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A Museum in the Making

Like a giant magnet, the iron rails and massive steam engines of the North Carolina Transportation Museum attract visitors and volunteers from miles surrounding its location in the small southern town of Spencer, North Carolina. Fifty miles from the nearest metropolitan center, this museum-in-the-making draws in volunteers with an ease larger, more centrally located institutions might envy. What’s the attraction?

The NCTM is located on the site of Spencer Shops, once the largest steam locomotive servicing center tor the Southern Railway Company, and much of its current exhibition bears directly on the roundhouse and the trains that were repaired there tor more than 75 years. At its height. Spencer Shops employed more than 2,500 people and was the economic base tor the towns of Spencer, East Spencer, and the neighboring Salisbury.

One of the largest of the museum’s artifacts is Number 544, a 207,000 pound steam engine built for the Russian government in 1917. When the Russian Revolution intervened and the new government couldn’t pay tor the train and tender, the engine’s wheels were modified to fit American tracks, and the behemoth became part of the Seaboard Airline Railroad. Volunteers also have restored the former Buffalo Creek and Gauley Railroad steam locomotive Number 4, and they provide the narration for an on-site train ride over some of the Shop’s 57 acres. Engines aren’t the only attraction in the 37-bay roundhouse of the museum. Private cars, too, are fascinating to both volunteers and visitors. One such car was built at the turn of the century by steel magnate Charles Schwab. Its brass, stained glass and inlaid wood, fascinating to most adult visitors, can’t hold a candle in children’s eyes to the toilets and wash basins cleverly concealed under fancy wooden seats.

Trains, of course, are just one of the forms of transportation interpreted by docents of the NCTM. Plank roads, a dug-out canoe, over-mountain wagons, and the state’s first highway patrol vehicle are among the visual cues docents use to help visitors understand the part North Carolina played in transportation history and the place of transportation in North Carolina’s history. In addition to museum tours and train rides, docents provide off-site programs for civic and social groups and serve as gallery guides to answer visitor questions.

Volunteers are recruited in all the “usual” ways —word of mouth, newspaper ads and feature articles, a museum newsletter and Web site (, and multitudes of speeches before Rotary, Civilian, AARP and retired teachers groups. Many of them, however, come because it’s obvious to visitors that the docents and other volunteers at NCTM are part of a warm, friendly “family” who love the museum and what they’re doing there. Visitors often become volunteers after enjoying a tour themselves and hearing from their docent guide that volunteer opportunities are available.

Among the museum’s first volunteers is a retired Lutheran minister, who answered an ad in the local newspaper in 1993. One of his specialties has become “sponge activities” — those little fillers docents often need to soak up a few minutes during a transition or on an unscheduled stop. He may ask the school children in his group to see how their money has traveled, and show them where to find the Federal Reserve Bank on the dollar bill they’ve brought for the gift shop. Another volunteer, a retired microbiologist, drives two and one halt hours each way once or twice a week to help maintain the rolling stock that forms the core of the museum’s collection or to work in visitor services.

Unlike the volunteers in many museums, zoos, historic sites, or nature centers, the majority of volunteers at the NCTM are male. There is just something about playing with trains! Many of the docents — male and female — have local ties to Spencer Shops. Often their relatives worked there, or they lived in the community that began as a company town and is now a growing museum that welcomed more than 100,000 visitors last year.

NCTM is part of the North Carolina Historic Sites section of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. A top priority of the department is visitor services and the education of the visiting public. A handbook of standards for all historic site personnel (“… permanent, temporary, and volunteer . . .”) says, “The ‘bottom line’ is quality visitor service everyday.” Docents in all of the historic sites under the auspices of the Department of Cultural Resources receive on-going education. At NCTM, this includes three, four-hour sessions on the history of Spencer Shops, a docent handbook, and mentor training, as well as opportunities to attend workshops provided by the Department of Cultural Resources and the museum.

As the museum grows, adding new buildings and new exhibits, one of the challenges of the volunteer program is retaining docents. Even in a museum as new as this one, docents sometimes find change difficult. It is already impossible to offer the “front door to back door” tour that some school and adult groups expect, so new “theme” tours designed with North Carolina history and math curricula in mind, have been developed by program writers and docents. The most successful of these tours are the ones with plenty of hands-on activities and visitor participation.

The North Carolina Transportation Museum Foundation, also a volunteer group, has completed a feasibility study and begun fund raising for the 129 million, next phase of the museum. Standing now as a derelict mass of rusting girders. the old backshop of Spencer Shops will someday be a state-of-the-art education center for North Carolina transportation history. As large as two football fields, and several stories high, the backshop now stands as a visible reminder of how far this museum-in-the-making has come and, thanks to dedicated volunteers, the direction of its future.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Information for this article was supplied by Shirley Napier, Interpretive Volunteer Coordinator and Coordinator of Children’s Special Programming for the North Carolina Transportation Museum at Historic Spencer Shops.

Littleton, Jackie. “A Museum in the Making,” The Docent Educator 8.1 (Autumn 1998): 18-19.


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