On choice days each summer and fall, the hills and valleys of Yorklyn resound with the churning of steam engines as the Friends at Auburn Heights fire up its one of a kind collection.
Calling Steamin’ Days at Auburn Heights a “step back in time to a bygone era” is not a far-off statement, according to Susan Randolph, executive director at the Auburn Heights Preserve and Marshall Steam Museum.
“I think that even the poor cell reception at the site adds to the experience because families set aside their devices – except to take photos – and disconnect from the usual bombardment of social media,” she said. “They look around rather than down at their phones; they talk to one another rather then text to distant people.”
When asked if Auburn Heights is a good destination for kids, Randolph said she qualifies her emphatic “Yes” by adding it’s for kids of all ages.
“It's really the volunteers who set the mood,” she said. “They are big kids themselves, and their smiles and genuine enjoyment at being there is infectious. At the July Steamin' Day, we had a member family who announced on arrival that they had come to see how well we lived up to our advertising hype: namely, that a visit to Auburn Heights held something magical for anyone, age 2 to 92. The member brought her two-year-old son and her 92-year-old grandfather... to put that promise to the test. I believe we passed with flying colors.”
Randolph said it's all thanks to the biggest kid of all, Tom Marshall, has shared his home, his "toys" and his knowledge and spirit with the Steam Team for 20 years and counting.
Now under control of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the 200-plus acre preserve once belonged to local industrialists the Marshall family, who ran the Marshall Brothers Paper Mill.
Patriarch T. Clarence Marshall took a liking to the steam cars slowly becoming obsolete in the wake of the internal combustion engine in the 1900s, building his own steam powered car when he was only 19.
Clarence ended up working for Stanley Motor Carriage Company – America’s main manufacturer of steam cars – during its heyday from 1910 to 1920.
When he returned home from WWII, Clarence’s son, Tom Marshall, started helping his father collect steam cars and other similar machines, eventually installing a 1/8 scale steam train and track on the grounds.
By the 1970s, the family had opened its doors to the public to view its “Magic Age of Steam” collection.
By 2008, Marshall and his wife Ruth donated the property to the state, in an effort to preserve and protect the property from development, with the site being managed by Delaware State Parks.
The collection now stands at 22, all of which are in working order thanks to Tom Marshall’s continued efforts – even at the age of 93.
The new exhibition, “Letting Off Steam: The Stanley Legacy,” explores the rise and fall of the Stanley Motor Carriage Company, and the enduring legacy of that company on the Marshall family and Auburn Heights.
Randolph said the new exhibition asks visitors to consider the meaning of success.
“For an automotive company such as the Stanley Motor Carriage Company, is success measured by the number of cars sold or dollars made? Or is it the ability to recognize turning points and embrace change? Or is it building an enduring legacy and having your creations preserved for future generations?” she said.
The museum and preserve also hosts the annual Auburn Heights Invitational, featuring an array of historic automobiles from the classic era.
The 2017 fundraiser event includes a spotlight display on speedsters and racers, alongside a broad representation of high-end motor cars from the dawn of the automotive age through 1942.
Selection is based on significance of the marque, authenticity, presentation and the history of the vehicle, with attendance limited to approximately 20-25 autos, the Auburn Heights Invitational offers a rare opportunity to compare and contrast early and later classic-era vehicles — all at the elegant Auburn Heights estate.
This is also an excellent opportunity to see the museum’s newest exhibit Letting Off Steam: The Stanley Legacy.
The invitational is Sunday, Sept. 24, from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m.
For more about Auburn Heights, visit auburnheights.org.