New home readied for Curtis Transportation Museum vehicles

The family didn’t want this story told until after the moving was over. It’s a loss for outer East Portland – but learn where you’ll go, soon, to see this fine collection …

Only people who arranged private tours were allowed to explore the Curtis Transportation Collection, located in outer East Portland at Curtis Trailers.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The family that’s owned and operated Curtis Trailers since 1948, on SE Powell Boulevard where the Lents and Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhoods overlap, officially closed the “Curtis Transportation Collection” during 2013.

The family constructed a large two-story building, backing up on Kelly Butte, in 1995 to hold the 130+ piece collection – consisting primarily of horse-drawn carriages, fire trucks, and military vehicles, said Cammy Curtis Pierson.

Cammy Curtis Pierson stands before a horse-drawn, hand-carved wood hearse – originally used to transport dignitaries to their final resting place in the Philadelphia area. “When my father passed away, we decided that it was good enough for dignitaries, it was good enough for him, when was laid to rest at Willamette National Cemetery”, she said.

“My parents started collecting in the late 1960s. Until they constructed the building, their collection was scattered all over the greater Portland area,” Pierson revealed to East Portland News as we strolled through the collection.

“This is the only area in which we could build the building on our property,” she said. “My mom was in teaching, including in David Douglas Schools. Both of my parents were big supporters of education. They were thrilled when this space for the collection was built, and was all together.

“Their hope was to have the collection open to the public, in particular for school children – especially for students who were studying about the Oregon Trail,” Pierson explained.

This is the first horse-drawn carriage Myron and Betty Lou Curtis purchased, which led them to create a collection of vehicles.

One of the older vehicles in their collection – this circa-1850 “Emigrants Wagon” – likely traveled the Oregon Trail, during the migration to Oregon.

City denies permits
Not long after the Curtis family moved the collection into its new home, they started applying for permits to allow the museum to open to the public.

A major sticking point came from Portland Fire & Rescue. “They said we needed to build a turn-around to accommodate fire engines and other emergency vehicles,” Pierson related. “And, other Bureaus said we had to make other changes to meet other code specifications. We simply couldn’t afford it.”

Powellhurst-Gilbert resident Elaine Medcalf spent a moment with Cammy Curtis Pierson, just before the museum was permanently closed to any visitors in early 2013.

Thus, from the mid 1990s through early 2013, when the collection was put in storage, only small groups of car clubs, churches, and historical organizations were able to view the varied and magnificent collection over the years.

“For the last couple of years, we have been paying for product (trailer) storage in different locations – including leasing a disused Chevrolet building in Beaverton, and we sometimes have trailers stored next door at our wonderful neighbors, in their Funtastic Shows lot.”

The logical solution was to sell off, or give away, the vehicles, she said – even though the close-knit family had mixed emotions about breaking up the collection.

Along with wagons, carriages and powered vehicles, the collection also contains sleighs, and all kinds of hitching gear.

“The first vehicle that we donated was a beautiful nickel-plated ‘1st size’ 1904 Nott Steam Pumper, serial number 558, horse-drawn fire engine. It was my dad’s favorite, and one of the nicest pieces in the museum. We donated it to Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.

“We thought long and hard about donating it,” Pierson confided. “We want to do the right thing, and we came to know this was the right thing to do.  But it was still hard to part with it, because the Nott has been such a part of our lives for such a long time.”

Antique Powerland’s “Chief Instigator”, Rob Lewis, sits with Cammy Curtis Pierson on the seat of an American La France Fire Pumper Type 75, circa 1929, originally used by the Paris, Tennessee, Fire Department.

Group proposes new Brooks-based museum
During our visit in early 2013, Rob Lewis introduced himself as the “Chief Instigator” of Antique Powerland, located just off Interstate 5 in Brooks, Oregon – between Wilsonville and Salem.

“We’d heard that something was going to happen to this collection,” Lewis said. “We were afraid that the collection would be sold off or given away. We met with Cammy several times, trying to put something together to help save the collection.”

At first, Antique Powerland’s organizers weren’t interested in the having a buggy and wagon collection, because they specialize in tractors, trucks, and old machinery.

“I knew if I could get Charlie Philpot, President of the Antique Powerland Museum Association up here, he’d change his mind,” Lewis said. “When Charlie visited, his exact words were, ‘This is not a carriage collection, this is a cross section of humanity, and we need to save it’.”

This is a small selection of the antique farm equipment, and on the far wall, firefighting gear, in the Curtis Collection.

Pierson entertained several proposals, Lewis said. “The idea of constructing a museum building at Antique Powerland seemed to be the best fit.”

“We are pretty excited about this,” Pierson said. “It can be used in conjunction with an educational program at Antique Powerland that’s tied in with Chemeketa Community College and the Salem/Keiser School District.”

During 2013, while the collection was being moved into storage, a group formed called the “Curtis Heritage Education Center (CHEC)”, and started an application for 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax status, said the new organization’s President, Tim McCann.

This is a portion of the military vehicles and gear included in this fascinating collection.

“While we finalize our nonprofit designation,” McCann told East Portland News, “most of the 130 vehicles, and thousands of period accoutrements, are in long-term storage in Tualatin, awaiting the building of our new museum.

“We are currently in the process of creating our museum building plans and developing our financial support,” McCann added. “We’ve secured the property – right next door to the Trolley Museum at Antique Powerland.  Over the next three years, we’ll securing grants, doing corporate fundraising. And, we’re looking into ‘crowd-funding’ right now.”

“Again, my parents’ thing was about education,” Pierson said. “That’s why this is so positive. We’re sure this is what mom and dad wanted to happen with their collection.”

While this sign will never be seen again in outer East Portland, with the help of supporters, it will hang above a new museum where the collection will permanently be on display.

Whether you visited the Curtis Collection, or never had the chance to do so – your opportunity is coming! Stay in touch with the CHEC by visiting their website: CLICK HERE.

© 2014 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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