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Auburn Heights: Museum Steaming into the Future

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Auburn Heights cultural treasure
Auburn Heights Preserve is a cultural and educational treasure.

There is exactly one place on Earth that can boast the following, and it happens to be right here in Delaware: a 6,000 square-foot hilltop 1897 Queen Anne mansion surrounded by 390 acres of protected parkland and trails with a museum featuring the world’s largest operating collection of Stanley steam cars and a rare 1916 electric automobile. 

Oh, and this magical estate has its own coal-fired steam trains that cheerfully chug around the vast property.

Legions of local fans of the Marshall Steam Museum at Auburn Heights Preserve (often referred to just as “Auburn Heights”) will have smiled knowingly at that last paragraph. 

But incredibly, this Yorklyn Shangri-La – undoubtedly one of the most unique of our little state’s many world-class “hidden treasures” – remains just that, a Victorian enigma to many Delawareans not to mention national audiences who would surely find the beautiful, quirky venue a surprising, fascinating delight.

Auburn Heights historic automobiles
Steamin’ Days at Auburn Heights Preserve gives visitors the opportunity to climb into a historic automobile and experience travel like you might see in the early 1900s.

The museum’s executive director Susan Randolph is out to change this. She is working to ensure more people across the region are familiar with the great American story of industrialist T. Clarence Marshall his son Tom and his wife Ruth, and the extraordinary legacy they bequeathed for the public to enjoy.

Auburn Heights is both a “steam” and a “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and math) wonderland. And the museum offers an array of educational programs tied to the home’s history.  On Sunday, September 23 the organization will host its “Auburn Heights Invitational,” a family day of fun that will help raise funds for its educational endeavors (to buy tickets go here).  We sat down with Randolph to learn more about the programs and hear what else is going on at their neat site on Route 82.

TSD: Many people may not be aware of your great educational programs.  Tell us about its focus and what makes them different.

Susan Randolph: Programs at the Marshall Steam Museum focus on the history and evolution of transportation technology and the impact of the automobile on American life.

Students are encouraged to draw comparisons between the past and the present. While exploring changes in motion and design, they develop important critical thinking skills and explore their natural curiosity. Interactive activities, exhibits, and crafts explore science, technology, history, design, function and more. All of these help students broaden their scope of learning.

TSD: STEM education is such a focus these days. And children get a fun immersion into some technical and engineering-based concepts.  How do the steam cars and other assets at the museum play a role making that so fun and engaging?

Randolph: Before coming to the Marshall Steam Museum, most students have no idea that early automobiles once used the same technology (steam) that powered trains, boats, factories and many other machines.

While exploring the rise and fall of steam automobiles, students learn that engineering is a never-ending process of building, testing, improving and testing again.

As an example, students really enjoy our Assembly Line Challenge and building their own car out of recycled materials. They experiment with processes and refine building techniques just as engineers do when building cars today.  

Auburn Heights steam powered train
Built in the 1950s and 60s, Auburn Valley Railroad still circles the estate today.

TSD: How do funds raised go to support these programs?  And is there a charge for children participating?

Randolph: A few years ago, we recognized that building a vibrant Children’s Education Program required specialized skills and consistent management. So in 2012 FAHP (Friends of Auburn Heights Preserve) added a second full-time staff position. The goal was to develop and deliver dynamic, enriching programs and cultivate ongoing relationships with area schools and organizations.

Partnering with the University of Delaware’s Museum Studies Program, we hired a recent graduate, Jesse Gagnon, who launched the program, boosting the number of constituents served by FAHP by more than 35 percent.

Our children’s programs carry a modest fee. (Field trips start at $3/child, depending on the program, and most outreach programs are only $100). But we keep fees in line with typical rates from other organizations. And that revenue does not pay for the staffing, supplies and expenses.

As a nonprofit, it is our mission to provide such services. And it is important to find ways to finance our core activities, which includes fundraisers such as the Auburn Heights Invitational.

TSD: Who leads these programs?

Randolph: Michelle Nowling, our current Education Director, develops and leads all children’s (and adult) programs at Auburn Heights. She manages volunteers — and even the Exec Director, when her assistance is needed — to deliver personalized, participatory programs.

She came to us in spring of 2017 with a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University. Her past experience includes interpretation and historic site management. 

Michelle has introduced STEM programs (available as on-site or outreach options). And she has developed new opportunities, with an emphasis on elementary education.

Auburn Heights model train
Kids regularly watch with fascination the 80-year-old electric model train display inside the antique car barn.

TSD: The Joseph Boxler Education fund was established by the parents of a young man who loved the museum and your programs. Tragically he died in an automobile accident.  How has that fund helped support your mission?

Randolph: The Boxler family turned a family tragedy into a lasting legacy… helping to channel Joe Boxler’s inimitable spirit and vitality to foster imagination and innovation in future generations. At the most painful moment in their lives, the Boxlers included FAHP as a beneficiary of memorial donations for Joe. And they established an Education Fund.

In 2008, the Joseph Boxler Education Fund provided the initial investment needed by our young organization toward two small but important initiatives. The first was the development of the museum’s What’s Under the Hood hands-on engine display. The second was the purchase of a projector to allow visual presentations accompanying both youth and adult programming.

Fueling the momentum, the fund now provides ongoing support for the staffing & supplies critical to developing, marketing, delivering and evaluating programs to engage an ever-broadening audience.

TSD: How do you see these programs evolving? Have the Yorklyn development and new trail system had an impact?

Randolph: The Yorklyn revitalization effort has kindled interest and appreciation for the extraordinary countryside, community and historic assets nestled in this little-known hamlet along the Delaware-Pennsylvania border.

With each Steamin’ Day, the Marshall Steam Museum welcomes new visitors and provides a unique experience that ignites curiosity and spurs imagination. The entire experience fosters discussion and debate and even incites and awakens emotions. (Steamin’ Day is hosted the first Sunday of the month from June to November, the next one on October 7.)

Therein lies the driving spirit behind the museum and the Friends of Auburn Heights Preserve. (The Friends group is the 501c3 nonprofit that operates the museum). As new businesses join Yorklyn’s core community (which includes the Center for the Creative Arts, Dew Point Brewing Co. as well as Auburn Heights & the Marshall Steam Museum and nearby Mount Cuba and Delaware Nature Society), the opportunities are endless. It’s full steam ahead!

TSD: Were these educational programs part of the Marshall’s’ original vision for Auburn Heights?

Randolph: Reaching children (of all ages) has always been important to Tom and Ruth Marshall. Ruth is a former elementary school teacher. So her affinity and enthusiasm for engaging the youngest generations motivates us to provide the best in hands-on programming.

Auburn Heights - grandparents grandchildren
Kids, parents and grandparents enjoy the rides, the history and the leisurely pace on their visit to Auburn Heights.

We make every effort to excite ALL generations (from 2 to 92). We attempt to elicit in all visitors the youthful sense of wonder and excitement that inspires creativity and ingenuity. Even though I never planned or imagined it, I work with kids every day, some of whom are much older than I. And at 94 years old, Tom Marshall is the biggest kid of all at Auburn Heights.

TSD: Tell us about Susan Randolph – how did you end up in this fascinating role?

Randolph: With a 20+-year background in publishing & communications (first with a medical magazine and then with Winterthur Museum), I never expected to take on the role of executive director at a car museum. In fact, I readily confessed my automotive ignorance on my initial interview nearly 9 years ago. But I love storytelling – and the inventory of stories about the people, places & artifacts associated with Auburn Heights seems endless.

Side note: Proving that the “Six Degrees of Separation” game would be boring in Delaware because everyone is connected in only one or two “steps,” my very first boss out of college, Don Tulloch (publisher of VARIA magazine in the 1980s), is good friends with Tom Marshall and accompanied him in 1972 on part of a coast-to-coast trip in a Stanley Steamer (called a “Trans-Con Tour”).

When he learned I had applied for a job at the Marshall Steam Museum in 2009, he sent Tom a handwritten note. Presumably, his remarks supported my application. I don’t know if it influenced the decision. But I have been fortunate to have two such extraordinary mentors/bosses in my career. Even if it is somewhat unnerving to think of Don telling stories about my 20-something shenanigans nearly three decades later.

TSD is working with the Marshall Steam Museum and Friends of Auburn Heights Preserve to promote the museum’s educational and community programs.

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