When Galen Cole recalls his father, Alfred “Allie” Cole, braving the elements to “break” northern Maine roads early last century, he pictures him leaving their Bangor home, all bundled up to face the cold.
Allie Cole, a railroad man-turned-freight trucker, would pile on layers of clothing including a sheepskin coat, heavy wool trousers, thick earmuffs and boots that rose over his knees before setting out to plow the 120-mile road from Bangor to Houlton in Aroostook County.
“That’s the one thing I remember, even more than the snowplows, is what he looked like — a big teddy bear, getting ready to go north,” Allie’s son remembers.
Some of Allie Cole’s Ransom Eli Olds (REO) trucks and period snowplows can be seen at the Cole Transportation Museum, founded by Galen Cole in 1990. Seeing vintage plow trucks and images of snow-blocked dirt country roads makes for a cool outing on a summer day.
Located just off Interstate 95, the Bangor museum boasts a collection of more than 200 vehicles and 1,000 artifacts, ranging widely from Cletrac snowplows and Model T Fords to baby carriages and World War II memorabilia.
Entering the cavernous building, several orange freight trucks and smaller wagons to the left bear the logo “Cole’s Express.” Allie Cole started and operated the freight transportation service than operated on the road north — now I-95 — from Bangor to Houlton. The interstate highway ends at the Houlton-Woodstock border crossing.
Starting in 1917, Allie started winning and keeping more and more customers because of his door-to-door delivery style. The enterprising businessman wanted to serve his northern Maine customers year-round, but back then the State Highway Commission — now the Maine Department of Transportation — only cleared roads of snow as far north as Old Town.
So, with funding assistance from the Maine Automobile Dealers Association, Allie took matters into his own hands. In the winter of 1928-29, the trucker attached a plow to the front of his dual-tired REO truck and set forth to open roads leading both north and south.
Sometimes the snow was so deep that Allie Cole had to hook two trucks together to power through and avoid getting stuck. But challenges didn’t deter him. If anything, they fueled his determination.
Once, as Allie Cole and his crew worked round the clock to clear Maine’s main northern road, an Aroostook County farmer came out of his house and told the “damn fools” to give up and go home.
“My father said, ‘If it hadn’t been for that man, I don’t think we would have gotten through. What that man said, after all the work we put in, sparked me and the crew,’” Galen Cole recounted.
Sure enough, the “Cole’s Express” plow drivers arrived in Houlton the next day.
Allie continued clearing the roads until the winter of 1934-35, when the Maine Legislature granted the highway commission authority to plow roads throughout the state.
Galen Cole, the fifth of seven children of Allie and Amy Stone Cole, inherited his father’s unwavering work ethic and commitment to the community.
The museum began as a dream in 8-year-old truck-lover Galen Cole’s head, and only grew stronger during his service in the military.
Galen served in the U.S. Army’s Fifth Armored Infantry Division in World War II. On April 2, 1945, his half-track vehicle — a cross between a truck and a tank — was hit by a German shell. Five of his fellow soldiers were killed, while he and six others were wounded.
As he lay in a ditch, waiting for help to come, he made a promise to God.
“I made a promise, that if allowed to come home from that war, I would do my best to leave my community and my fellow man better than I had found them,” Cole said.
Cole came home to Bangor with a Purple Heart Award and an even stronger will to serve his community. When he finally fulfilled his childhood dream of opening a transportation museum, the World War II vet included prominent displays honoring veterans, including a room dedicated to his Fifth Armored Division buddies.
At the museum, a bronze statue of a soldier in an Army Jeep sits on the front lawn next to a marble wall imprinted with the names of all 110 Bangor soldiers who were killed in WWII.
It’s the official State of Maine World War II Monument, but it’s also intensely personal to Galen. The soldier depicted in the statue is Charlie Flanagan, Cole’s childhood friend, who was killed in Europe in 1944.
Cole also is committed to educating children. Youth ages 18 and under are admitted free to the museum, and over 45,000 Maine students have visited on field trips.
One of Cole’s most precious projects is the Veterans Interview Program. Men and women from any military division volunteer to sit down with students in the museum’s conference room to answer questions about their service.
“We’ve got one veteran who has now reached 900 times (being interviewed),” Cole said.
Cole is always seeking more veterans to participate in the Veterans Interview program and continue teaching Maine youth that “freedom isn’t really free,” he said.
The Galen Cole Family Foundation also contributes money to University of Maine scholarships, Junior Achievement of Maine and literacy and reading recovery programs.
A sign outside the museum’s doors reads, “The only meaningful legacy we will leave this world will be the difference we made in others, especially in the life of a child.”
Thanks to the example of his hardworking and generous father, Cole takes this mission seriously. And he’s never forgotten the promise he made 70 years ago.
“My parents taught me that a promise made should be a promise kept,” Cole explained.
Riding back in time
What: Cole Transportation Museum
Where: 405 Perry Road, Bangor
Season: May 1-Nov. 11
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
How much: $7 per adult, $5 per senior (62+). Ages 18 and under go free.
Contact: 990-3600, www.colemuseum.org