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Tears for a Bulldog

By on March 1, 2009
RoadKing Mag

Richard Kemp in 2005

They sit parked along two sides of River Street in Hillsborough, New Hampshire — dozens of vintage Macks and International Harvesters and Sterlings and Caterpillars, holding their own against the harsh winter Nor’easters that can rip a stone face off the side of a mountain.  What began in 1952, with Richard Kemp saving a 1930 Mack Bulldog from the scrap heap, has grown into a fleet of bulldozers, haulers, bread trucks, snowplows and pavers, the width and breadth of which became known throughout New England as Dick Kemp’s Truck Museum.

A former bulldozer operator who served in the U.S. Army in the 1950s, Dick Kemp turned his love of trucks and machinery into a large public collection.  He enlisted his friends to help him work on every truck to ensure it remained in running shape, and admission was the cost of a handshake and a smile.  Several of the trucks were featured in the 1979 Hollywood film The Brinks Job, which was filmed in nearby Boston. “If you asked Dick about any of his trucks,” says Guy Kimball, a close friend who helped keep Kemp’s trucks in working condition, “he could take you all around the grounds, telling you everything about each truck, where it came from, how he got it and what it meant to him.  

“The trucks came in, we cleaned them up a little bit, painted them, got them running, and put them in line until the next truck came in,” Kimball continues. “He bought a lot of trucks, and people would say to him, ‘There’s an old truck over there by the hill, go look at it.’ He’d go over and buy it. He didn’t want to see anything go to the scrap pile.”

In the 1970s, Kemp started  bringing the trucks out to the public, offering admirers a chance to watch those antique beauties roll as part of Hillsborough’s annual holiday parades.  

“He loved showing his trucks at the parades,” says Kelly D’Errico, whose mother and Kemp were lifelong companions. “That lasted until the town told him he had to have the trucks registered to put them in the parades, and he said the hell with that.”

Open to all

According to The People’s Almanac, Kemp’s collection began with a $50 purchase of a 1930 Bulldog Mack. He also acquired two of only 63 Macks that were manufactured in 1947. But no matter how rare, every  truck on display was available for people to admire, photograph, climb into and explore.

Kemp wanted people to enjoy the trucks. “To him it was not a museum,” says D’Errico, “and he’d laugh at people who would call it that. To him, it was just a hobby.”

Rather than spend a fortune to make each truck look showroom-perfect, Kemp and his friends were content with making the vehicles both functional and accessible, combining equal measures of repair and Yankee ingenuity. “A restoration here is where you patch up the holes, make it look good, put a coat of paint on it and have it be able to move back and forth,” says Kimball. “A lot of your collectors, a full restoration costs thousands of dollars. Here, we do it ourselves. Dick did it himself. Your big money restorations, you go to a show and there’s ropes around the trucks and you don’t get to go near them. His restorations, they sit out in the middle of nowhere and you can climb up in the seat.”

Adjacent to the trucks were two working garages, their interior walls covered with license plates, gas station memorabilia, truck parts, nuts, bolts, souvenirs and tools. Hundreds of handwritten signs displayed anecdotes, homilies and New England wisdom  like, “Wanted: Educated Fools to Become Politicians: Apply, Washington, D.C.” and “Is your work done? If not… don’t stand here three hours telling me you can’t find time to do what you want.”

On Sept. 7, 2007, Kemp passed away after a long bout with cancer. His 110 steel-and-diesel dependents remained silently parked adjacent to the splashy roar of the Contoocook River, waiting for a dispatcher/caretaker who would never return. The trucks lay dormant, while Kemp’s friends and associates looked for a way to honor his legacy.

End of the Road

All the trucks, along with hundreds of pieces of memorabilia stored within two adjacent garages, have now been inventoried and appraised, something Kemp never wanted to do. “He was totally against placing any sort of monetary value on these trucks,” says D’Errico. “Any time one of these appraisers was scheduled to visit, the entire city was hit with a snowstorm, which I know came from him.”

Most of the trucks will be sold at auction in the spring. Some proceeds will be earmarked for the care and support of Kemp’s mother (who turned 101 this year), while the lion’s share will help students at nearby Hillsborough-Deering High School attend vocational and trade schools on full scholarships.

Though “Kemp’s Museum” will be dismantled, the legend will live on. “The City of Hillsborough will select two trucks that will remain on the property,” say D’Errico. “The land also has an old cider mill, as well as the original outdoor stone pit where President Franklin Pierce, who grew up in Hillsborough, had his cookouts.”

After restoration, the land will be renamed Kemp Park.

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