One of my favorite places to photograph in Maine was a vintage vehicle graveyard in Yarmouth. To my eyes it was a veritable gallery of abstract art and modern sculpture. There were hundreds of cars and trucks strewn across many acres of land. The owner, Erv Bickford, painstakingly restored many of the rusted heaps to their former glory. The renewed trucks and other vehicles then starred in parades and movies or took pride of place in museums.
Kid, meet candy store
Connie-Marie and I first met Erv in the summer of 2006. We had traveled to Yarmouth to wander and take photos. Near some railroad tracks, we stumbled onto his junkyard and I was immediately captivated. Layers upon layers of peeling paint revealed long-forgotten company names rendered with care by sign painters of a by-gone era. I’ve always been fascinated with the wonderful compositions that occur when paint and metal succumb to the ravages of time and weather. Thinking to myself, “This place is a photographic gold mine,” I immediately began snapping.
Since it was a weekend, we hadn’t expected anyone to notice our intrusion. But it didn’t take more than a few minutes before a voice boomed out, “You realize you’re trespassing, don’t you?” My initial reaction was irritation. Yes, trespassing is illegal, but I was too absorbed in what I was doing at the moment so I pretended not to hear him. I was hoping to squeeze off a few more shots before we got tossed out on our ears.
Connie-Marie decided to take a more diplomatic approach and apologized to the elderly man who had come to admonish us. That was how we first met Erv. In conversation, it quickly became apparent that he was a true artist. According to Erv, we were only seeing a portion of his mammoth collection. We followed him down the road to see more of his machines in all their rusted resplendency.
Erv invited us into his workshop to show off his current vehicle restoration. He explained that occasionally he lacked a vintage part, so he would have to manufacture it himself. I must have looked perplexed, because he laughed and said, “It’s not rocket science. It’s just simple mechanics. No electronics or computers to worry about. Just parts that fit together.”
Connie-Marie and I spent a solid hour with Erv as he gave us the full tour of the yard. We thanked him as we left and I asked him if it would be okay if I stopped back soon to photograph. I fully expected him to say no because of the potential liability. I mean, we were talking lots of sharp, rusted metal and broken glass here. But Erv said he was fine with it, requesting only that I stop into the office to let someone know.
Over the next few years, I made multiple trips to Yarmouth to photograph the “yahd.” I found it a peaceful, meditative experience wandering among the decaying hulks. It was always ghostly quiet. I became familiar with the grounds and had names for my favorite trucks. I would wonder about the lives of the people that drove the old delivery trucks, fire trucks, buses and other vehicles. What must it have been like when they were new and rumbling down twentieth-century America’s modern highways? I thought it was great that Erv and his business partner, Jim Hall, were preserving a piece of history that would otherwise be lost forever.
After several visits I had a nice portfolio of images. I made a book for Erv and mailed it to him with a thank you note. Not long after that, Connie-Marie and I moved to Rhode Island for a few years.
Where’s my junkyard?
When we returned to Maine at the end of 2011, I resolved to get back to visit Erv and “my trucks” once the weather improved. It was June by the time I made it back to Yarmouth. On my arrival, Jim was in the workshop. I had only met him once quite a while ago, so I re-introduced myself and asked for Erv. He paused for a moment and then told me that Erv had passed away a few weeks earlier. I stammered out an apology, explaining that I had moved away and hadn’t heard he was ill.
I told Jim about my conversations with Erv and how he had let me roam about taking photos. He said I should feel free to look around. I noticed things looked sparse and some of the trucks I remembered were now gone. Jim said they were in the process of clearing things out.
Another couple of years passed before I returned to my old stomping grounds. As I approached, I realized the whole scene had changed. A giant barn-like structure had replaced the workshop and junkyard. As I drove closer I realized that Erv’s junkyard was now a museum!
I parked next to a vintage car and admired the enormous building, decorated with old signs, gas pumps and memorabilia. Inside, the trucks and other vehicles stood gleaming and proud as if they had just rolled off the assembly line. I was awestruck.
Oddly, I just happened to arrive on the opening day of the Bickford Collection Truck Museum and Pavilion. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. Strange as it seems, I’ve always felt a bit of a spiritual connection to this place.
It’s been said that the process of transformation consists mostly of decay. And over the years I’ve been able to observe and document that process as I explored the junkyard. What struck me the most, though, was witnessing the exact opposite in Erv’s workshop: renewal and rejuvenation.
While my return visit was bittersweet, it's inspiring to know that a museum now stands as a tribute to Erv Bickford and his vision, dedication and workmanship. Thanks for letting me play in your yard, Erv.
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