NEWFIELD — Vicki Akers’ eyes were still wide and her grin broad a couple of minutes after she climbed down from the hand-painted horse.

The 64-year-old engraver had just ridden the whimsical 1894 carousel at 19th century Willowbrook Museum Village, but described herself as “heartbroken.”

Akers was on her first and only visit to Willowbrook, an outdoor museum that uses historic buildings and a 5,000-piece collection to replicate small-town Maine in the 1800s. She came to Willowbrook on a recent Friday afternoon with family and friends after hearing that the place would close for good on Columbus Day. It’s been open for 46 years.

Akers is among the hundreds of visitors who have flocked to the village museum since the closing was announced more than a month ago, realizing now what a rare resource Willowbrook is and how difficult, if not impossible, it will be to replace. Like many privately run outdoor history museums today, Willowbrook’s challenges to stay in business included intense competition from newer attractions, such as water parks or zip line parks, as well as a decades-long decline in families taking regional vacations by car. And like many outdoor museums, including Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, Willowbrook was created mostly by one family whose money funded operations for years. With a dwindling endowment, no large corporate sponsors emerging and the number of paid admissions down to about 6,000 a year, Willowbrook has been running deficits for years.

“We’re basically out of money,” said Doug King, president of Willowbrook’s board and son of founder Don King, standing on Elm Street in the middle of the village. “The response to our closing has been huge, we’ve been having 10 to 15 times the (usual) number of visitors on a daily basis. People say ‘We’re so sad you’re closing.’ But where have they been all these years?”

Like many Mainers, Akers had just never made the time to visit. Once she did, she realized how special the place was.

“We need places like this, for the kids, to show them what life was like. This place is so hands-on, and they can touch everything,” said Akers, of Denmark, who had her grandchildren with her.

The bulk of Willowbrook’s collection, including some of the smaller structures and carousel, will be gifted to Curran Homestead in Orrington, near Bangor. Curran’s board hopes to expand its history museum complex, which now has eight buildings, to something comparable to Willowbrook.

A HARD ROAD FOR HISTORY VILLAGES

Willowbrook’s best years were right around the nation’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976, when history was a big attraction and families favored road trips over Disney cruises or trips abroad. The peak was 18,000 visitors in one year, King said. But since the 1980s, the place has struggled to attract visitors and revenue.

In the past year, Willowbrook saw about 6,000 visitors, but half were students on organized school trips. King said Willowbrook’s board has tried to attract major donors and more visitors, with little success. The village costs about $180,000 to $200,000 to run every year, including salaries for the small staff, and maintenance of the grounds and 20-plus structures.

Admission is $15 for adults and $8 for children. While an increase in visitors would help, it probably wouldn’t cover all costs, King and director Robert Schmick said. Willowbrook has been running deficits of about $50,000 a year for several years, King said. Founder Don King died in 1985 and his wife, Pan, died in 2003. They left an endowment that was used to offset shortfalls, but the recession of 2008 and the stock market plunge severely depleted the endowment.

Outdoor history museums often rely on endowments, but successful ones raise enough money through other means to keep the endowment from being used up, said Thomas Denenberg, director of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont and former chief curator of the Portland Museum of Art.

Denenberg said most outdoor history museums focused on American history began in the mid-20th century, following a European tradition of folk museums. Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia was an early one, starting in the 1920s. The Shelburne Museum, plus Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, all started in the 1940s. The Shelburne Museum, which has 39 buildings, also started out with the vision of one person, art and antique collector Electra Havemeyer Webb, Denenberg said. It has an endowment, but also raises money through ticket sales, renting space for wedding events, and major fundraising efforts.

“Most of these outdoor history museums started as one person’s vision, or even obsession, but the ones we know now as institutions become a machine that runs itself, with an earned income stream,” Denenberg said.

CREATED FROM ONE MAN’S PASSION

One thing that makes Willowbrook stand out from many other history museums is that it is essentially a town. Elm Street in Newfield runs right through the middle of Willowbrook. Its 20 or so structures, including several historic buildings, line both sides of the road. The town post office is just a few doors down from the museum’s buildings. The village is not self-contained and closed off to traffic. Rather, visitors have to watch for speeding pickup trucks when they cross from one Willowbrook site to another.

The setting is pastoral. Visitors drive down the hill on Elm Street from Route 11 and see a bandstand on a town green in front of them. There’s also a mill pond, the 1813 Durgin family home, barns, a country store opened by Amos Straw in the 1830s and a little red schoolhouse. A stroll off Elm Street brings visitors to an old printer’s shop, barns with farm equipment, a cider press, a collection of antique carriages, a hands-on-history building and a replica of an old barber shop.

People can walk through the Durgin house and pick up the canes in the front hall or try on a hat hanging from a hook, besides seeing all the furnishings. Kids can wash clothes with a tub and hand wringer, or sit on old tractors, grind corn or ring the schoolhouse bell. They can work old-fashioned telegraph machines and talk on hand-cranked telephones. Very few spots in Willowbrook feel like a museum, in the traditional sense.

“My dad thought coming to a place like this should be viewed as entertainment, he wanted people to be able to touch things, crank things,” King said. “He didn’t want things roped off.”

Don King was born in 1913 and grew up in Wallingford, Connecticut, near New Haven, the son of a barber. He went to work during the Great Depression, serving for a time as a men’s clothing clerk. He later moved to New York City and eventually made his fortune by helping run a company that made industrial greases and lubricants. He and his family moved to Massachusetts and he started coming to Maine to hunt. He had a hunting cabin near Moosehead Lake but wanted to be closer to his home in Topsfield, Massachusetts. So he started looking for property in southern Maine.

He became enamored with Newfield, a rural old town in western York County, on the New Hampshire border. He bought the Durgin house and barns in the mid-’60s for use as a hunting lodge. But he also loved old tools and gadgets, his son said, and already had an antique car collection. In Newfield and surrounding towns, farmsteads were being broken up and sold off, and King spent many a day combing old barns and sometimes buying up most, if not all, of their contents.

By the late 1960s, he wanted to share his collection by displaying it for people around the property. He moved buildings to the property, and others were built to house his tools, furnishings and carriages. Willowbrook opened to the public in 1970.

“He loved to talk to people and loved tools and implements. He loved talking to farmers about their tools. He would find a really oddball tool and figure out what it did,” said his son, a retired architect who lives in New York City. “Then he’d go out and find 10 others just like it to see how it changed over the years.”

COLLECTION SAVED, UPROOTED

Given King’s passion for old farms and farm tools, his son is happy that the bulk of Willowbrook’s collection will be going to the Curran Homestead, a smaller outdoor history museum run by volunteers near Bangor. It’s been open for about 25 years.

Some of the collection will be donated to other Maine museums. The printer’s shop, with antique printing tools, will go to the Boothbay Railway Village. But Willowbrook’s pristine small-town location, the land and historic buildings, will eventually have to be leased or sold.

The Curran Homestead board is overseeing the property until the collection can be moved and the future of the buildings finalized, which could take up to five years. Next year the Curran board hopes to continue hosting school groups and events at Willowbrook, which will be renamed Curran Homestead Village at Newfield.

The Curran board plans to hire Schmick, who has been Willowbrook director since 2013, as its first full-time director. During his time at Willowbrook, Schmick has expanded the hands-on aspect of the museum. Curran board members feel, and King agrees, that the Orrington location might be better for a history museum than Newfield, because it is just off Interstate 95 and close to Greater Bangor, a population center. It’s also on the way to Acadia National Park, which attracts crowds of visitors each year.

Newfield, on the other hand, is more than an hour from Portland and I-95, via a jumble of less-traveled state roads. There is no direct way to get to Newfield from Portland, and it’s not on the way to any vacation destination.

“It’s an hour from Portland, but it’s a hard hour,” King said. “We can’t get bus tours to come, because they want to know if there are a couple other places they can stop at nearby. Unfortunately, there aren’t.” The good part in all this, King said, is that the collection will live on.

But Willowbrook, a place where generations of people could see and touch the history of small-town Maine in a setting that fit the story, will itself become history.