Museums Draw Diverse Visitors, Even the Famous

WARREN, Ohio — On a very quiet Sunday afternoon 16 years ago, two men in casual attire walked to the entrance of the National Packard Museum in Warren. They peeked inside, talked briefly with the museum’s executive director, Mary Ann Porinchak, and then walked out.

Minutes later, the two reappeared, this time with another man who wore blue jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap. For the next hour or so, Porinchak showed them around the museum – a permanent collection of more than 30 vintage Packard automobiles that the company manufactured between 1900 and 1956.

“It was a Sunday and there wasn’t anyone here,” Porinchak says. After the tour, the three – all of whom spoke with pronounced British accents – thanked her and left.

About two months later, Porinchak and others at the museum were flipping through a magazine when a photograph caught her eye. “I said, ‘That’s the guy that was in here,’ ” she relates.

The guy was Eric Clapton, acclaimed as the best guitar player in the world and an automobile aficionado. He had made it a point to visit Warren, Ohio – birthplace of the Packard – after a concert in Cleveland the previous evening.

“I don’t follow music,” Porinchak acknowledges with a laugh. “I showed him around and talked to him without ever knowing who he was.”

What many in the region do not understand is that museums across the Mahoning Valley are a real draw to out-of-towners.

Just turning a few pages of the guestbook at the Packard Museum, for example, shows the names of visitors who hail from all across the country – California, Nebraska, New York, New Jersey. And, other venues here similarly draw guests from afar.

The Butler Institute of American Art is one of the country’s most revered art museums that attracts an international clientele – among them a large slate of celebrities. But many of the smaller museums in the area also bring in crowds that normally wouldn’t be interested in the Mahoning Valley.

“We don’t realize how important this is,” Porinchak says. “A lot of people take it for granted.”

The Packard museum has gained an international following since the day it opened in 1998, she says, simply because the Packard was a luxury car with a worldwide appeal. By the 1920s, Packards were standard transportation for both American presidents and American gangsters. Al Capone owned one.

Packard’s international fame was never more evident than during the Packard Centennial Celebration in 1999, held in Warren to mark the 100 years since brothers William Doud and James Ward Packard built their first motorcar in a subsidiary plant of the Packard Electric Co.

By 1902, the subsidiary was known as the Packard Motor Co. The brothers manufactured the cars in Warren until the company moved production to Detroit in 1903.

“We had more than 1,000 Packards in town,” Porinchak says. “There were owners here from every corner of the world. I don’t think you’ll ever see that again.”

Today, many of the Packard owners are elderly and were born in the 1930s and 1940s, Porinchak says. As such, tastes in vehicles have since shifted to the 1960s generation of “muscle car” owners who revel in speed. “We’re going to see a lot of changes,” she comments.

But even enthusiasts known for their collection of fast cars still marvel at the Packard’s beauty. Last year, for example, comedian Jay Leno – who owns one of the largest private collections in the country of classic automobiles – stopped in the museum for a quick tour.

“There was this one gentleman from England who had a Packard collection and he had been planning this trip to the U.S. for years,” Porinchak recalls of another visitor. “He was amazed that he was finally here.”

Other museums in the region also drum up a large following, especially during special events, most held during the summer.

“Nobody’s ever left disappointed,” observes Bill Griffin, director of the Ernie Hall Aviation Museum in Howland. The museum is a hands-on tribute to one of the great pioneers of flight.

Hall, an associate of the Wright Brothers, operated a flight school in a field across from where the museum stands today. On Aug. 6, the museum hosts its fifth annual “Wings-n-Wheels show,” which brings thousands of aircraft and auto enthusiasts to Howland from across the region.

“Last year, we had 6,000 people show up,” Griffin says. The show featured 800 cars and 120 airplanes lining each side of a grass airstrip behind the museum hangar. “We had four World War II-era airplanes and a lot of vintage aircraft.”

This year, the show will feature biplanes such as Beechcraft Staggerwings and Boeing Steermans, Griffin says. “We get a lot of people from Cleveland and Pittsburgh. And aircraft owners come from Detroit, Chicago and Peoria, Ill., for this,” he says.

Several years ago, Warren native Dave Grohl, today the frontman for the rock group Foo Fighters and former drummer for the 1990s grunge band Nirvana, stopped in to sign an engine block and demonstrate his support for the museum.

One of the major projects underway is the restoration of Ernie Hall’s 1947 Piper PA 12 Super Cruiser. “It’s a really unique airplane – a three-seater, one up and two back,” Griffin says. The goal is to have the aircraft restored in time for the Wings-n-Wheels show in August. “We’re far enough along, I think. It needs to be assembled.”

While the museum prospers during the summer, attracting patrons here during the winter can be tough, Griffin notes. Still aviation buffs from all over the world have heard of the museum and Ernie Hall is a household name in international aviation circles. “When they come in, people can’t believe how much history is here,” he says. The museum on North River Road is packed with aviation artifacts from the early days of flight to the present.

Among the memorabilia is a piece of fabric from the Fokker D-1 triplane that Manfred von Richthofen – better known as the Red Baron – flew when he was shot down and killed in 1918. Other artifacts are a propeller from the airship USS Akron, flying jackets and tributes to local aviators who made their mark in combat.

“We’re always trying to add stuff,” Griffin says. “The next thing we want to purchase is a real flight simulator and try to attract more kids. We had 44 Cub Scouts here this week.”

Even smaller history societies see a significant volume of traffic during the travel season from many fascinated by the role the region played in pivotal points in history.

“There were a large group of abolitionists here because of the Quaker influence in this town,” says David Stratton, director of the Salem Historical Society in Salem. The history society consists of a library and several buildings that house artifacts related to business and industry, the abolition movement and women’s rights.

During the prelude to the Civil War, the Salem community emerged as a vocal opponent of slavery and its agitation took the form of The Bugle, a major abolitionist newspaper published in town by the Western Anti-Slavery Society.

“The community did what it needed to do to help slaves northward,” Stratton says. Abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth spoke in Salem on several occasions, delivering powerful speeches that indicted “the peculiar institution.” And Salem was home to the first women’s rights convention in 1850, enhancing the town’s reputation as a community steeped in protecting individual rights.

Among the most popular attractions are the Trolley Tours that point out the major landmarks associated with the abolitionist movement, Stratton says. “We don’t have a stream of people coming in, but we do get busloads from out of town,” he says.

Most of the patrons live in the region, Stratton says, coming from the Cleveland and Akron area, but some as far away as Toronto, Canada.

“We like to keep alive Salem’s rich history and the industry and people who have contributed to it.”

Pictured: Mary Ann Porinchak, executive director of the National Packard Museum in Warren.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.