Joe Bryant, a lifelong tinkerer and inventor whose passion for antique stoves, toys and breathing new life into old objects led him and his wife to start one of Maine’s most eclectic museums, died Saturday.
Bryant, 87, was a fixture in Thorndike, a small town with a rich agricultural past, according to First Selectman Larry Ward. He remembered how the family steel fabrication business, Bryant Steel Works, kept the machinery of all those farmers in good working order. That was critical, when a person’s livelihood could depend on having equipment that worked.
“He was so important to the community,” Ward said. “Anytime we needed something in metal, we went to Joey Bryant. He was a wizard with metal. He kept my father running. He kept all the local farmers running.”
Bryant’s gift for tinkering with machinery led him to invent the Bryant Automatic Sand Spreader, a highway sander that was pulled behind a dump truck to get sand on the roads.
“It was a heck of a step up from having two guys in a truck body with shovels,” Ward said. “Everybody used them.”
That’s true, said Bryant’s son, Clayton Bryant of Thorndike. The sand spreaders were sold all around Maine and even in the rest of the country. A Canadian company also liked the idea so much that they copied it, selling the Bryant Sand Spreader around that country, too.
“Because he didn’t have a patent in Canada there was nothing he could do to stop it,” Clayton Bryant said. “He’d come up with a lot of crazy ideas. His inventions were always a little different than what people would ordinarily do. He had a different angle.”
In between inventing things, Joe and Bea Bryant, his wife of 68 years, were busy raising their eight children and starting their business. The high school sweethearts had graduated together from Freedom Academy in 1949 and were married in 1950, even though Bea Bryant had planned to leave the country to be a missionary.
“He asked me to marry him, so I stayed home,” she told the BDN in a 2016 interview.
It was Bea Bryant who in the 1960s began noticing that many out-of-state companies were coming to Maine to purchase old stoves, pianos and other antiques by the truckload, and then hauling them out again to sell. This didn’t sit well with the Bryants, who wanted to start saving old things so Maine could have something to be proud of.
They began purchasing and restoring old cast-iron cookstoves and parlor stoves that modernizing Mainers didn’t want anymore, and their new business, Bryant Stove Works, began to grow. Eventually, their customers included the Disney corporation, which purchased pieces for their theme parks in Europe and Japan, and the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurant chain, which for a time featured a stove from Bryant’s in every new restaurant that was built.
But the Bryants couldn’t bring themselves to sell the oldest, most ornate and interesting stoves they came across, setting them aside in the museum they started in the early 1990s in a Quonset hut connected to the store. Joe Bryant’s affection for the old stoves was apparent in a tour he gave the BDN in 2016.
“Look at these stoves,” he said. “Every one of them is excessively fancy … they wanted to make them pretty so somebody would buy them.”
The museum also features restored player pianos, calliopes, antique vehicles, and a room of dolls and toys that Joe Bryant automated to create a “doll circus.” In the circus, which jolts into rollicking action at the flip of a switch, Bea Bryant’s love of collecting old toys at flea markets and yard sales was combined with her husband’s genius at tinkering with small motors and bicycle chains to create something unforgettable.
“Unlike any place you will ever see again,” wrote one reviewer on TripAdvisor, which named the museum the No. 1 thing to do in Thorndike.
Joe Bryant loved the museum, and although his health had not been good for years, he continued to give tours of the museum from his wheelchair until a couple of weeks before he died, his son said.
“I’d love to see the museum and everything keep going if it could,” Clayton Bryant said, adding that his sister Julie and her husband, Torie Patterson, are running it now.
He said his father was a self-taught engineer and musician whose hands were never idle.
“He was always tinkering on something,” Clayton Bryant said. “Even when he was in his wheelchair, he’d always be working on something.”
Joe Bryant’s funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 24, at the Knox Ridge Baptist Church in Knox.