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Museum's family collection spans generations

June 22, 2000|By DON WORTHINGTON

Seventy-year-old Bill McMahon of Downsville can't stay retired.

Two years ago, McMahon and his wife, Isabelle, closed McMahons Mill Restaurant after 20 years of business.

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At the time, Bill McMahon said he wanted to be free on the weekends.

He found he didn't.

"I couldn't stand it (retirement)," he said.

Starting in July, the restaurant is being reborn as McMahon's Mill Civil War Military & American Heritage Museum.

Bill McMahon said it's a chance to display what he affectionately calls his "time capsule," the items he, his wife, and several generations of their families have collected.

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Isabelle McMahon, 69, has another opinion.

The museum is a chance for Bill to do what he likes best, she said: "Talk to people."

"Everything here has a story," Bill McMahon said, surveying the museum that is housed in what once was the restaurant's banquet room. "And if it doesn't have a story, I'll make one up."

McMahon's collection runs the gamut from A to Z, with "A" usually being Alfred, N.Y., where he and his wife grew up, to "Z," for a turn-of-the-century prescription formula for zinc ointment.

There's much emphasis on "G," as in guns, and "GG" in particular - a Gatling gun.

A replica 1862 Gatling gun is the pride of McMahon's collection. The replica arrived last Thursday and is so new the bronze has yet to tarnish.

The replica was built from the patent Richard J. Gatling got on Nov. 4, 1862. According to some sources, Gatling's gun saw action during the Civil War. Later models served the U.S. Army from 1866 until 1911.

McMahon's Gatling gun, built by Bill Schneider of Burlington, Wis., is functional. The magazine holds 25 black-powder sleeves. The gun can shoot lead ball or wax slugs. The six steel barrels are rotated by a bronze firing crank.

According to U.S. Army armament histories, the 1862 Gatling gun could fire up to 200 shots per minute.

McMahon hasn't fired his Gatling gun - yet.

"There's a lot of smoke, smell, when you fire it," said Schneider, who is believed to be the only replica firearms builder making the 1862 Gatling gun.

McMahon admits the Gatling gun is a "hook," a way to get people to come to the museum.

"It's one thing nobody else has," he said.

It's also a replica of the first successful automatic weapon, and McMahon admits he's always been fascinated by how things operate.

It's not the only automatic weapon in McMahon's collection. The room also holds a World War I English Vickers, water-cooled machine gun on a tripod. It sits beside a cannon McMahon said he once swapped a houseboat for.

Other automatic weapons on display include two World War II mainstays - a Thompson submachine gun and a Browning .50-caliber machine gun.

The firearm McMahon said has the "most sentimental" value is an 1851 musket made at the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. The gun was a birthday gift from his brother, John.

Every war from the Civil War to Desert Storm is represented at the museum, the latter by sand collected during the operation in Iraq.

The museum also has things McMahon collected while traveling the world while employed by the CIA and the U.S. Secret Service. There's also his wife's collection of Redskin memorabilia.

Organizing the eclectic collection was McMahon's most difficult task. Some displays were easy.

One wall has a series of early phonographs, from Edison's standard model that plays cylinders to a 1928 home jukebox. The phonographs work, as does a player piano McMahon has rigged to play "Yankee Doodle" at the flick of a remote control.

Most of the displays are on old banquet tables and encased with specially formed clear-plastic covers.

"The problem is I'm not a museum person. It's hard to make a display, and some of them are too crowded," he said.

Maintenance of the collection after he and his wife dies is one of Bill McMahon's concerns.

"I don't want to see this go to auction," he said.

McMahon said he hopes someone, or some group, will come forward one day to take over the museum.

But that's down the road. The museum is a "work in progress" and there's still much McMahon wants to do.

He wants to have displays on the Civil War battle of Antietam, and the nearby C&O Canal. He's also interested in opening up the museum to other families' collections.

"I won't do this all myself," McMahon said. "But this (opening the museum) is my step."

The museum will be open weekends from 1 to 3 p.m. Admission is $3. There are special rates and hours for groups.

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