 interview. “We have 250 volunteers today, ranging from retired corporation executives, clam diggers, lobstermen, to physicians.”
A favorite volunteer story of his is about “Mac” Rogers, a retired doctor from Bremen and now Rockland, who once used his surgeon’s skills to sew the fabric on the wing of a replica Wright Brothers flyer.
“One of our major goals has been to involve the community through volunteers and to invite the schools, and to make it a place for people to have fun with cars,” he said.
In his tenure, Chiarchiaro said he has seen the museum grow to become one of the finest operating collections of pioneer ground power and air vehicles in the country.
“People started donating cars and planes, and we needed more buildings and money,” he said.
Car auctions are the mainstay of the museum’s economy. The one on Aug. 25 will be the 35th annual New England Auto Auction. “Cars come from all over, from Ramblers to Rolls-Royces, from $2,000 to $200,000. The auction is our biggest fundraiser, bringing in $4 million in revenue over the years,” he said.
“At our first auction, we sold nine cars, and took a 10 percent commission. We earned $19,000 that year,” he said.
The museum still does not own the cars it sells, but continues to take a commission of 10 percent on the sales of cars that belong to members, interested sellers and car lovers.
Chiarchiaro, who lives in Waldoboro, has an unusual background for his job. He was 26 when he started, armed with a degree in psychology and a love of technology and design. A native of New York City, he grew up in Weston, Conn.
In high school, he said he was more interested in music than academics, and went to Cornwall Academy in the Berkshires in Great Barrington, Mass., where he was allowed to follow his interest. From there he went to the former Nasson College in Springvale, Maine, where he got a degree in psychology.
His first job after college was as a union laborer working first for Bath Iron Works and then for Central Maine Power.
Looking at a black and white 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air on his lot this week, he pointed out that the car was designed in a country that was engaged in the Space Race. “The ’56 Chevy looked as if it was getting ready to go to the moon,” he said.
Yet for all the emphasis on airplane and auto design, the museum has to be run as a business, he said.
“We have not relied on federal funding, and we don’t borrow money,” he said.
“Our philosophy as a nonprofit is not just to break even, but to make sure we have enough capital left to repair the roof every few years, and to pave the roads.
“We know when not to spend money,” he said. “I’m just as excited when we don’t spend money.”
The museum was the vision of three entrepreneurs, James S. Rockefeller Jr. of Camden, Steven Lang of Owls Head and the late Thomas Watson Jr., son of the founder of International Business Machines.
Rockefeller and Lang are active and still on the board of trustees.
At the time, townspeople were considering an industrial park for the space that was owned by Knox County. “But Rockland already had an industrial park,” he said.
“Somebody said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to fly some old planes,’ and that was the beginning,” he said. “The founders chose to have a cultural park and early aircraft.”
Into this setting came a young Chiarchiaro, who had exhibited his passion for technology with a parts shop in Wiscasset. When he met the founding triumvirate, there was a meeting of minds, so to speak, and he agreed to join them as a volunteer, he said. A year later he was offered the job as executive director at a salary of $9,000 a year.
“That’s how much I was earning at the shop in Wiscasset,” he said, “So I struggled with it for a while." He said he would drive his 1948 Chevrolet pickup truck to the Moosehead Lake area and find old auto parts to take back to Wiscasset.
Chiarchiaro said as he leaves the museum, he knows that he is leaving it on a solid platform of no debt. “We do not take a step unless we have the money in hand,” he said.
“Our mission is to make smiles, promote vision in children,” he said. “When you think about it, just 100 years ago the Wright brothers flew the first plane, and Henry Ford converted an old carriage into the first automobile.”
“We are able to show how the past has helped us understand design, style and form,” he said, referring to the cultural aspect of the museum’s mission.
His love for technology is demonstrated in the engine room, which has an historical array of old steam engines, internal combustion engines and jet engines. The room depicts a history of transportation, including a full-sized model of a horse — just to show where it all came from.
He plans to retire by the end of this year, but he will continue to work as a consultant for nonprofits, a business concept he firmly believes in. He wants to spend more time with his wife, Ann, a retired teacher, his daughter, Elaina, who lives in New Gloucester and works for a nonprofit in Portland, and his grandson, Sullivan.
Family is important to him, he said. Although his mother has passed away, his father at 93 is still around. “My father was here just yesterday,” he said.
Looking toward the next 30 years, he wants to continue to follow what has been a guiding principle for him: using the diversity of natural resources where he lives.
His fundraising philosophy is simple: to involve as many people as possible. “I would rather raise $100 by getting 10 $10 bills than by getting one $100 bill, because it involves more people, and I love people,” he said.
Courier Publications reporter George Chappell can be reached at 207-594-4401, ext. 117, or at email@example.com.