A story in cars: Hawkeye’s barns held treasures
HARRIETSTOWN – For years, they sat inside a pair of weathered old barns, well out of sight of passing motorists on state Route 86.
Rows of prized antique cars – Packards, Buicks, Cadillacs and Pierce Arrows – relics of another era, each with its own story.
The barns are largely empty now; the cars are all gone. So is the man who acquired, repaired and cherished them.
John “Hawkeye” Hawkinson died in July at the age of 83. Over the past two months, his vast and valuable collection of vintage vehicles has been sold, one by one, to dealers and restorers across the country. The proceeds from the sales will be donated to charity, as he directed.
It started as a somber task for Shane Ash, who’s been in charge of selling off Hawkeye’s possessions, “but as it’s gone along, we’ve realized we’re doing exactly what Hawkeye lived his life for,” Ash said.
“He saw himself as a bit of a preservationist, one who was capturing a time of history so that other people would come to appreciate it. And as much as it may cause Hawkeye to roll over in his grave to have his property disrupted and the cars leave, we want to give them a chance at a second life again. I think Hawkeye would be honored at our effort to get them into good hands, to make sure somebody’s going to love them as much as he did.”
The story of Hawkeye’s cars is the story of an eccentric collector of “all things beautiful” who shunned his family’s fortune for a simple, solitary life in the Adirondacks. Hawkeye was a master mechanic and an accomplished artist, photographer and writer. He was also a colorful character, perhaps best known locally for driving through Saranac Lake in midwinter with the top down in one of his Packards, wearing a raccoon-skin coat and smoking a corncob pipe.
His name is well known among classic car enthusiasts, a notoriety that will reach a much broader audience this spring when one of the prized cars from his collection is featured on the television series “Chasing Classic Cars” on Discovery’s Velocity network.
Ash admits he’s an “outsider” to Hawkeye’s story. He’s married to the eldest daughter of Hawkeye’s next-door neighbors, Rollie and Naomi Marshall. Ash and his wife Ashley lived in Kansas City until April of this year, when they moved back home and started taking care of Hawkeye, who had a close relationship with the Marshall family.
“There is a very well trodden path between Hawkeye’s house and the Marshalls’ house, a testament to years of friendship, love and caring,” reads Hawkeye’s obituary.
There’s another reason for the well-trodden path. Every day for 15 years, Rollie Marshall would bring a five-gallon bucket full of water to Hawkeye’s house so he could flush his toilet. Hawkeye’s house had no running water, little insulation and, until the last few years, no electricity.
“He led a pretty simple life,” Ash said.
That’s a far cry from the life John Whitney Hawkinson was born into on Sept. 13, 1932, in Hartford, Connecticut. He came from a very wealthy family. His grandfather Amos Whitney co-founded the machine tool company Pratt and Whitney, now a global aerospace manufacturer.
His interest in old cars started at a young age. Among Hawkeye’s remaining possessions is a picture of him as an 11-year-old sitting in the chassis of an old Chevrolet on his family’s property in Connecticut.
“That’s where the love of classic cars started, from a little boy in Connecticut to being here, having all these cars,” Ash said.
Hawkeye went to a private boarding school and later attended the University of Vermont and Paul Smith’s College, graduating from the latter in 1953. Three years later, he bought a parcel of land across from Route 86’s intersection with Darwin Brown Road, where he planned to start a classic car restoration shop. He later bought the two-story house across the street, which was moved to a new foundation on its present site. In 1959, with the help of his mother, Hawkeye built two barns to house his growing car collection.
Ash said he volunteered to oversee the disposition of Hawkeye’s cars after talking with Saranac Lake lawyer Charlie Nicastro, the executor of Hawkeye’s will. It requires that all his belongings, including the cars, be sold, with the proceeds split between the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the New York Historical Society.
“The first thing was I had to come in and do an inventory of the cars,” Ash said. “It was in the middle of doing that inventory that I realized, ‘Whoa. What do we have here?’ It was pretty impressive.'”
At the time of Hawkeye’s death, he had 43 antique vehicles including cars, tractors, chassis and fire trucks from the Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake fire departments.
“There were two carriages, a sleigh, a 35-foot ladder truck and nine cars in this space right here,” Ash said during a recent tour of the barns. “Then, in what I call the lean-to next door, there were another 10 cars.
“Most are from the 1920s. There was nothing here newer than ’31. The oldest one was a 1919 Linn tractor, actually a truck that has tracks on the back of it.”
It wasn’t hard to find people interested in buying the cars, Ash said, describing Hawkeye as a “legend” in the classic car world.
“People in the classic car world already knew what we had because they had been here so much,” he said. “We had multiple offers on most vehicles. In terms of interest, I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of people from California to Maine.”
His cars stayed on the property until Oct. 1, when a memorial service for Hawkeye was held. About 40 family members and close friends attended.
“The next day, Oct. 2, we started the process of sorting through parts and transporting vehicles. Since then, it’s been every single day. That’s all I’ve done since Oct. 2.”
All 43 vehicles have now been sold. The Lake Placid and Saranac Lake fire engines were sold back to their respective fire departments. The cars from Hawkeye’s collection were sold to people in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and as far away as Illinois.
Nicastro wouldn’t reveal how much they got for all the cars, but he said it was “a lot of money.
“All of those cars were very valuable,” he said.
Perhaps the most valuable car, which Ash called the “pinnacle” of Hawkeye’s possessions, is the subject of the “Chasing Classic Cars” episode. It’s a rare, Belgian-made 1930 Minerva Type AM chassis with a body built by Hibbard & Darrin of France.
“Hawkeye bought it off a guy in Connecticut and made payments on it from 1959 to 1974.” Ash said. “Every time he would make a payment, he took a piece of the car home with him. He ended up with all four wheels, the carburetor, the radiator, the hood ornaments, and some of the Minerva markings on the car. He left the chassis and body in the previous owner’s garage for 16 years until 1974, when it was delivered here.”
The winning bid on the Minerva came from Wayne Carini, a master car restorer and the host of “Chasing Classic Cars,” and his friend, car dealer and restorer Ralph Marano of New Jersey. Carini said his late father, who worked for Packard Motor Car Company in Hartford, Connecticut, was a good friend of Hawkeye. He remembers Hawkeye visiting his family when he was young.
“One time, it was very early on a Saturday morning, I remember my mother screaming out to my father, ‘Hawkeye’s in the driveway,'” Carini said. “He had driven all night and ended up in our yard at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. Rather than bother us, he just decided to sleep in the front seat of this Packard roadster with no top on it, bundled up in that fur coat I’ve since seen a lot of pictures of.
“Hawkeye was just a fixture in our house and our lives.”
Carini said he hadn’t seen Hawkeye since the 1970s. He said he found out about the Minerva from a Packard collector who had heard it was for sale.
“I said, ‘I’d be real interested,'” Carini said. “(the Packard collector) said, ‘It belonged to this guy named Hawkeye.’ I said, ‘Was his name John?’ He says, ‘Yeah, John Hawkinson.’ I said, ‘I know that guy. I’ve known him since I was a little kid.’ That’s how it all came to light again.”
Telling the story
Carini said he got “tingles” when he saw the Minerva for the first time last month.
“You open the door of a barn like that, and you look at it, and, ‘Oh, my God. It’s unbelievable,'” Carini said. “The coolest thing is finding new things every time you look at it again. Little fins on the cowl and the point in the back of the body and the way the fenders fit in the back. If you’re a car guy, man, it’s like the ultimate to find a treasure like that.”
“Chasing Classic Cars” is produced by Connecticut-based Crashing Wave Entertainment. Hannah Lintner, the company’s senior vice president of development and production, said the episode focused on Hawkeye was filmed on his property over two days in October.
“It’s always hard to kind of put the story of someone’s life together again after they’ve passed, especially as an outsider,” she said, “but what we learned, both from viewing the place he lived and talking to Shane, is that this is a person who really valued literature and poetry and felt that he came from a different era and wanted to live in a simpler time.”
During the shoot, the film crew discovered that Hawkeye had intentionally left photos, letters and a handwritten note inside a box in the Minerva, so whoever bought it could learn more about him. A copy of “Winner Take Nothing,” a 1933 collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway, and an empty bottle of Heiniken were left conspicuously on a chair near the car.
“You could see this is a place where Hawkeye would come, have a beer, read Hemingway and look at his cars,” Lintner said.
“He knew, when he died, somebody would have to open this all up, and it would be like a time capsule for people,” Ash said.
The episode of “Chasing Classic Cars” that focuses on Hawkeye’s Minerva is tentatively set to air at 10 p.m. March 7 on Velocity.
“It’s a really great story,” Carini said. “Talking to the people who knew him, seeing his house and how he lived, seeing the barns where the cars were and his machine shop and all the stories that go along with it. It would still be a special story even if I didn’t know him as a kid, and then, of course, the story continues.”
Carini said he and Marano haven’t decided yet if they’ll restore the Minerva or sell it to someone else. For now, they plan to clean it up and bring it in March to the Amelia Island Concours D’Elegance, one of the nation’s biggest car shows.
While all of Hawkeye’s cars have been sold, Ash is hosting a barn sale from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. today and Sunday at Hawkeye’s property for his remaining personal effects. That includes a huge collection of vintage cameras, microscopes, projection equipment, books and other antiques Hawkeye acquired over the years.
Ash said he thinks there’s a lesson to be learned from the things Hawkeye valued and the way he lived his life.
“He could have easily sold a car and changed the way he lived in a heartbeat,” he said. “There’s something there to be said about walking away from wealth and choosing joy because it was something he wanted to do.”
“I’ve learned now to celebrate as something pulls out of here, that something old, forgotten and abandoned now brings joy to a new person and is going to have another story to tell for the next generation.”