Last year we made the 3-hour trip to Hartland, Maine, to meet Mrs. Winnie Russell and Philip Russell, the wife and son of E.C. Russell, a man who entertained and educated people throughout the Northeast US with his traveling model horse display. Philip has built a wonderful museum in tribute to his father's work. Please join me in a tour of this incredible little museum, but first let me tell you why this place, and these folks, are so special to me.
When I was around twelve, already an avid model horse collector, I came across a large converted horse trailer at our local fair. A printed message on the side read "Come see the 40 Horse Hitch!" I dragged my parents inside where an older man was showing off an array of miniature wagons and carriages, all pulled by Breyer horses! The centerpiece of the traveling show was the 40-Horse Hitch display in a glass case. While I ogled all the models, my dad struck up a conversation with the owner, Mr. Clair Russell, and discovered that he had built every wagon and sewn every harness himself.
Below: His 40-Horse Hitch displayed for the camera at his home in the 1990s.
Hearing that I was a horse-lover, he invited my family to visit his workshop in the woods of Central Maine. I wasn't sure what to expect, but when he opened the door and ushered us inside, a child entering Santa's own workshop couldn't have been more in awe! Everywhere, from ceiling to floor, were model horses, spools of leather strapping, coils of wire, wood in various states of becoming wagons, and more horses!
I had only recently been introduced to model horse showing and the visit to Mr. Russell's workshop changed the course of collecting at our house. My dad was quite a woodworker in his own right, and while he and Clair discussed how to build wagon wheels from scratch, I began thinking about harness-making. We left the Russells' with a box full to the top with spools of harness straps, lengths of wire, a box of buckles, and 32 various china models that he produced from a drawer in his workshop and insisted that I have for my collection. As I said, no child visiting Santa's own workshop could have come away more excited than I did.
We had hardly returned home before my dad began building his own versions of horse equipment inspired by Mr. Russell's work. I borrowed from a friend a partner to my Clyde Stallion and began working on a pair of harnesses while my mother began sewing outfits for the team's driver. The result was our first harnessed show entry: A hay ride wagon which won five of the six classes we entered it in.
By the next show season we had an Old West Chuckwagon, with tons of miniature accessories (bags of flour and potatoes, mini metal plates, etc), and dad was already working on a snow roller, wood skidder, and several other pieces. He was having as much fun as I was!
Mr. Russell brought some of his pieces to the Maine Live (Model Horse) Show in Camden the next year at our invitation, but after that we lost touch with him. In 2014 I came across a box in our basement that contained the remnants of materials he had given me twenty-plus years ago, and decided it was time to pass them along to another collector in hopes of stoking the same fire.
Giving them away to a model harness maker motivated me to try to get in contact with the Russells and let them know what an impact they had had on my family. I found that Mr. Russell had passed away just a few years ago, but his wife and son graciously invited us up to visit again, and told me they had opened a small museum to showcase his work.
We arrived at the Russell home and memories flooded back of that magical visit decades ago. I could almost see him holding open the door to his workshop and inviting us inside. It was sad to know that he was no longer lovingly cutting leather and pounding wire into tiny horseshoes, but his wife Winnie shares the same positive energy and was a joy to talk with.
The garage had long-ago been converted into a display area for his work, and although it was now also being used a bit for general storage, some of his pieces still lined the walls, as did dozens of photos of him with various teams of real horses and ponies.
I pored over each piece and picture, expecting this to be the bulk of his remaining work, until Winnie startled me by saying, "Are you ready to go to the museum now?"
It was difficult to leave a place that held so much meaning for me, but when I saw the little museum they had erected in his honor, I was thrilled to see that indeed, the pieces at their home constituted only a small fraction of his surviving art. Please join me on a virtual tour of the Russell Family Model Horse & Equipment Museum!
Be forewarned, though. What you are about to see are works of art, not collectible models. Many have been painted, re-positioned, etc., to suit the piece. I hope you'll enjoy them as he intended.
Yup, that's me in the picture above. Sorry about the tomboy look... Parts of my hair were dyed blue at the time, and I didn't want to startle Winnie, so I tied it all back. Anyway, on with the show:
There's no place to start but at the center! The centerpiece of the museum is a 40-Horse Hitch... 40 Belgians (Blackhome Grandeur Lyn release), four abreast, with harnesses and shoes all created by hand by Mr. Russell. The hitch is twelve feet long, including a primitive-styled Circus Wagon and two outriders (on Zippo Pine Bar models) flanking it. Photos of the real, world-famous 40-Horse Hitch are framed on the wall behind it. While he had always loved horses and history, the real 40-Horse hitch was his greatest inspiration, and photos of it can be seen throughout the museum and his home workshop.
Okay, I should have stood the lazy rider up before taking the pics, but hey, I was a little overwhelmed! I was also confused... I'd seen his 40 Horse Hitch before, and even though it was almost 25 years ago, I knew darned well it had been 40 Roy models pulling it, not BGLs. Winnie told me I was correct, and that this was actually the SECOND 40-Horse Hitch he'd made. In 2003, as his original's fame had spread, a collector for the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, FL, had made him an offer he couldn't refuse and purchased the original for several thousand dollars. Clair and his son had wrapped the entire thing in bubble wrap, then a blue tarp, and secured it "with a whole roll of duct tape," according to Philip, who was then charged with driving it in the back of his truck from Maine to Florida, with two feet of it hanging out over the tailgate the whole way. He was greatly relieved when they arrived and found that it survived the trip in perfect condition. It resides in the Ringling Museum today.
That was in November of that year. When Philip arrived home from Florida in March, his father had already finished this new display, having worked on it all winter long! He didn't like the Roy mold, so even though it better resembled the actual 40-Horse Hitch driven by Dick Sparrow, he opted to change to the Belgian, which he loved. To really appreciate the work required, check out this harness work, and remember it was done by a man in his 70s... and then done AGAIN 40 times each!
Check out how on each horse, the outside rein is attached to the trace of the horse leading him. I don't see how that would function well in real life, but it's an interesting and elegant design to look at, especially in this magnitude. Philip mentioned that after the hitch was completely finished and secured to the base, Clair realized that he'd forgotten to shoe them! Never one to let extra work keep him from getting the details right, they took all forty horses off the base, handmade all 160 shoes, with caulks, attached the shoes, and then re-secured the horses!
While his most famous work, the 40-Horse Hitch is only one of about 50 hitches on display in the museum. What's about to follow is a long photo spam, because I know you all like photos as much as I do. Get comfy!
Top right: An ice block wagon. Ice for refrigeration, both at home and at food plants, used to be cut from Maine rivers in winter and hauled in large blocks to its destination. A photo propped beside the wagon shows this being done.
Center: A log skidder on its way to the woods and a sleigh suitable for carrying a whole family or supplies to market.
A John Deere dump-body wagon and two different cultivators, all hand-made, along with pieces of his Budweiser Clydesdales stein collection, which decorate the museum.
A "V" plow with wings, used to plow the roads. Mr. Russell hired a local seamstress to create outfits for many of his drivers, which were most often Breyer Alec dolls. He bought them by the boxful!
A primitive sled diven by a country lad.
A large delivery sled and a handbuilt set of veterinary stocks. The woodframe structure includes tie rings and straps and even a sling for holding ornery or injured animals while the vet worked on them.
Assumably one of his early pieces, the sleigh is very primitive but the harness shows the promise of future masterpieces!
A lovely show wagon in the style of Budweiser parade wagons. Note framed photo of the "40" taken by Philip underneath.
Someone please tell me if you can identify the copper/bronze plated Clydesdale in this photo. He's really made of metal and is attached to a wooden base with felt pads. No identifying marks that we could see. (Of course, his origin made no difference to Mr. Russell... It's a horse, let's harness it! I love that.)
Harnessed horses awaiting a wagon. They were most likely some of his last harness pieces, now displayed respectfully in a glass case under the "40."
Metal harrow, all handmade from aluminum strips and handpainted by Mr. Russell. Notice how the driver wears the reins around his neck so he can steer the harrow with his hands. The horse would have responded to voice cues so the reins were only for emergencies.
An Anheiser-Busch style show wagon, complete with dalmation and eagle emblem.
Potato Digger... We're in Maine after all. This is how it used to be done!
Above: Although most of his work was done at 1:9 (Traditional scale), he wasn't afraid of going small, as seen in this Little Bits plow team!
Show wagon and Hood's Milk Delivery van, which would have used blocks of ice cut from Maine rivers to keep the milk cold en route to homes in the area.
Western Chuckwagon, holding the food and supplies for an explorers' wagon train.
Snow Roller: When people traveled by sleigh, it was the road crew's task to take their team through the snow and pack it down with a huge, heavy roller so that sleighs could pass over it easily. I wouldn't have wanted that job - as neither man nor beast!
A 4-horse snow roller with a miniature bobsled in the foreground.
Notice the hat? Yes, he DID get to go out and not only see the real 40-Horse Hitch, they let him DRIVE it!!! It was during practice for a parade, in a field, and Philip tells us he was so excited that they were actually there, that he, being charge of the camera, took an entire roll of film as the trainers brought the team by again and again... And then suddenly his dad was in the driver's seat.... and he was out of film!!! He says he got severely tongue-lashed for that, but at least his dad got a hat to prove he'd done it.
Let's pause a moment to consider the man behind this prolific work. E.C. Russell, known to his friends by his middle name Clair, worked for many years as an overnight watchman at the Dexter Shoe Factory and was married to Winnie for 59 years. He loved horses and ponies, and enjoyed participating in pony pulling events for fun. Here's a photo of him with some of the bigger boys, and at the bottom, a photo of his traveling display at the fair, the same one that introduced us:
Part of his workbench, along with some of his tools and supplies, has been moved into the museum, set by a window, as he would have liked it. His desk now holds, in addition to his tools, wagon wheels, and various lengths of leather and wire, photo albums of his real horses and his creations.
On the small shelf above his tools is a miniature wood skidder still in progress. At the top is a larger skidder, finished, but without a team, holding birch logs.
A sentiment we wholeheartedly agree with!
Above: A doctor's wagon. Philip pointed to this model and said, "There are only two horses that I don't like the looks of in here. This is one." (Rough And Ready was the other.) "Why'd they make him that color?" I just shook my head and said, "We'll never know." It is, however, one of the few non-draft horses in the collection.
I love this little hay rack set! It's pulled by two Peter Stone Standing Drafters.
This letter was written to Mr. Russell by our long-time Senator Olympia Snowe. She was just one of thousands of people who got to tour his moving museum when he attended fairs and visited schools. It now rests proudly among the hitches in the museum:
She speaks in the letter of a gifted handmade horseshoe... Mr. Russell made shoes for his hitches from aluminum wire, pounded into shape and given nail holes by hand. Besides using them on his model horses, he kept a supply attached to key chains that he often gave to visitors. I am privileged to still have mine hanging from my rear view mirror after twenty years!
Above, his only hitch on display using Shire models.
Know what this is? It's a hearse! He's built a little coffin for it to carry, and Philip tells me that there's actually a doll inside the coffin! Rather than being gruesome, it's simply another documentation of life in the age of horses!
A manure spreader.
Even Friesians were invited to work by Mr. Russell. These guys pull a small roller, used during road construction. The large heel caulks on their shoes attest to the need for traction on Maine's muddy roads.
Center: A road grader. One man drives the team while the other works the blade to remove pot holes, prolific things in Maine, particularly in spring!
This guy's pulling a V-Plow with wings. It's just like a plow truck of today, just one horsepower!
A dump-body wagon, very useful on farms for everything from rock removal (stone wall building) to manure spreading. This one must be brand-new... They wouldn't have stayed clean and shiny very long!
Hay rake, designed to fluff the cut hay so it will drive faster.
A cultivator - It made the furrowed rows where seeds would be planted. Some had hoppers that automatically planted as they went. This team of mules looks like they're enjoying their work!
A champion pulling team, probably at a fair, preparing to pull their sled stacked with cement weights.
Top: Delivery Wagon labeled "Hay and Grain"
Bottom: A winter-fitted log skidder, with skis instead of wheels. This team is hauling square beams, probably for a barn-raising.
A firewood skidder. Unlike the log skidder above, firewood was shorter and stacked sideways. These were common to many homes and farms, and were often more rustically built. Note how this one utilizes skis on the front, but simply has logs serving as ramps/body.
Two cultivators - Top: Single hitch walk behind; bottom: Double hitch ride-on
Another of my favorites, this is labeled "Salomander" "Granite Hauler." It's a rugged wagon with heavy-duty wheels designed to carry serious weight, and has a winch in the back that would be used to lift granite blocks into the body. (Granite usually weighs around 100 pounds per cubic foot, so both wagon and team had to be rugged.)
Top is labeled "Jigger Wagon." You can guess what it's hauling.
Bottom is a family wagon hauling feed home from the general store. It's one of the rare pieces that includes non-driver figures.
If this is all a bit overwhelming, take a break and sit down a moment:
A beautiful blue show wagon awaiting a team. I hope it gets the harnessed Wixoms pictured near the beginning!
A manure spreader, hard at work.
Below a front window rests this neat bit of equine history. Maine used to be famous for it's paper industry, which "back in the day" relied on horse teams to pull logs out of the woods and down to the factory (or river) for processing. International Paper was one of many, and they had their own harness shop to keep the tack in good repair. In the museum they have a copy (original is kept safely in a climate controlled room) of the harness blueprint from that harness shop. I thought this was super cool!
Below: John pointed to this and exclaimed, "Hey, there's no horses in this!" To which my mother replied, "Sure there are - About 400." This is a wooden replica of Philip's truck, made by Clair, the one non-equine piece on display in the museum, and you can see he put as much love and work into it as any of his other pieces.
The museum is a wonderful tribute to this incredible artist. His son Philip has grown into a craftsman in his own right. He actually built this truck from a bare frame. On the side he's written "Russell Family Model Horse Museum."
Yes, he would.
A big thanks to Winnie Russell and Philip for inviting us to their homes and to tour the museum. With Clair's care and artistry, the days when we relied on horses for our survival have been documented in 3-D. With the care and love of his family, they are preserved to continue educating and amazing the next generation of horse-lovers.
Winnie has consigned a few unused models and two boxes of Alec dolls to us to sell, so if you'd like to own a small momento from Mr. Russell's collection, you may still have an opportunity.