NEWFIELD — Birds chirp, maple trees sway in the breeze and music floats from the 1894 Armitage Herschell Carousel.

Posted on Elm Street is a sign that reads, “Please Slow Down For Museum Visitors.”

Traffic slows down on Elm Street, and so does the pace of life, as drivers enter the 19th Century Willowbrook Village, a gem of historic restoration that lies well off the beaten path in western York County.

Founded in Newfield’s town center in 1970 by Don King, a man who knew a little bit of everything and loved history, the museum gives visitors a distinct taste of 19th-century life in New England.

But after 40 years of operation, the low-profile attraction may close down. The museum, with 25 buildings filled with King’s extensive collection of restored artifacts and mementos, isn’t generating the support it needs to survive.

The recession of 2008 depleted the endowment that King left to help support the village, and the museum is producing only half of what it needs yearly to cover its $200,000 budget.

Unless supporters come up with more money or enroll 200 more members to meet a 500-member goal, they will have to close Willowbrook Village after the summer of 2012.

“We need people with fond memories of the museum to help,” said Director Amelia Chamberlain. She hopes that anyone with a connection to the museum and its collection will donate.

King was a motivated, self-made man who graduated from high school during the Great Depression, became a partner in a company called Lubrication Engineers and worked until his death in 1985 at the age of 71, said his son, Doug King of New York.

“He loved talking to people and was very mechanically inclined,” his son said.

King bought his first property in Newfield – the Durgin property – in 1965 as a hunting lodge. It was only 90 minutes from his home in Topsfield, Mass., which made it easy for him to visit.

As King got acquainted with Newfield, he began saving old artifacts, such as tools, musical instruments and hand pumps, that residents were discarding with the passage of time.

Eventually, his acquisitions filled the Durgin property, so he bought another one – known as the Trafton property – across the street.

Soon, that one was filled with keepsakes, too.

“His thing was that he wanted people to see history,” said Georgia Perry, the original director of the museum, who helped King restore his collection.

“Every time I saw him, he was in a pickup truck wearing khaki pants and always had a paint rag in his back pocket ready to work,” said Jack Sullivan, treasurer of the museum’s board. “He was enthralled by the ingenuity of people.”

Perry described King as a man of intelligence and wide-ranging knowledge.

“He just couldn’t stop building, though,” she said.

As King’s collection grew, so did his museum. The 25 buildings now include sheds, houses and barns, most of which he built to house his artifacts, on 3½ acres.

Two full-time employees are among the 20 or so people who staff the museum.

A bandstand, re-created after it burned in the York County fires of 1947, stands on a perfectly manicured lawn and hosts the occasional wedding.

Nearby are the rippling waters of Mill Pond, as well as the Fenderson School House, a replica of a 19th-century schoolhouse from the area.

Four of the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The 1894 carousel, in a carriage house, has been fully restored, with real horsehair tails and glass eyes on the horses.

There is a ballroom where visitors can learn to waltz, and an 1849 Concord Stagecoach with bright-yellow wheels that carried passengers between Bath and Small Point before the Civil War.

Virginia Huffenus and her husband, Alan, of Easton, Mass., visited Newfield last week. She said they have toured the museum several times and always love coming.

“It makes you feel like you’re walking back in time,” she said.

Gina Whittemore of Porter, who works in the Newfield post office, said her 9-year-old daughter recently visited the museum on a school field trip.

“My daughter came and loved it,” she said. “The people who work there are great, and it’s a great part of history.”

Visits to the village peaked from 1976 to 1978, with about 17,000 annually. After that, they fell steadily before visits leveled off at about 7,000 per year.

Museum supporters cite a number of reasons for the decline.

Newfield – a town with about 1,500 year-round residents and 3,000 in the summer – is more than an hour’s drive from Portland. Many people haven’t even heard of it.

Chamberlain, the director, said people’s habits change. Newer generations can’t imagine the time period and are more drawn to amusement parks, technology and other mainstream attractions.

Also, people have less money to spend in today’s economy, said Sullivan, the board treasurer.

School funding for field trips is decreasing, and senior citizens aren’t coming on tour buses like they used to do.

Chamberlain and other staff members are taking steps to reinvigorate the museum, which is open from Memorial Day through Columbus Day. New programs and events include hosting the Newfield Farmer and Artisan Market.

Chamberlain has added programs for children, including an activity booklet, during the self-led tours that come with admission to the museum.

She said she hopes residents will help by becoming members, taking part in a monthly giving program, making donations or by eating lunch at the Sandwich Shop, ice cream at the Ice Cream Parlor or penny candy from the Country Store.

The shops are open to the public without museum admission.

Doug King, the founder’s son, said he hopes something dramatic will keep the museum open.

So does Perry, the museum’s first director.

“I have my heart and soul in this place,” she said.

 

Staff Writer Ellie Cole can be contacted at 791-6359 or at: [email protected]