'Labor of love': Bickford collection of antique vehicles launches at Yarmouth Clam Festival
YARMOUTH — It all started with a 1949 Chevy pickup truck.
In the 1960s, Erv Bickford bought the beat-up truck and restored it to factory condition. The project sparked a passion in Bickford that would endure for four decades until his death in May 2012 at age 79.
A little more than a year later, that passion is now on display at The Bickford Collection.
On Thursday, July 18, the Bickford family will open their patriarch's collection of antique vehicles to the public at two locations: Yarmouth Junction on East Elm Street and downtown just off Main Street. The free, two-hour event begins at 5 p.m. at 1 Railroad Square and features a dedication ceremony at 5:30.
It is just one of the many events being held downtown during the 48th annual Yarmouth Clam Festival.
At the Railroad Square location, Bickford's family constructed an open-air post-and-beam pavilion and courtyard with more than a dozen vehicles ranging from a pristine 1946 Mack firetruck to a circa-1920 Buffalo Springfield steamroller, which literally ran on steam.
About half of the vehicles are stored under the metal roof of the pavilion. The other half are arranged in a mulch-covered courtyard which is meant to be enjoyed as a playground, Bickford's daughter, Tam Bickford Hamrock, said.
The pavilion is just as Bickford intended. During a prolonged illness that eventually claimed his life, the longtime town councilor and community fixture worked alongside his nephew, Tim Bickford, to design the pavilion, which the nephew built this year from sturdy white spruce timbers. The finished structure resembles a train platform – an architectural nod to the train station on the other side of the tracks.
At Yarmouth Junction, about 35 additional pieces are on display in Bickford's horse barn, which was restored to serve as a museum.
The Bickford Collection will eventually be run as a nonprofit with the mission of bringing a living history to future generations for perpetuity, as its namesake intended.
"It wasn't about things," Bickford Hamrock said of her father's plans. "It was really about history, preservation of history and passing on to the next generation."
The family won't say how much the project cost, but it was the culmination of a lot of volunteer hours from friends, family and former employees of Bickford Transportation, the business Bickford owned and operated until five years ago.
"It really is a family project and it has been a labor of love," Bickford Hamrock said.
The antique vehicles began arriving at Railroad Square about a month ago and young children have been drawn to the site ever since, Bickford Hamrock said. Whenever the family has been there working, they've unlocked the gate to let children into the courtyard.
"I can't tell you how wonderful it is to see these eyes as wide as saucers and kids going 'vroom, vroom,'" she said. "(The collection) is not static. It's alive and, for me, that's the most exciting thing. That's how you pass on the past to the future."
Lyn Bickford, Bickford's wife of 54 years, said the collection at Railroad Square isn't just for kids.
"There are just as many men that come in," she said. "They remember these trucks from when they were young. ... The older men are enjoying it so much."
The Railroad Square site represents a fraction of what's available at the East Elm Street location. The collection at the pavilion will appeal to broader tastes, while the collection in the barn is more esoteric, Bickford Hamrock said.
"It's for more serious collectors ... people who understand the real collectible equipment," she said.
After restoring the Chevy pickup, Bickford didn't do much collecting until a decade later in the late 1970s. By the '80s, it took on a life of its own. Lyn Bickford worked in the office at the transportation company and watched the collection grow.
"I watched it all arrive, little by little," she said. "I wasn't aware of the scope of it, frankly. I knew it was a lot."
The full scope became apparent during the past year when the family began going through the collection. They found several vehicles they didn't know were there, she said.
The Railroad Square site will be a unique community asset that could draw people off Interstate 295 and into downtown, said Caroline Schuster, director of the Yarmouth Chamber of Commerce.
"It's such a beautiful, beautiful tribute to Erv and it's interesting and fun to boot," she said. "I think it's going to be a real showpiece for Main Street. It's unique, and so was Erv."
Bickford served on the Town Council for eight terms in four stints, between 1978 and 2012, according to town records. Carl Winslow, who sat on the board with Bickford for nine years, said his late friend was a local celebrity and a kid at heart who was gifted at restoration.
"Even if it looked like junk, he picked it up and restored it," Winslow said. "Most people wouldn't even bother with it, but he was really into restoring it."
Winslow said his old friend would have been proud of The Bickford Collection.
"Unfortunately, he didn't live to see it," Winslow said, "but he certainly knew what he wanted."