Carriage museum offers grand opening, variety of classic vehicles

Classic carriages, many of them luxury models, grace a new museum in Raymond that celebrated its grand opening last Friday. DAMIAN MULINIX photo

RAYMOND - A steering wheel consisting of a leather harness to drive with wheels of wood. "How many horses under the hood?" may not have been the exact words uttered when looking at a late model C-Spring Victoria, but "How many horses do you own?" may have.

The newly opened Northwest Carriage Museum in Raymond offers visitors the chance to journey back to a time when if you didn't have a coach, you were probably walking.

"Every time I look at the carriages I notice something new," says Amy Dennis, the museum's interim director. Dennis's in-laws, Gary and Cecilia Dennis, have spent the last ten years collecting the carriages, most of them they acquired at auctions on the East Coast. Many of the carriages were in poor condition when purchased and very deteriorated. However, they were restored by a craftsman in Salem, Ore.

The coaches were donated to the city of Raymond in 1999. The city and the newly formed Northwest Carriage Museum created a partnership to develop a museum plan and raise funds. The museum building was funded by grants and is owned by the city of Raymond.

Once inside the stylishly designed building you will find a wealth of information regarding transportation of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The display floor is divided into four categories of carriages, luxury, economical, leisure and work, though the majority are luxury models.

Some of the nicer models on show are the "Landau" style carriages. "We have a couple of Landaus in the collection. They are a very elegant carriage," says Dennis. Many of the Landaus feature a C-Spring-style suspension system, a unique feature for its time.

One of the highlights among the luxury coaches is the Shelbourne Landau, a carriage for the wealthy in its day. This particular one has a history in show business, however, being used in the motion pictures "Gone with the Wind" and "Jezebel."

"That's our little movie star in the collection," says Dennis.

Among the work vehicles showcased are a cart used for the sale of vegetables and produce, and a road coach, used for mail delivery. Before railways were extensively used to reach the western U.S., road coaches were used for long journeys, designed to be driven at high speeds while carrying a full load.

Among the smaller carriages you can find the Spider Phaeton. "This is almost a racing-type of vehicle," says Dennis of the tiny coach, "You could go pretty fast in this, it's so light weight."

The Phaeton class was a very popular style and were named after the character in Greek mythology. Phaeton was the son of Apollo and a human named Clymene. As proof of his unworldly heritage he asked to be given the chariot of the sun, an un-earthly fast vehicle made of gold. "I think this is really a beautiful little carriage," says Dennis. "I've got a photograph of it before it was restored. You can hardly even recognize it. This was in tatters, it's not lacquered or anything, it's just totally deteriorated, just kind of pitiful and they really restored it to its former glory."

A Rockaway carriage is one of the few American-made and styled coaches on display at the museum. The Rockaway, which was created in New York, was considered to be a very "Democratic" style of carriage because it featured a cover over the driver's seat, something not common in European models. As Dennis describes it, "The design, they say, was decidedly American, because it was more Democratic to cover from the elements the person who was driving the coach rather than have them sit out in the pouring rain."

Informational panels help guide you through the showroom floor, "We like to explain in the panels a little bit about all the work that went into owning and maintaining a carriage," says Dennis, "It was really quite expensive. Not everybody could afford to have a carriage."

However, as the manufacture of carriages was industrialized, they became more accessible to the everyday man. "Families could use them," says Dennis of the change in availability, "They could purchase them through Sears and Roebuck as things became more industrialized."

The Northwest Carriage Museum has been open since the beginning of the September and celebrated its grand opening on Friday. The group who operate the museum are past of a non-profit organization and the entire staff is made up of volunteers. "We're hoping eventually we can raise the funding so we could hire someone as a director," says Dennis who is currently acting as the director. "But because we're new, right now we can't afford that luxury."

The museum group also plans on being an educational resource for local and regional schools. "We're going to develop a curriculum for field trips. We want the kids to come in and gain a new appreciation for the turn-of-the-century lifestyle and transportation," says Dennis.

Currently the museum is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and though many local attractions are closed during the slower months of the year, the carriage museum is planning on being open throughout the year, "We're planning on staying open all year 'round," says Dennis. "This is our first year and so everything is going to be new to us. We really, really want to stay open year 'round."

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