In the summer of 1970 I met Johnny Monroe of South Thomaston, Maine. I last saw him in the early summer of 1975. Here’s what it was about, what he was about, and how it all came about.
In the summer of 1966 I bought a 1939 Chrysler at the Volkswagen dealership in Lima, Ohio, where I had lived since 1952. I was about to turn 16 and hadn’t even thought about owning a car. I had a job and a little money, though, and for $395 I took home an immaculate example of the first New Yorker, with a flathead straight-eight, running boards, suicide doors on the rear, and even a radio with push-button tuning. On my birthday in October that year I took my driving test and passed with no trouble. I drove the Chrysler to school at Lima Senior High my sophomore year.
In the summer of 1967 I drove this car to Maine when the family moved to Farmington, and I drove it to school for another (junior year). Then, that next summer, my mother tried to start it because it was in the way of her car and I wasn’t home. When the carburetor linkage stuck open, instead of turning off the key she reached for the gas pedal and tried to pull it back up. The engine threw a rod, making a hole through the side of the block.
That started a search for a new motor. Later that summer, Backus Garage in East Wilton was having its junkyard crushed and hauled, and my cousin Dan Kinney found a flathead 12-cylinder engine (V-12) in a 1940s-era Lincoln (sitting atop another car). Neither of us had ever seen so many cylinders before. I paid $13, which was all the money I had on me (but the crusher accepted it), and we pulled that motor just before the crusher snatched the car. Oddly, the 12-cylinder Lincoln motor mounts matched up with the Chrysler’s. It would have crowded the radiator core and, being not as long as the straight-eight, it didn’t quite reach the transmission. It would have been an easy fix, no doubt, but I was just 17 and it seemed daunting. I never installed it, but within a year I bought a Lincoln V-12 coupe in Mount Vernon and a V-12 sedan in Fayette. I took them home and stored them in a field on the family’s 70-acre “farm.”
In the summer of 1970 I was still looking for a 1939 Chrysler straight-eight motor. An issue of the Maine Sunday Telegram that summer brought me to the most ethereal, enchanting place I’ve ever been. The newspaper reported on a man from away who was searching for his ancestors’ graves in South Thomaston. He had found the Thorndike cemetery, but the article played on his complaint that the graveyard was surrounded by an immense junkyard of pre-war cars. The cars belonged to Johnny Monroe. The next day, Dan and I and our friend Jordan Richards went to meet Johnny. He was tall and gaunt, curmudgeonly and yet mischievous. We told him what we were looking for and he said he had one or two. But first he took us on a tour of his 80-acre paradise.
He led us through his collection along well-worn paths in the knee-high grass. Occasionally he’d step high over a bumper hidden in the grass and we’d follow suit. The cars were for sale — $35 a car, you get it out yourself. (When it came time to pay him for my own purchase, I noticed Johnny’s wallet was extremely fat with folding money.) On the tour of the junkyard he had some fun with us, asking whether we could identify this one or that. He challenged me to identify an upside-down carcass and said I’d probably know if I crawled underneath it to look up into the engine. I crawled and looked but to no avail. “A sleeve-valve Willys,” Johnny chuckled in triumph. (Picture below.)
Johnny identified a great number of species for us, but the only other one I can recall now, nearly 40 years later, is the Essex, up on its side. (Picture below.) As this and the other pictures here attest, the condition of most of the oldest ones was pathetic. And yet, here we were, three young men of 18-20, who all saw endless potential. We talked of opening a business just for restoring and re-selling these antique cars. Dan by now had his own 1949 (was it, Dan?) Hudson. Jordan, whose preference might have been for something more modern and muscular, was ready for anything. Yes, incidentally, we could identify many of the newer cars — the ones from the 1940s, for instance. It was the old wooden-wheeled carcasses that left us shrugging our shoulders.
Johnny spent a long afternoon giving us the tour. His house, a run-down looking two-story building and attachments, stood on the side of the road toward the sea. It was still 200-300 meters from the shore, and from the back of the house to the water lay the more recent cars, from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, even a couple in the 1950s. Across the road from the house lay the other half of the collection, those mostly no newer than the early 1930s. (The graveyard lay in the midst of these.) Johnny explained that he had started accumulating the cars during the second world war for the metal, but the scrappers never came this far to get it, so here it was still. He had a couple of sheds on the same side of the road as the older cars, and these sheds were full of parts. He estimated that he had a thousand cars, but there were no million-dollar surprises — no Duesenberg or even a Cadillac. I recall seeing one mid-’30s Packard and one 1938 Chrysler that had a straight-eight engine but with a different block than mine.
Eventually, Johnny led us to his 1939 Chryslers, all three of them. Two of them show up in the pictures here. Johnny is the fellow between the cars below wearing the floppy hat. Jordan is beside him. Below that are a couple more shots of the two Chryslers I took home from there.
I paid for all three, $105, but only ever managed to get two of them back to Farmington with the help of my friends. The one that was a straight-eight had a hole in the block in the same place as mine — a testament to an inherent weakness in that engine. (It was an “Imperial,” while the six-cylinder specimen was a “Royal.”)
In the picture below you can see the back of Johnny’s house. These Chryslers were 2/3 of the way from his house to the shore.
Altogether that summer my friends and I made four day-long trips to Johnny’s paradise. On one trip we began to pull the engine out of a 1942 Chrysler. It was a straight eight as well, and had all the appearance of being identical to mine. In the pictures below, Jordan is inside the engine compartment while an old friend from Ohio, Ron Jacobs, sits on the roof. We were only going to buy the motor out of this one, but when we pulled off the head, we could see that the block was cracked. In the second picture I imagine Ron’s head slumped at just the moment Jordan said something about the block being cracked. We abandoned the task at that point.
(Incidentally, as these photos attest, I seldom traveled without a camera in those days. I strongly favored Tri-X black and white film. For the nearly 50 years since then I have always, always had a camera with me wherever I go, for I know that if I do not, I will surely encounter something that needs to be photographed.)
In 1975 Beth Noyes and I were married, and I took her home from our honeymoon by way of South Thomaston. The approach to the junkyard was the same: Gradually you began to get glimpses of the carcasses through the thick growth at the edge of the road. Then you were full upon it with cars sunk into the earth and spread from forest on one side of the road to ocean on the other. Beth was not excited by the scene, and was even less excited when Johnny, a lanky six-footer in high rubber boots, came tromping up the road with an ax over his shoulder. I introduced myself, and he said he remembered me. He had had cataract surgery in the meantime and wore spherical glasses.
Evidently the fellow whose complaint had generated the newspaper article hadn’t succeeded in obliterating Johnny’s junkyard in the five years since his complaint was published. Irony was having fun with me, though, for Beth is related to the Waterman family whose property is all around the shore in that stretch of road. What’s more, the name Kalloch appeared in the graveyard within the junkyard, and I became well-acquainted with Peter Kalloch, one of that same Kalloch clan, during my 23 years with Great Northern Paper in Millinocket. I don’t know whether there’s any connection between the Kalloch and Waterman clans, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Names on the headstones in the Thorndike cemetery include Shuman, Currier, Cook, McKellar, Shea, Rackliff, Fales, Elwell, Snowdeal, and of course Thorndike. In 2008 I was contacted by the current owners of the land next to the cemetery, who are related to Johnny, and I was pleased to share copies of these and other pictures. I also learned that there are still about eleven cars on the property, which I will one day search for. The rest of the pictures on this page are random shots around Johnny’s paradise. Where you see a man in a floppy hat, that’s Johnny.
If you lay the next three out beside each other, they form a sort of panorama.
(Johnny stands atop a car in this picture.)
The next three also make the same sort of panorama when laid out correctly.
The rest of the story of my cars makes me very wistful. To a field on Voter Hill, outside Farmington, I eventually dragged the two Lincolns and the two Chrysler parts cars. My original New Yorker with the blown engine was given shelter in Jordan’s brother’s barn in New Sharon. In August 1970 I joined the Army, and Dan, about the same time, went to the Air Force. While I was stationed in California, my father sold his farm and had to get the cars off the property. He called me and told me he had a buyer and, as I recall, he could get about $400 for the four of them. I assented, but never saw the money. (You had to know my father and money.)
I don’t know what became of the lone Lincoln V-12 engine — the one Dan and I pulled from the car at Backus Garage. There’s more, though. In 1973, our little group traveled to Rhode Island to buy a Chrysler straight-eight engine from an eccentric old man who claimed to have (and we saw) a Chrysler Imperial, about 1942, that he said had belonged to FDR at Campobello. Maybe. In 1979 or 1980, I succeeded in having the spare engine I bought from the guy in Rhode Island, and my somewhat neglected original Chrysler, hauled to Millinocket. We were a one-car family and didn’t have a garage, so the Chrysler sat outside for a winter or two before Al Guimond came along and asked to buy it. I had two children and no prospects for sheltering the car, so I actually traded it and its parts for a 24-volt 1954 Willys military Jeep and a trailer — a substitute for a pickup truck. It was a poor trade. The Jeep was okay, but I didn’t keep it for long. It still hurts to think about giving up that Chrysler.
Below, Jordan is checking a classic at Johnny’s. I don’t recall what make of car it was, but I think there are enough clues there for an expert.
I don’t know when Johnny might have died, but he took heaven-on-earth with him. I wonder whether he chose the roadster below to take him into the next dimension.
On a pilgrimage to the junkyard that took place about 1995 he was gone. The cars were gone. Most of the traces were gone.
I tip my hat to irony, though. My daughter and son-in-law, who both work in Rockland, have just bought a house on Waterman Beach Road (February 2017). The back of their one-acre lot butts up to the back of Johnny Monroe’s emptied junkyard.
-David A. Woodbury-