“Thinking About Winterthink”

An article about a non-profit trolley museum’s annual brainstorming session

Electric Railway Association Journal, 1996


On a sunny Saturday in March, with three inches of new snow on the ground that mercifully covered up the beginning of Maine Mud Season, about fifty-five members of the Seashore Trolley Museum gathered in the library of the local primary school to (in the words of coordinator Peter Hammond) create a "plan of attack".  In the New England tradition, the amiable attendees did not look like a formal army but more like the Minutemen--casually dressed, relaxed, but serious and purposeful.  The cheerful library was dotted with models of the sinking of the Titanic from a recent class project, which added an appropriate "See what can happen if you don't plan?" atmosphere.  This was the fifth time they had gathered together before the start of the summer season to focus on ways to improve Seashore.  This year the theme was "The Visitor-Centered Trolley Museum".  My father, Ray Crapo, was there on the invitation of Hammond's Visitor Experience Committee to run a workshop that would hopefully convince them that that phrase was, or rather should be, a tautology.

My own position was a bit more ambiguous.  A little weekend trip was always tempting, although March is definitely not the month that the great State of Maine is at its best.  However, my hometown of Boston was in a similar condition, and it made sense for my father to swing through and pick me up on his trip from New York City.  He also indicated that he would like my help and would welcome my comments, and when he mentioned he'd pay for meals that clinched the deal.  The main reason, however, was a desire to see where my past was going.

I'll get back to that cryptic remark in a moment.  First of all, let me place myself for you.  If you came up to the Branford (now Shore Line) Trolley Museum in the late sixties or early seventies, and noticed a tomboyish little girl with straight black hair in pigtails, usually accompanied by a slightly younger boy and later, a toddler, you were seeing me and my brothers Donald and Raymond.  (I'll spare you the math--I'm thirty-one now, and went there around the ages of five to twelve).  Nearly every Saturday during the season, and occasionally during other parts of the year if he was needed, my father operated for the Museum as a volunteer.  The three of us had a marvelous time exploring, selling tickets, meeting people, and trying to stay out from underfoot (and under wheel--there is no better way to get safety rules ingrained in you than to be a little kid in a railyard).  Every adult on the place, including the members of the legendary Goon Squad, was our friend, and they kept an eye on us, taught us to operate as soon as we could see over the controller box, and infused us with their love and respect for the past and of the ancient machines they were working with.  It happened to be a vigorous time for the Museum; visitors flocked there by the thousands, the Pageants and other events were created, there was active planning with the towns of East Haven and Short Beach for Trolley Greens and line expansions, the Shop was humming with activity, and many people, railfans and otherwise, were working to make sure that the money kept on coming in.  It was a more generous and optimistic time for non-profits and one of the best formative experiences a girl could have.  Some of the railfans we met there have become lifelong family friends.

I have found that having such a past is like being a member of a respectable, but offbeat, religion.  It sounds a little silly to civilians when you try and explain it, and it's almost impossible to make clear exactly what you think is so great about it.  Although nearly everyone of a certain age has fond memories of trains and trolleys, few understand the dedication of the true railfan.  On the other hand, many railfans cannot understand why the visitors do not feel the same way they do about the equipment.  This would not be a problem if museums were not so dependent on visitors, a situation which is only going to become more dire in the lean, mean Nineties.

Let me give you an example.  When I see the little Lynchburg open #34 at Branford, I see a relic from a vanished era, a link to another century.  I imagine the long skirts of the women being gathered up swiftly and gracefully with one hand as they sweep up the running boards and the quiet, constant humiliation of the African-American riders having to find their allotted rows in the back.  I hear the sounds the little car made in series over the long (?what's its name) trestle, and feel the cheerful bouncing rhythm.  I see the beautiful, wagon wheel-avoiding curve in its side and its sparkling clerestory window and I reflect on the melding of elegance and utility that is a lost art, lost to the modern contempt for public transport and the automatic belief that its riders will vandalize anything that fragile and ornate.  I remember its old livery of forest green and gold and recall the careful research that gave it back its original orange and silver, and the noisy Shop the miracle was performed in.  I especially remember Tom Shade, the man who did the research and lovingly restored #34, and the excitement of the first run of the new-old car in the Pageant.  Finally, I remember the pain of his early death in 1994, the eulogy I wrote for the Shore Line newsletter, and the sight of his ashes being scattered along the main line by Father Bob Arce.  But if I didn't have all those memories, what would I see?  I can no more imagine that than I can imagine what the world would be like if I were color-blind.

Which brings me to the squares.  One of the exercises in the workshop packet handed out to the participants was the famous one in which you must count the number of squares in a simple diagram.  Although it is not a trick, it is surprisingly difficult.  The man who got it first in the group was the one who looked at it a different way from everyone else.  The point being made was that people do not see the same object the same way.   The next exercise, in which people were asked to describe an arrangement of circles with wedges cut out at certain positions, began to reveal more differences in the group.  The phrase "Pac-Man" figured prominently in the answers of the younger folks, and clocks and pies in the more mature ones.  Straightforward geometricians who gave answers in degrees of angles were contrasted with right-brained types who told everyone to draw imaginary shapes to group the circles around.

"Steering the Streetcar" finally began to make the link to Seashore more solid.  Asked to answer that frequent visitor question, everyone gave the correct answer (variations on "You don't steer it!") but tailored it to the imagined visitor's age and technical level.  One group had one answer for a four-year-old and another for a ten-year-old; another made extensive use of hand gestures to explain the concept of flange wheels; some talked like engineers, others like English professors.

I could see what was happening.  Gradually, my father was re-orienting the group to look at Seashore through the eyes of a guest.  This was brought home strongly by a first-person account of a visit to Seashore in the summer of 1990, which was largely enjoyable but needlessly mysterious.  The tourists had enjoyed the trolley ride and been impressed by the friendliness of the ticket seller and the well-stocked gift shop, but they had been discouraged by the cavernous exhibit hall with the inexplicable labels, the lack of greetings or announcements from the all-male operating crew, and the giant mud puddles everywhere.  Of course, I was one of those tourists and my father was the other.  I watched the group read his four-page essay and could tell where they were by the expressions on their faces; grins, rueful chuckles, thoughtful frowns, or snorts of disbelief.  Afterwards, my father and I circulated through the room and answered people's questions.  Most people just wanted my views on specific points, or clarifications, but all of them sheepishly but firmly insisted that things had improved since five years ago.  I found myself wishing I could tell these earnest, well-meaning folks that my father had exaggerated, that it had been a wonderful trip in every way and nothing had gone wrong, but I realized that my perceptions would be useful only if they were honest and unvarnished.  My odd status as simultaneous insider and outsider helped a lot.

My father's plan saw to it that everyone in the room was in the same boat by the next page.  The participants were asked to write down what they thought had went right--and wrong--and then to decide what railfans and non-railfans expected when they came to Seashore.  As he predicted, people found it much easier to pinpoint what had gone wrong.  I circulated again and found it fascinating to see how everyone completed the expectations exercise.  Two groups threw themselves into the non-railfan camp with abandon, trying valiantly to empathize with The Average Tourist, and only jotted a few cursory things in the railfan column.  One table filled up their railfan column with dispatch, and then stared glumly at the other column and at each other, like college students who had studied for the wrong topic for an exam.  The remaining groups, obviously veterans of New England town meetings with their strict sense of fairness, meticulously filled each column in turn, going back and forth, making sure each one had the same weight.

For all that, the answers were roughly the same.  The visitor's area had to be straightened up and labels had to be clarified; junk had to be squirreled away somewhere and not left in piles; tours of the barns should be rehearsed and standardized; a schedule of departures had to be posted and adhered to; people should be told how trolleys worked in enough detail so they didn't have to wonder why one guy was outside pulling on ropes and making the roof shake while the other was walking through the car with his hands full of mysterious metal gadgets he'd torn off the steering box; and so on.  Such things seemed obvious now, but then again, the number of squares in the diagram was obvious once you knew the secret.

Of course, most people had these ideas coming in.  All that had happened was that random thoughts and notions had been focused by the exercises, and suggestions had been distilled by discussion.  It finished up with me collecting envelopes in which people had written letters of commitment to their plans that would be mailed back to them at a future date (most people chose March 16, 1997, but some used the end of the summer season and a few the year 2000).  In the second part of Winterthink, after a delightful lunch prepared by the industrious volunteers, the participants broke up in several small groups, each with its own mission--grounds, front entrance, displays, etc.  My father, his workshop completed, stayed and watched, enjoying the presentations the groups made after they had met.  All of them were well done.

It was only three hours to sunset at this point and we wanted to do a few touristy things in off-season Kennebunkport--see the drawbridge (closed), count the number of open stores (very few), admire the architecture (at its best in the clear white winter sun), and, of course, go out to Walker Point and wave at George and Barbara (they weren't home).  Before that, though, we were invited out to Seashore to see the progress being made on the Visitor Center.  It's being completely revamped and the renovations were very impressive.  The dedication of the volunteers and the vision they had was even more so.  Once again I felt the nostalgia that envelopes me at the sights and sounds of my childhood.  This was compounded by the sight of the Northampton Station of the Orange Line, rescued from the destruction of the Boston El in 1990 (?check), resting in lonely splendor atop its pilings at the side of the parking lot.  The massive green copper-sheathed building was majestic even in its disheveled state, and I remembered how many trolleys I had seen in a similar condition and how they had bloomed under the care of the sort of people I had just spent the day with.  After a long look, I went back to the car--and had to pick my way through giant puddles.  Ah, well, that's what happens when you go to Maine during Mud Season.

1996 happens to be the bicentennial of the death of Robert Burns, and time to recall one of his best lines--the one about "seeing ourselves as others see us".  It's gratifying but hard sometimes, especially when the person who is holding up the mirror is himself a railfan and can understand the tension that can result when a museum has to change certain ways of thinking to survive.  But, if people have the grace and courage to look in the mirror as constructively as the people I met that day did, then the experience can be a positive one.  I think that Seashore has the skill and optimism to take what it has learned and make its museum a "must see" for non-railfans as well as those of us who make pilgrimages to it.  I hope and trust that other museums around the country will do the same.  Someday I hope to have a little girl with pigtails, and I want her to be able to clamber up a running board, hear the ding-ding of the go signal, and feel the same warm link to the shades of her fellow travellers, and the sense of the gracious past, that I enjoyed all those Saturdays ago.