Volunteers keep the Crawford’s historic auto collection rolling


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The Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum began as a personal crusade to save historical vehicles from the crusher. Today part of the collection is on display in University Circle while dozens of volunteers maintain the rest at a facility in Summit County. They’re making old cars new again while also making memories.

Traveling in style

After the 1936-37 Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland, Thompson Products President Frederick C. Crawford heard one of the display vehicles was going to be junked. He had his company buy the ill-fated 1910 Duryea and display it at the Thompson factory. The collection grew to the point that a former Cadillac showroom at E. 30th Street and Chester Avenue was leased for a museum, which was called the Thompson Products Auto Album, in 1943. After 20 years, with the building’s lease ending, a deal was struck to move the collection to the Western Reserve Historical Society. Some of the collection is on view at the Cleveland History Center in University Circle.

About 20 years ago, WRHS set up an additional storage and maintenance facility in Summit County. Although a portion of the building houses non-automotive artifacts, such as a vintage Hough Bakeries sign, most of the 60,000 square feet is used by 52 volunteers who come in each week to make radiators, tear down engines and eat.

“There's no shortage of carbohydrates,” said Larry Davis, who manages the program. They’re “bringing donuts, which I'm sure none of them are allowed to eat at home!”

Davis has run the volunteer program for seven years, choosing a mix of people and personalities who might have little in common aside from their love of speed.

“I think I have 12 degreed engineers,” he said “We have multiple dentists, we have salesmen, executives from various companies, skilled-trades guys. And they bring 50 years of working experience to the table.”

Kabir Bhatia/Ideastream Public MediaStan Kohn is a retired University of Akron media professor who helped restore this White Motor Company model 15-54 touring car.

Most are retirees, with a full career in the rearview mirror. Yet they’re shifting gears to learn a new skill.

“You may be the car guy, but you’ve never learned to weld,” he said. “Or, you want to learn to run a milling machine or a lathe.”

Davis teaches new skills while deploying existing talents to work on everything from a vintage Ford Thunderbird to a replica Yenko Camaro, one of the rarest muscle cars ever made.

“They have the ability to practice, and then we’re putting it right into direct action here on our vehicles,” he said

Back to school

Some volunteers are even there for college credit. Steve Denker is a retired rabbi and a part-time student in the auto tech program at Cuyahoga Community College. He enjoys cars and the camaraderie among the volunteers.

“Being able to watch them work and to see the skill that they have is absolutely enormous,” he said. “The fact that they're willing to not only befriend me but to teach me, that's been a wonderful, important and, I hope, continuing experience.”

For Bill Nahumck, the sense of community keeps his mind firing on all cylinders.

“It just keeps me busy,” he said. “It keeps my mind going, and it keeps me active.”

For Stan Kohn, who was a media professor at the University of Akron, volunteering has an additional reward.

“I get to, for a change, restore a car that I don't have to pay for the parts!” he said.

Kohn is one of the volunteers who helped restore a massive, 11-person White Motor Company touring car built in Cleveland a century ago.

“I have recollections of these vehicles from out at Glacier and Yellowstone,” he said. “It needed a new radiator, which was about a two-year ordeal. Handmade and very specific.”

Along with volunteers donating time, Davis said they also accept donations of everything from oil and rags to storage containers and machinery. All of it gets used as they resurrect vehicles ranging from the oldest Lincoln motorcar to a mid-‘80s Chrysler minivan that was used for promotional appearances by WKYC’s Del Donahoo.

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Western Reserve Historical Society is the oldest cultural institution in Northeast Ohio, the region's largest American history research center, and one of the leading genealogical research centers in the nation.

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Cleveland History Center
10825 East Boulevard
Cleveland, Ohio 44106 ↗

(216) 721-5722

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