The Concord Coach #11 on display at the Willowbrook Village Museum in Newfield. Photo courtesy of Richard Hill.by Will Gottlieb
Coastal Journal staff
BATH — This story is a correction, of sorts. In the History’s Mysteries feature in the June 14, 2012 Coastal Journal, we printed a photograph of a stagecoach, which is identified as having been built by the Concord Coach Company of Concord, New Hampshire. One of the drivers, we are told, is identified as Charles Carter of the Carter homestead on Middle Street. And according to the story, the stagecoach is now on display at a museum at the University of Arizona.
Wrong, wrong, wrong – mostly.
“It was built by Abbott and Downing,” said Richard Hill of Bath, whose family owned the stagecoach on and off for most of a century.
To be more precise, it was a Concord Coach, which was built by the firm of Abbot-Downing in Concord, New Hampshire. It was a very famous and well-built coach; Mark Twain called it “an imposing cradle on wheels.” It is the corporate symbol of Wells Fargo, for whom the first 40 Concord Coaches were built, and is also the corporate symbol of Concord Group Insurance, and many other companies. The Concord Coach was the Lear Jet of its day, a standard of quality and American craftsmanship.
“It says [it was built] in 1858, and I’m not sure,” says Hill. “But while I owned it and it was being taken apart and being restored, we found that it was number 11, and it was the third oldest Abbott and Downing still in existence that we knew about.”
As to the statement about the stagecoach being driven by “Charles Carter of the Carter homestead on Middle Street,” Hill is not so sure about that, either.
“Maybe there was another homestead here,” he says, “but I’m assuming that they are talking about Charles T. Jackson, because the next thing says it was owned by Charles T. Jackson. And his homestead is right here.”
Indeed, that “homestead” is Hill’s residence and place of business, 71 South St., Bath, and Charles T. Jackson was Hill’s grandfather. And images of the Abbott-Downing #11 stagecoach are all over 71 South St., upstairs and down, because it was purchased by Charles T. Jackson, and became the brand for the family’s bed-and-breakfast, known as Crooker Crest.
“In the ‘20s, my grandfather rented some rooms here,” said Hill, “and he had the stagecoach at the time. And he would roll it out the garage out onto the front lawn of the house, and leave it there all summer long. And the rains would help put some moisture back into it, swell the joints back up. And every winter, he’d roll it back into the barn. A lot of times he’d park it right on the edge of the driveway here. And to my sister, it was like a dollhouse. She’d play in it all the time.”
Alas, Hill himself never got a chance to play on it, as he was born in 1942, and his grandfather sold the stagecoach to Paul Litchfield of Bath in 1939. According to Hill, Litchfield owned a resort in Arizona, and so he shipped it there to transport guests to and from the resort. Litchfield passed away, and willed the stagecoach to the University of Arizona, which was planning to build a museum at the time.
Which brings us back to our History’s Mysteries story.
“Where it says it’s now on display in a museum,” says Hill, “that’s where the biggest error is. It’s in a museum here in Maine.”
True. It’s in the 19th Century Willowbrook Village Museum in Newfield. The Museum, by the way, says the stagecoach was built in 1849. Hill knows it’s at the museum, because he’s the guy who made sure it got there.
And thereby hangs a tale.
“What happened was, in the ‘70s, I went to Arizona to an insurance convention,” says Hill. “I’d seen pictures of this. It’s all over our house, the bed and breakfast. Of course, they sold it before I was born, so I never saw or felt the stagecoach. But I always had a little attachment to it, and I would love to have seen it.
“So when I went out there, and it was supposed to be in a museum in Arizona,” says Hill. “So I called up the university, and a man gets on the phone and says, ‘I don’t think so.’ But I insisted. ‘You have a stagecoach, it was left to you.’ So he got another guy on the phone, and he said, ‘How do you know about the stagecoach?’ And I reiterated the story.”
It was at this point that Hill was informed that the museum had never been built; the university had opted for an art studio instead. As for the stagecoach, it was borrowed and never returned. Ultimately, someone from the university tracked it down, brought it back, and “stored” it behind a warehouse. In other words, it had been left out in the Arizona desert, getting a serious case of dry rot, for almost a decade.
The man from the university told Hill that they didn’t know what to do with it, so they wrapped it in chicken wire and left it there. Hill asked to see it.
“So I got out there,” says Hill, “and he took chicken-wire cutters and cut a hole, and we went in. I didn’t want to damage it, try to get in it, but I looked in it and everything.”
Hill says he was sad to see the stagecoach in that state, but that he didn’t think it was beyond restoration. He left his contact information with the university, and told them to contact him if they ever decided to part with it. Two years later, Hill received a letter saying the University of Arizona was about to auction off the stagecoach. Hill consulted with the people at the Willowbrook Museum, they being the local experts on such things, who told them the stagecoach could be worth $120,000 to $150,000 – if it could be restored. But to make it worthwhile, they said, Hill would have to get it for under $20,000.
In the end, Hill got it for “a little over $1,000.”
Hill had the stagecoach hauled to Maine, and hired a man in Pittsfield to begin the restoration. He built a shed to store it in, and left it on the trailer. Hill says they hauled it out for Fourth of July parades in the ‘80s and ‘90s. After all, the stagecoach was an important piece of local history, the first vehicle to cross the Carlton Bridge in Bath when it was completed in 1927, one of the most recognizable symbols of the city and its rich history. In the meantime, the restoration effort continued. But it was slow, says Hill, and it was getting expensive.
“What’s unique about this,” he says, “is that I was just down to the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum, and someone donated an Abbott and Downing stagecoach to them. Almost all of the ones you see have leather windows that drop down. You would pull them up and tie the leather. But [our stagecoach] had folding-glass windows. And I was in the process next of restoring those windows. And the glass windows that went down into the doors were still there. And it was not bad.
“But what broke my back was that each wheel – and they were made out of elm – the back wheels, the big ones, would have cost $1,500 apiece, and the front wheels were going to run $1,000 apiece. So there was five grand. And I was leaving this big house to my kids, and I thought, ‘Do I really need to leave the stagecoach for them to take care of?’ And so I arranged for Willowbrook Museum to have it.”
So the Museum completed the stagecoach’s restoration, and you can see it today on their web site, www.willowbrookmuseum.org. Or better yet, you can drive down to Newfield and see it in person. But the stagecoach you’re seeing is not exactly the stagecoach Hill reacquired from the University of Arizona.
“I bet there’s not a single piece of original wood in that coach,” says Hill. “Why didn’t they just keep what I gave them? It could’ve been restored to 1858 condition, with 150 years of wear. If they wanted one like that, they could just build it. This one looks like it came off the assembly line yesterday.
“To me, it’s absolutely sad.”