When Donald King purchased the historic seven-acre Durgin Houses property in Newfield in 1965, he intended to use it as a hunting camp and storage space for his new hobby of antique collecting.

At the time of King’s death in 1985, his property and holdings had increased to nearly 20 acres with 10,000 antiques. Today, it is 19th Century Historic Willowbrook Village, a rural museum interpreting life from 1850 to 1920.

Some of the suprlus items King collected are going to be sold in an auction May 8 at the museum. The purpose is to raise money to keep the museum running and make it better.

King never intended to open a museum. But as he witnessed farmland being lost to development, he seized on the opportunity to purchase and preserve what remained. The properties included two homesteads (now listed on the National Register of Historic Places), barns, a mill, a general store with upper ballroom and a post office.

King’s son, Doug, president of the Willowbrook Board of Trustees, said the assemblage was intentionally local, with Donald mainly amassing items from within a 100-mile radius of Newfield. Those items were haphazardly stored in any available space on the property.

“Once the barns were filled, he’d build other structures to house newly acquired pieces,” said Doug King, who came to Willowbrook with his wife Dorothee in 1969 to catalogue and redesign his father’s collections before the museum’s May 1970 opening. The collection continued to grow over the next 25 years, with Donald adding structures to serve as exhibition buildings, gift shops, period trade demonstration sights and the like.

As news of the preservation efforts became known, individuals began donating significant pieces to the museum’s collections. Among them were a 1894 Armitage-Herschell Carousel and a 1849 Concord Stage Coach, the latter found lying in an Arizona scrap heap. Each was painstakingly restored over several years, a process that Donald’s wife, Marguerite “Pan” King, oversaw after his passing. When Museum Director Amelia Chamberlain arrived six years ago, the non-profit museum had embarked on many new projects to enhance and expand its collections and generate membership support. This year, as Willowbrook prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary, museum officials are grappling with financial problems.

In order to keep Donald King’s dream of preserving history at Willowbrook, they will have to let go of some of the museum’s past.

Ten exhibit buildings, in need of repair, are scheduled to be razed or used as maintenance and storage sheds..

The choice of items to sell at the May 8 auction was carefully made.

“We’ve gone through every building, culling things that are duplicates or had nothing to do with Newfield or rural life as we’re trying to portray it,” said Chamberlain. “We have a really diverse collection of treasures here. We are keeping the cream of the crop and those things that have the most local significance.”

Doug King said the decision to sell some of his father’s cherished possessions has not been easy.

“These are all wonderful items but we needed to be rational about it,” he said. “Some things were clearly out of our collection period. And, those were easy decisions. Others were like children to us but needed serious and immediate restoration work to be saved and we could not afford to do (the work).”

He hopes that auction sales will boost the museum’s budget to “intensify remaining collection displays, making them more entertaining and educational for children and visitors. The museum also is in the midst of a grassroots campaign to raise 2,000 members to become self-sustaining.”

 

Staff Writer Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at: [email protected]