WELLS, Maine — Bill Johnson is an eccentric, and his biggest eccentricity is that he has assigned himself the duty to show off things he thinks are worth being seen. He calls himself “the keeper,” and he looks for things that are threatened.
Johnson’s “museum,” on Route 1, consists of Bill Johnson’s things, and for a $5 donation he leads people on a tour. They are incredible artifacts, to be sure, premium Americana, each with a story he wants to tell you, and the best thing he has yet collected is Libby’s Colonial Tea Room, the giant hall where he has displayed his things for 32 years.
Johnson is 71 and wears suspenders and speaks in a drawled-out Maine accent, an extended r-lessness. The 1923 building, which has been on Route 1 since Route 1 was grand, is the star of his collection, a ballroom that was once a grand night out for dinner and music on the ride from Boston to Portland.
“You didn’t stop here unless you had a chauffeur-driven Packard,” he tells his guests.
The building, more than anything else, is what he wants to be seen. In fact, he needs it to be seen to show off what’s inside. For the Johnson Hall Museum, as he calls it, is visited almost entirely by accident.
People stumble in off Route 1, curious about the building and the curious artifacts that dot the grounds. They pull in for a second to try to figure it out, to process this odd sight for a moment and wonder what they might be getting into if they open the door.
The grounds feature an impressive collection of small historic buildings he has rescued – a 1783 blacksmith shop, an 1888 schoolhouse from North Berwick, jail cells. There’s also a sign stating that this menagerie is the home of “Jo Johnson, M.D. Ophthalmologist.” That’s his wife, who once practiced at Massachusetts Eye and Ear but now has her office inside the museum.
The Johnson Hall Museum depends on being discovered by accident, and that’s why Johnson has pitched an odd battle with the town revolving around two 70-year-old maple trees he cut down.
For 32 years, the town of Wells left the eccentric man with the museum alone. Even after he cut down the trees – Johnson says they were dead and ready to fall on the road – they left him alone. But when he started doing construction on a 1915 tin garage he had rescued, the town told him he would need a permit to do that, and to get a permit he would need to have a current site plan, and to make it current he would need to plant replacement trees to create a buffer zone between his museum and Route 1.
Johnson said no.
“His general attitude is, ‘Why can’t I? Of course I can,’ ” said Michael Livingston, the town planner.
Johnson’s argument is that he needs his building and grounds to be seen from the road, needs the visual accident. The entire property is open and oriented to a 700-feet stretch of Route 1 that he has largely to himself.
The rear of the property is bordered by the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge, which extends to the coast. When people rent the place for parties or weddings, he tells them to keep the music loud till 3 in the morning. “There’s no one to bother,” he said.
Last year, when the popular antiques show “American Pickers” paid Johnson a visit, he kept them out of the main house; nothing in the permanent collection is negotiable. “If you don’t want to sell your best stuff, you hang out a sign that says ‘Museum,’ he said. Instead, he took the hosts to rooms full of things in buildings all over the property. There were antiques everywhere. He goes shopping nearly every morning.
“I can tell you this guy is a real eccentric,” one of the hosts declared, “and those are the best collectors.”
They haggled with Johnson – who they thought drove too hard a bargain – to eventually buy an old punch clock and some bicycle-like contraption that repairmen once used to travel on railroad tracks, among other things.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Johnson had something of a perfect storm when he had three couples turn up, one right after another, wide-eyed and confused, and so he began the full tour.
The first stop is the train station from South Berwick, Maine, where Johnson’s mother boarded the Boston & Maine Railroad for the Boston Flower Show. His plan is to make it an ice cream parlor, but he’ll have to deal with his town matters before that.
The passengers on Johnson’s tour – middle-aged couples from Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire – were led inside and to a coin-operated scale that dispensed fortunes. Johnson supplied the penny.
Next he walked them past the garage, roofless until further notice, and told the guests the story of his little fight with the town.
“I want to be seen from the road,” he drawled out.
“That’s why we stopped,” one man replied to the group’s agreement. They were well on Johnson’s side, charmed by this man and his funny museum.
For more than an hour, Johnson told stories connected to stories as the guests moved through his collection. The only time he wasn’t telling stories was when he was singing, usually to the song “My Sweetheart is the Man in the Moon,” which he plays on a 1904 Regina music box, an Edison Talking Machine from 1915, and a Swiss cylinder box from 1890.
At the end of the ballroom — impressive for its time for having an open 45-foot wide bridge-trestle ceiling — he placed a scroll on a large player piano and the guests sat in chairs and smiled.
“Don’t let me stop you if you want to go,” he said.
“No,” was their response.
When it was finally time for another tour to end, Johnson took them out front and showed them the plastic plants he had placed out along the road, to show how plantings would block his sign. They looked funny; not quite a devastating barrier to his property. Johnson does not care. If it gets in the way of his things, Johnson is against it.
“As soon as they realize that, the better off they’ll be.”