A 1941 photo shows best friends, Charlie Flanagan and Galen Cole, among Bangor High School cheerleaders on a train bound for a basketball game in Lewiston. As you might guess, both young men went on to serve their country during World War II.
Cole was but 19 when he was wounded as a German shell killed five fellow soldiers when it hit the half-track they were riding in during the Battle of the Rhineland in April 1945. Flanagan had been killed in action five months earlier on the Siegfried Line.
That’s the back story to the Maine World War II Memorial featuring Charlie’s likeness; to the Cole Land Transportation Museum and its Fifth Armored Division Room at 405 Perry Road in Bangor; and to what Galen Cole has said about Charlie Flanagan to more than 30,000 youngsters who’ve visited the museum over two decades: “Your freedom meant more to him than did his life.”
Growing up on the city’s East Side, Cole had no idea that one day he would build a museum that would be a force for educating children, preserving history and honoring veterans from World War II to the present. Well, maybe a little idea. “I can see the day, I can see the time,” Cole recalled recently. Now 86, he was only 8 or 9 when he and a friend were chatting in the hayloft of the barn that long ago was torn down at 4 North Park Street.
As the son of a trucking carrier, “I was so interested in trucks and automobiles,” Cole said. “Every year [the dealers] changed models,” he said, still with a bit of awe in his voice, that “sellers and buyers wouldn’t want to hang on to vehicles that served them so well.
A lifelong love of history was evident even then, as the young boy said aloud, “Someday I would like to have a museum.”
There likely wouldn’t have been a museum if not for Galen’s father, who was born in 1893 in a one-room cabin in the small town of Lowell. Albert J. Cole was 8 when his own father died, leaving his mother to support him and two older sisters by taking in washing. Aware that his mother’s small income wasn’t enough, Allie got permission to leave for the larger town of Enfield, where he hoped to support himself. He was fortunate to be taken in by the Willis Preble family as a “bound-out” boy, but just as important, “he was the most capable of making things happen,” as his son puts it. So at age 14, Allie moved again to take a job at Enfield Station’s livery stable, which included taking salesmen and their wares from town to town by horse and wagon. He was a hard worker and, from the beginning “he saved every penny and lived on his tips.”
Allie’s life of good decisions continued, from taking a job with Maine Central Railroad to marrying Amy Stone, a young schoolteacher. “He was so fortunate to meet her,” Galen said. “She knew what hard work and honest endeavor was.”
Allie might have remained a railroad man, but an injury sustained while helping a customer with some cargo brought out a difference in philosophy when it came to serving customers. So Allie launched Coles Express on Aug. 1, 1917, with a horse-drawn pickup carrying goods and passengers.
Allie and Amy moved their growing business and growing family to Bangor in 1925. Winter snows prevented freight companies from operating in northern Maine year-round, but Allie Cole opened the way by convoying plows and freight. Eventually teletype machines helped link 125 employees and 185 vehicles to terminals throughout the state. As Coles’ customers knew, you could, indeed, “get theah from heah.”
The Cole family grew to seven children, Galen the fifth. His father maintained a lifelong fondness for horses, “but I took a great liking to trucking, and truck drivers,” Galen said. He’ll never forget accompanying Coles’ employees to deliver Sears & Roebuck catalogs to Deer Isle in the 1930s. People came out to see the big truck bringing the catalogs, he recalled. “You’d have thought we were the Queen Mary!”
In 1936, Coles moved into the former Noyes & Nutter stove foundry on Dutton Street near the current home of Bangor Auditorium. “My dad was a dreamer,” Cole said, “hatching new ideas such as raising 10,000 hens upstairs at the new location.” The next year, Allie “took on and loaded 14,000 100-pound bags of potatoes on the Theoline, a four-masted schooner plying the Penobscot.”
Allie worked hard and expected his children to do the same, but there was also the Allie Cole who purchased a 100-watt light bulb for the yard in Bangor so Galen and his friends could play basketball, the Allie Cole who sang while walking his horses, and the Allie Cole who came up with a raise for Galen when he found his teen-age son had quit Coles for a better job at Coca-Cola.
Most of Galen Cole’s friends were older than he was and they entered the military in World War II in great numbers. He was in basic training when he heard that his best friend, Charlie Flanagan, had been killed.
By early 1945, Cole and many other soldiers in Europe were infantry replacements in units such as the Fifth Armored Division. Galen took a seat with his squad in the back of a half-track one April day, only to have a returning comrade, Bill Golladay, ask if Cole would move so he could have his usual seat. Cole agreed, and the decision saved his life. A German shell hit the vehicle, killing all five men on Golladay’s side, but wounding the 19-year-old Cole and the men sitting with him.
“I realized what had happened,” Cole said. “That shell had come through that half-track where I had been seated. It was a devastating shock. It was like the world around me had just blown up. “In that ditch caring for Cliff Lamb, I questioned if God allowed me to live, did He have a purpose for me? I believe He did. I promised my God if He allowed me to come home from that war, I would do my best to leave my fellow man and my country better than I had found them.”
Purpose is something Galen Cole has never lacked. After his discharge in 1946, he and wife Sue Welch Cole devoted themselves to raising five children, growing the Cole companies and community service. In 1955, Allie Cole died suddenly. Though several of his siblings were older, they all had their talents and places in the company, it was Galen who became president of Coles Express at age 29. That year he was also elected to the Bangor City Council.
Coles Express flourished, with Galen showing the same ingenuity as Allie. His creations included a tank van that allowed the company to transport petroleum and freight in separate compartments. But the man who kept an eye out for what was new and innovative never lost his love for those things that served well in the past.
“When I came out of the service, my dad had placed an old homemade trailer on a back field in Enfield. He was raising potatoes,” Cole recalled. “There were other old trucks of Coles’ -- one was a snowplow truck in Presque Isle. And there were old Reos we had.”
In the early 1980s he put some of the vehicles in a portion of the Coles facility at 444 Perry Road.
“Kids came, teachers came -- and they showed enthusiasm,” Cole recalled. “As I pursued what to do to give back to society, the thought never left my mind, of these old vehicles -- and what my dad had done. Where else is there history like ours, from hand-drawn wagon to turnpike 18-wheeler?”
By the end of the ‘80s, Cole was ready to commit a piece of land and a new building to house a land transportation museum, but could he fill it? Galen put out the word that the museum would welcome artifacts to tell the story of the state’s land transportation pioneers.
“Seventy-seven vehicles were donated before we even broke ground,” Cole said. “That was a high, high, high honor” and sign of support from people, historical societies and current and former businesses throughout the state.
The museum now boasts more than 200 vehicles and hundreds of other items. This year volunteers are highlighting the importance of the wheel, of which Cole Museum has more than 1,200 on display. The collection also includes tractors, hearses, motorcycles, snowmobiles and plows which use wheels, lags, skis, and sometimes different means in different seasons. Other exhibits were designed to receive and send, rather than move.
“Maine Central Railroad was giving away little railroad stations,” Cole explained. “We accepted the Enfield Station.” Yes, the station which had been so much a part of Allie Cole’s early career. The small station has an honored place next to the behemoths of railroading—a caboose, a freight car and the engine known as the Maine Railfan. Museum-goers of all ages tend to stop short at the sight of the engine, which spurs its own special questions. Where do you get a train engine? How do you get it in the door?
“B&A Railroad agreed to give us the engine, from Northern Maine Junction,” Cole recalled, adding that they didn’t really bring the 150-ton vehicle in the door. It was set in place before some of the walls went up. “Nick DelMonaco from DiCenzo Co.,” Cole said, “brought a huge crane from Calais and loaded the engine on a low-bed, pulled it in beside its new home on Perry Road and offloaded the engine. You lift one end at a time.”
One whole row of the 40,000-square-foot facility is devoted to a variety of Cole’s Express trucks and equipment covering 70 years of service—all in the signature orange color. One of the trucks racked up more than 1 million miles of service.
The museum is full of a variety of vehicles from trucks and trains to child-size doll buggies. There also is a separate room with a military collection honoring Cole’s WWII Fifth Armored Division, which will hold its 66th and final reunion June 14-17 in Bangor.
The last time the association met in Bangor was in September 1995, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. It was, for Cole, the most memorable of several events he’s spearheaded—with 119 parade units, 10,000 participants and 30,000 spectators. One of those units was the museum’s half-track driven by Cole and carrying fellow veterans of the 46th Armored Infantry Battalion.
Cole Museum volunteers, in fact, can be found not just at the biggest events, but rounding up veterans of all eras to march in Bangor parades on Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Veterans Day.
Veterans turn out by the hundreds each patriotic holiday, raising their Maine-made walking sticks, attracting much interest as they pass the reviewing stand. The maple walking sticks, made at Peavey Manufacturing in Eddington and given out to Maine veterans by the Cole Museum, have distinctive stickers for World War II, Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Global War on Terror. The idea came from a walking stick Cole first saw in Florida, but which would have been prohibitively expensive. He and Peavey Manufacturing, which donated the early batches of sticks, came up with a model just for Maine. So far Cole Museum has distributed nearly 8,000 walking sticks, and will continue to give one to a Maine veteran who brings proof of service and identity to the museum anytime between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., from May 1-November 11.
Cole said he has been particularly moved by thanks from the Vietnam veterans, who have been so grateful to receive a “thank you” so many years after a controversial war. Veterans from several eras, particularly World War II, have been involved over the years in the Veteran Interview Program, which brings classes of youngsters to the museum for tours and visits in small groups where they can ask a veteran about his or her military service. They view items such as a WWII half-track, Purple Heart medals and a concrete marker identical to those which mark the kilometers from France through Luxembourg to Bastogne, Belgium.
At the end of each session with children, Cole’s 86 years seem to melt away as he shows the youngsters a brief patriotic film featuring the World War II Memorial and asks them if they will always remember what they have learned on this day. The hands go up. Then he asks the youngsters if they will pledge to go home and interview a veteran in their own family. Hands go up again. Cole knows what it will mean to Maine veterans if a young person shows interest in the sacrifices they have made for their country. He also knows that learning about the service one’s mother or father or grandparent has contributed will help a youngster realize that, as it says on many of the memorial benches the museum has given to veterans monuments around the state, “FREEDOM ISN’T FREE.”
Cole Land Transportation Museum is the best-known of activities supported by the Cole Family Foundation, which quietly has purchased thermal imaging equipment for fire departments and funded education scholarships at the University of Maine, dental assistance for youngsters, and Reading Recovery programs in grade schools.
And one more thing: from opening day, all youngsters under 19 have been admitted free to Cole Museum. Cole hopes that more people, veterans and civilians, will be interested in volunteering at the museum to help youngsters “understand and appreciate what their relatives went through and communicate the history between young and old that otherwise will never pass from one generation to another.”
For information on Cole Land Transportation Museum, call 990-3600, visit 405 Perry Road or www.colemuseum.org.
Roxanne Moore Saucier is a writer and editor with a special interest in family history, World War II and the Cole Land Transportation Museum.