Story By Gail Greenwood Ayres
Photos by Gabe Green
Little jewels of history can be found in all sorts of unexpected places.
Recently, museum curator Jerry Bowman found a couple of gems inside an 1871 mail buggy. While chipping through decades of mud and grime, he discovered two studded horseshoes. Apparently, these equine “cleats” were crafted for use in icy terrain to help postal workers live up to their famous “Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night …” motto.
Just off Highway 101 in downtown Raymond, Wash., the Northwest Carriage Museum is itself a jewel that sparkles and shines as it grows and gains acclaim.
The doors opened in 2002 with a collection of 21 horse-drawn vehicles. This spring’s addition of 3,900 square feet of display space came just in time to enable the museum to show off the burgeoning number of vehicles – 38 carriages currently on display, and seven more arriving soon.
“I’m a little nervous that we didn’t make the addition big enough, but that’s a good problem to have,” said Laurie Bowman, Jerry’s wife and the museum’s director.
After early retirements as executives in Southern California, the couple settled into the area in 2004 and began volunteering at the museum three years later. With their time, skill, passion and loving care, the museum has flourished in every way, and gained a national reputation for carriage expertise in the process.
Featuring horse-drawn vehicles from the 1850s to the 1920s, the collection is organized in two sections. The new addition, lovingly called “the barn” has a more rustic feel and houses the hard-working, everyman’s vehicles such as the aforementioned mail coach, the 1888 H.P. Henderson & Son Stagecoach and the 1895 Studebaker Buggy. These are cleaned up but primarily left in a more natural state.
The other half of the museum features vehicles that have been carefully restored, reupholstered, primped and polished. These include the glamorous C-Spring Dress Landau, which cost $1,500 (when the average salary about $300 a year) and features an elevated driver that left no question as to the status of the people inside. Also on display is an 1890s Kimble Town Coach, a recent gift from the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle. This coach was originally owned by F.C.A. Denkmann, who was the brother-in-law and early business partner with Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the timber mogul who founded the Weyerhaeuser Co.
The collection even includes, a 19th Century Hansom Cab used as a taxi in New York City, two elaborate hand-carved hearses and a Governess Cart – created for a nanny or housekeeper to safely drive around her young charges. In addition, some of the crowd favorites include five carriages that are not only beautiful and historic, but are actual movie stars themselves, appearing in movies of their time.
“Probably the thing we hear the most from visitors is ‘What is a world-class museum like this doing in Raymond?’ ” Bowman said. “Recently, one fellow who was visiting with his Porsche club from Seattle told me, ‘If this were in Seattle you would be drawing about a half million people a year.’
“I told him, ‘I know, but I’m glad we’re in Raymond.’ ”
For the picturesque town of Raymond along the banks of the Willapa River, the feeling is mutual.
“This museum is definitely bringing business to town and more so every year,” said Brent Dennis, co-owner of The Dennis Company, a local chain of five department stores. The Raymond store is located right next to the museum.
“So many people for years have just driven through Raymond. Now with the signage and the increased publicity the word has gotten around and more people are stopping. They’re eating in our restaurants and we’re seeing more tourists in our store. The museum has a definite impact,” Brent confirmed.
Brent, along with his brother and co-owner Randy, has a special connection to the museum. It was their father and his wife, Gary and Cec Dennis, who donated the first 21 carriages from their private collection to the City of Raymond. A nonprofit organization was formed, grants were secured, and the Northwest Carriage Museum was born. And the rest, well, is history.
To bring history alive, informative signage and displays help paint the picture of the past, bringing into focus little-remembered facts about the “good old days,” including the stifling stench that thousands of horses brought to big cities.
You can learn a lot looking around on your own, but museum associate Mary Cooley, along with Jerry and Laurie Bowman, are eager to give impromptu tours and answer questions. They’re a wealth of knowledge of how even our language still reflects our horse-and-buggy past. Yes, glove boxes used to house gloves, and a dash board was so called because it protected riders from the dirt and mud thrown up from dashing horses.
The museum hosts about 50 scheduled group tours a year, fashioning the information to the age and interest of the group – from school children, church youth groups and scout troops to car clubs, bus tours and senior centers.
While you can’t touch the historic displays, young children particularly enjoy the area that includes a replica of a 1890s school house, a wheelwright shop and a mechanical horse head so you can learn to steer with reins. It also features a replica of a 3-Spring Democrat Wagon that kids (and adults) can climb aboard. An assortment of costumes is on hand for fun photo ops. In addition, the small gift shop includes horse-and-carriage related items, local delicacies, regional books, period toys, jewelry and more.
Not particularly interested in carriages?
“I often have a wife say that the visit here was her husband’s idea and that she has no interest in carriages,” said Laurie Bowman. “I tell her, just give me five minutes, and then I begin to tell her interesting things about the carriages and the time period. They are always won over.”
“I love history. I just love it when people ask questions that I don’t know so I can research it,” said Jerry. “The carriages have become my passion.”
Most of the museum’s carriages have come by way of donation. Over the years as he’s researched and refurbished many carriages, Jerry has gained a reputation as a resource. This has led to many people asking his advice, and often his assessment, of carriages owned, found or bought, and how to restore the ones that need it.
The recently acquired mail buggy, complete with a still-intact canvas mail bag, came from a man in Cornelius, Ore., who purchased it at an auction.
“He bid on it because he just couldn’t bear the idea of someone else buying it and making it into some sort of decorative planter, burying all that history,” Jerry said. “Once we acquired it, we did a partial restoration and now it has become one of our visitors’ favorites.”
A retired contractor from Port Townsend had purchased a 1900 Hearse crafted in Vienna, Austria, which had spent 30 years outside in the elements in Park City, Utah. He painstakingly restored it and enjoyed showing it off at parades in various states. When he decided he was ready to part with it, he began to look for just the right place.
“He called us up and told us about it,” Jerry said. “So, we came and took a look at it. It was just incredible. I told the man to visit our museum to see if it might make a good home for it. He and his wife came through and looked at what we have here and he said, ‘This is where it needs to be.’”
“People love to know their carriages are going to be taken care of and will get put on display for people to see them and enjoy what has meant so much to them,” Laurie said.
Last year Gloria Austin, a world renowned horse and carriage expert who has a collection of 300 carriages in Florida, paid the museum a visit. It’s a little like having Julia Child come to dinner, and Jerry admits he was nervous.
“She enjoyed our collection, shared her knowledge and said the nicest thing at the end. She said, ‘Thank you for keeping this history alive.’ ”