OWLS HEAD, Maine — One of Charles Chiarchiaro’s first driving experiences was a memorable one that ended with him destroying his father’s first new car.
But that did not stop Chiarchiaro from becoming the first and thus far only director of the Owls Head Transportation Museum.
Chiarchiaro looked back on his more than 36 years at the wheel of the museum during an interview this week. He will retire as the museum’s director on Dec. 31.
Chiarchiaro said he had not planned on such a career when he was younger. He grew up in Weston, Conn., where his father was a house painter and his mother a model in New York City. He attended the now-defunct Nasson College in Springvale, Maine, where he majored in psychology and minored in art.
But he always had an interest in technology and learned from his grandfather the power of human energy. Those interests would serve him well in his career.
Chiarchiaro held jobs with Central Maine Power, Bath Iron Works and as a landscaper before he became the chief mechanic for Taska Marine in Wiscasset and then manager for Lincoln Canoe in that same coastal town. At the same time, Chiarchiaro would collect machinery and engines, fix them up and sell them on Route 1.
The museum was founded in 1974 on land donated by Knox County at the Knox County Regional Airport. The land had originally been offered to the town of Owls Head for an industrial park but the town deferred. The founding members of the board of trustees of the transportation museum decided the best use would be a cultural park.
One of the trustees was familiar with Chiarchiaro and asked him if he would volunteer his services to move a 100-ton steam engine from Rhode Island to Maine. Chiarchiaro put a team together and successfully moved the engine.
James Rockefeller Jr., one of the founding trustees, said he recalls when Chiarchiaro came to the museum for the first time during the organization’s first rally.
“He was smoking a cigar that was putting out more smoke than the car he was driving. He had vitality and enthusiasm that was infectious,” Rockefeller said.
The trustees were aware of his interest in old machinery, and when the position of museum director was created they turned to Chiarchiaro, who was hired and began his job in August 1976. The trustees matched the $9,000 annual pay he earned as manager at Lincoln Canoe.
Chiarchiaro said he followed his grandfather’s advice while serving as director.
“My grandfather said every person has strengths and weaknesses. He said you want to try to bring out the best in people,” the director said. “The whole key here has been to bring out the best in everyone.”
He said the museum could not have succeeded without the contributions of the volunteers. There are currently 225 volunteers along with 13 full-time employees, four part-time workers and five interns.
Chiarchiaro said the region has a lot of retired people and a lot of people who are problem solvers. Those people have been invaluable, he said, in the growth of the museum.
And the museum has grown significantly over the years. When he arrived there was only a dirt road to the museum, two cars and two planes. He was the only employee. Today, the buildings have been expanded, there is far more exhibition space, a gift shop and an education and library center.
The museum is open every day except for four during the year — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and a volunteer appreciation day in April.
The biggest moneymaker for the museum each year is the annual auto auction. In the first auction 35 years ago, there were nine cars sold and it generated $12,000 for the museum.
There will be 185 vehicles featured this year at the 35th annual auction that is scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the museum located on Route 73 in Owls Head. The doors will open at 7 a.m.
Chiarchiaro said another 210 vehicles were turned away, mainly because the owners had too high a price on them. He added that 110 of the 185 vehicles for sale have no reserves on them, meaning they will go to the highest bidders. The rest must meet a minimum bid for the sale to occur. The museum earns 10 percent of the sales price.
One item not for sale is a 1918 American LaFrance fire engine that is in the museum’s collection and which is Chiarchiaro’s favorite. He said the chemical truck was purchased by the town of Farmington for its chief and still has its original paint job.
He takes the truck out during events and gives rides to children. Chiarchiaro said the smiles generated as the children ring the bell on the truck make him realize this truck is the most valuable in the collection.
The museum’s collection includes 28 aircraft from 1804 to 1946, 50 automobiles from 1885 to 1980, nine motorcycles from 1913 to 1953, 13 carriages from 1849 to 1910, 14 bicycles from 1868 to 1935, and 25 engines from 1880 to 1946.
Looking back this week, Chiarchiaro recalled one of the first times he ever drove a car. He was 15 when his father allowed him to drive the family home from church in the new 1965 Chevy Biscane.
“This was the first new car he had ever owned. It was also the first he had with power steering. I wasn’t used to power steering,” he said.
When they arrived at home, he turned the wheel too quick and hit the accelerator at the same time. The car struck four hemlock trees and careened down a 20-foot embankment before landing on its roof.
“I ran away from home for three days. My father would not let me drive again until I was 18,” he said.
In 1969, while attending Nasson College, he heard about the now defunct Demass’ used car lot in Rockland. The college student decided on a 1963 Dodge Skylark, with painted duct tape over the rusted fender, and paid $200 for the car.
The car lasted him three years. He said he was heading home after completing college when it broke down along the side of the road in southern Maine. A friend was following behind in another vehicle and Chiarchiaro transferred his belongings to that vehicle, took the license plates and other identifying information off his car and abandoned the vehicle.
The first antique car he acquired was shortly after college. The car was a “beautiful” 1948 Chrysler Windsor that had belonged to the police first but was at that time owned by a man in Bath. The man was asking $500 for the vehicle, which Chiarchiaro did not have. The car was not running and the owner had not been able to get it started on his own.
“He told me if I could get it going in six hours I could have it,” Chiarchiaro said.
After examining the car, he found that the needle in the carburetor was upside down. He repaired it and within that six hours had the car running.
Chiarchiaro said he will be leaving as director of the museum but won’t be retired. He said he wants to create a for-profit company that will assist nonprofit organizations in determining their visions and how to successfully achieve those visions.
He said some nonprofit groups have to learn when not to spend money.
“It’s a nurturing thing. Maine people are resourceful,” he said.
The 63-year-old man — who has homes in Waldoboro and Damariscotta — also will have more time for his love of music. Chiarchiaro plays the guitar and on Monday evenings plays bluegrass along with other musicians at King Row Market in Round Pond.
He leaves the transportation museum in a good position, he said, with a $4 million endowment. He said the endowment funds came from operational budget surpluses over the years and not a single penny from private donors.
The museum is as close as it ever has been to the vision of the original trustees, Chiarchiaro said. That mission is to collect and preserve pioneer aircraft, ground vehicles and engines that are significant to the evolution of transportation in Maine.
Rockefeller said Chiarchiaro will be very difficult to replace.
“He’s an exceptional person, a good manager, a pied piper, with a sense of humor,” Rockefeller said.
Chiarchiaro summed it up.
“It’s been a great ride,” he said.