Museum helps to restore a town

Northeast Classic Car Museum draws visitors to once-empty manufacturing facilities

Norwich, in upstate New York, was the home of Pepto-Bismol, the site of the largest hammer manufacturer in the United States, and housed companies making everything from shoes to fireplace equipment, and products for logging and farming and other enterprises.

But late in the 20th Century, the industries departed, and it wasn’t until 2005 that Hamdi Ulukaya, an immigrant from Turkey, would purchase a former Kraft Foods plant in the area and start producing a yogurt he called Chobani.

A row of Franklins, which were powered by air-cooled engines

In the meantime, residents of Norwich saw tourism as a potential source for recovery and convinced car collector George Staley to help establish the Northeast Classic Car Museum in one of those old industrial buildings. The museum opened in 1997. Today, it spreads to four other adjacent former manufacturing and sales buildings, all now interconnected by enclosed walkways.

Among its exhibits, the museum houses what is purported to be the world’s largest collection of Franklin automobiles, thanks to George Staley, who died in 2011 at the age of 92. I counted around 30 Franklins during my recent visit. There also are pre-war, post-war and muscle car exhibits, as well as amazing motorcycles, a room of cars produced in New York State, and a display of various air-cooled engines, including those that powered military aircraft.

Currently, a special temporary exhibit focuses on work trucks, including a Staley Dairy delivery vehicle.

Though famed for its Franklins, the Northeast museum has much more to offer

George Staley grew up on a dairy farm in Lincklaen, a few miles northwest of Norwich. 

“Staley’s Dairy: You can whip our cream, but you can’t beat our milk!’ the delivery trucks proclaimed.

George Staley studied to become an aircraft mechanic in the late 19309s, was drafted into military service and, after serving in South America and Africa, was assigned to a base in Utah, where he was a technician with the 509th Bomber Group that helped develop the fuel-injection system for the B-29, notably including one named the Enola Gay. His work earned him a Distinguished Service Cross.

After the war, he worked for a company that overhauled air-cooled Franklin engines, and he became partner in a business that became successful overhauling aircraft accessories. He also started collecting cars, especially Franklins, which became his favorites, and which, as it turned out, were manufactured in Syracuse, not far from his boyhood home.

He also started his own collector car restoration business, now run by his sons, Jim and Claude. But restoring cars wasn’t his only passion; he also led the restoration of the DeRuyter Town Hall, where he had attended school in the 1930s, and with his sons enlarged the local library and food pantry.

For museum hours and other visitor information, visit its website.

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