THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

On view for the long haul, rigs rusted to pristine

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter DeMarco
Globe Correspondent / December 17, 2006

CANTERBURY, Conn. -- Mack tractors, Ford diesels, Dodge V8s, and the like. Chain drives, fifth wheels, tri-axles, and Cummins engines. No matter what we saw, my tour guide at the Haul of Fame couldn't explain it fast enough.

Look at this 1922 Ford cargo truck, he cried. ("They're wooden wheels!") Or over here -- a vintage tow truck with eight, no, must be 10 coats of fresh paint.

Finally, I had to stop him.

"Wait, Dad. Are you the curator?" I asked jokingly.

Drive past Middlebury , Conn., on Interstate 84 and you see road signs directing you to the Golden Age of Trucking Museum. Some 87 miles across the state, Canterbury is home to Connecticut's other trucking museum, a vast collection of antique construction equipment aptly named the Haul of Fame.

Two trucking museums in the same state? A mere coincidence, the museums' respective operators assured me. And really, they say, they don't compete for the same customers.

The Golden Age is a modern, $2 million auto palace where beautifully restored, show-quality long-haul rigs from the 1940s to more recent vintage are displayed behind felt ropes. The Haul is rough around the edges, tucked away on the grounds of a Waste Management trucking facility far off the main road, with numerous examples of both very rare and very rusted trucks.

The Golden Age has a children's play area, a banquet hall for weddings (they have hosted several), and big band music softly playing overhead. The Haul is a haven for tech-savvy gearheads who see gold in 75-year-old gravel pit diggers and antique monster towing equipment with tires up to your throat.

My father, Sam, 65, is the kind of guy who appreciates both. A truck driver his whole life, he bought his first snow plow truck, a 1947 Willys Jeep with Army tires and no heat, in 1962 , after he got out of the Coast Guard. He progressed over the years to half-ton pickup trucks, a farm tractor with a plow, front-end loaders, dump trucks, four-wheel - drive pickups, and, finally, an 18-wheeler with a sweet, double-bunk sleeper cab. If anyone ever yearned to visit a truck museum, let alone two, he'd be it.

The Haul was our first stop. Following a winding country road from the highway, we came upon a simple sign for the museum, founded 30 years ago by a pair of brothers in the trucking business. We followed the entrance road to a parking lot laden with ancient-looking construction cranes.

To me, the scene resembled a graveyard for tall creatures made of steel. Not to my father, though.

"Look at the shovels and the cranes!" he exclaimed. "P &H. Lorraine's. Link-Belt. Bay City. Northwest. The biggest makers in the country. A '52 Mack. A '55 Ford. Look at the loaders! Wow. Two Cats, a dozer. There's another '45."

He recognized everything, spouting names and accolades as we drove up and down the parking lot's gravel lanes. "You know, we don't have to stay," I kidded him.

We parked outside the museum's spartan entrance -- a small door on the side of a plain garage -- and stepped into a cavernous hangar with long rows of big rigs, dump trucks, school buses, fire engines, and farming equipment. Owner Denis Yaworski wasn't in, but Ed Bernier, one of four volunteer curators who keep the Haul running six days a week, invited us to join his tour.

Our small group, which included Jim Humphrey , a Danbury mechanic, and his friend Allan Brown, crowded around a Ford tractor engine.

"You see this little can right here?" said Humphrey, pointing to a black node. "This destroyed more engines in that era that Ford made than anything else. It was a crank-case breather and it would plug up. And when they plugged up, the engine couldn't breathe."

There were consenting nods all around.

I peeked into the engine and said, "That's quite a radiator."

Humphrey gave me a sympathetic look. "That's not a radiator," he said. "The radiator is in the back."

The mechanics were clearly beyond me, but not my father, who joined in with his own war stories about various gears and motors. Strolling the aisles he spotted a giant rigging truck from the Wellington Service Corp. of Somerville and recited the company's entire history to me. Leading me to a 1926 Model T Ford fire engine, he bent over to point out the hand-crank starter.

When I asked Bernier to snap our picture in front of old Mack, my father said , "Hell with us. Take the truck." He was in his glory.

We ambled around for about an hour, still seeing only a fraction of the 253 trucks in the Yaworskis' collection. "Come back anytime," Bernier said.

"Absolutely," my father pledged.

Our ride to Middlebury was filled with more truck talk, as my father recounted his days as a delivery truck driver for my grandfather's ice cream cone business. He would rise before dawn each morning and head to a different New England state -- Connecticut on Tuesdays -- delivering to Friendly's and the like. Even 40 years later, he knew our cross-state route by heart.

We made it to The Golden Age of Trucking about an hour before closing, passing through its glass entrance doors into a foyer filled with hundreds of toy trucks. Green highway-style signs directed visitors to the gift shop and the main exhibit hall . Black-and-white photos of founder Dick Guerrera, standing proudly with his fleet of fuel delivery trucks, adorned a large wall.

Though the museum was Guerrera's idea, it was his wife, Fran, who made it possible. After he had purchased land for the facility, Dick Guerrera was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Fran had never driven a truck in her life, but with help from her six children and her son-in-law, a general contractor, she designed and built the museum, opening its doors in 2002, three years after her husband's death.

"It was something that he wanted, so we just did it," she told us as we began our tour.

We strolled past the library, a small theater , and a large, well-stocked children's play area with a cut-away tractor cab that kids can pretend to drive. I tried to persuade my father to play the "18-wheeler" video arcade game, thinking he could show off his driving skills. But being a technophobe, he refused, as scared of the game as I would be of driving a big rig.

At last we reached Dick Guerrera's collection of immaculate, glistening rigs -- GMCs, Diamond Ts, Pierce Arrows , and Autocars from the 1940s and 1950s, to name a few -- lining both sides of a wide, carpeted aisle in the main hall. Well-written placards described each vehicle, but again, they were nothing my father needed to see. As Fran Guerrera showed us a giant International cab, my father explained how awful they were to drive in the city. ("Very poor visibility.")

As she led us to a small exhibit on old stockcars, he blurted out, "The Danbury Raceway. I used to go there as a kid."

"It's a '37 Ford," he said, looking over one of the souped-up cars. "That was the first car I had in high school when I was 17. It was the first car I dated my wife with."

As we walked , Guerrera pointed out her husband's favorites, from a chrome-laden, crimson red Dodge Bighorn to a gray, black, and red Dodge VKDA 60.

"That was the last truck he drove," she said. "That came into the yard -- he was very ill -- and he said, 'I want to go.' They put him in it and we drove down Route 8, and drove back up again. He was determined."

As Guerrera reminisced about her family's love for trucks -- daughter Kathy Jones is the museum's director, while son Richard Jr. waxes his father's rigs -- I shared my own childhood memories of trips in my father's Kenworth 18-wheeler, when I'd ride shotgun as we rolled along the highways of New England, eating at truck stops and tooting the air horn whenever passing motorists beckoned.

"When I'm finished with it, I'll loan it to you," my father told Guerrera.

That would be nice, she said.

With the sun setting we headed home, my father unable to stop pointing out various models of tractor-trailers along the way. What would his life have been like without trucks? I asked him.

He chuckled.

"Pretty boring, huh?" he said.

Contact Peter DeMarco, a freelance writer in Somerville, at demarco@globe.com.

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