From an early age, John Clemson began collecting all things related to the world of maritime travel while growing up in Coos Bay.

It was a lifelong passion that filled the closets and spare rooms of his homes over the years.

In 2002, he showed up at the Columbia River Maritime Museum with six hand trucks used a half-century ago by longshoremen. He also brought dozens of posters of shipping vessels that had long been scrapped.

Clemson told the museum he had a lot more that they might find interesting at his Beaverton home.

More and more of Clemson's finds have arrived over the years. The boxes are piling up, each one with an inventory of what's inside.

"At this point, due to a lack of time and resources, we've had to just process it that way," said Jeff Smith, head curator.

Smith said the museum wasn't sure of their significance at first, but soon realized that Clemson's donations - now at about 1,000 different items - document a specific period of time when United States shipping was at its height in the mid-20th century.

"It's global in scope, it's local in significance and it's comprehensive," Smith said. "If it had a ship on it, John collected it."

The now 84-year-old Clemson spent his working-life at Oregon ports as a longshoreman, and then as a supercargo, the overseer of a ship's goods while in transit. After he retired, Clemson kept traveling and took trips with his wife on cruise ships, often dining with the captain and getting the menus signed. He kept glass trays, matchbooks, Zippo lighters and every other imaginable cruise ship souvenir.

Clemson's second wife, Bernice Clemson, said when they were in port, while on a cruise, the antique shops always caught his attention. "He'd say, 'I'll see you back at the ship,'" she said.

The collecting wasn't only while traveling by sea. Clemson's son, also named John, said he remembers the frequent stops while driving to a vacation destination.

"We never passed a second-hand store no matter where we went," he said.

"We went around the world looking for maritime stuff," said Bernice Clemson, "but it was all here in America. Most of it was Back East."

The museum has only scratched the surface of the collection's historical value and value to researchers, Smith said. Clemson has donated ship models and upwards of 545 framed posters of cargo vessels and cruise liners.

Many of the posters depict cargo ships that were used during World War II to transport war materials and later repurposed by private companies in America and around the world.

"Post-World War II we had more ships than any nation in the world," said Smith. "We quickly sold them off."

Known as Victory and Liberty ships during the war, the former cargo ships are now long gone and replaced by the larger container ships of today. The models and posters of the former vessels can be cross-referenced with the museum's library texts for research purposes.

Receiving collections like Clemson's are expected to be all the more possible with the museum's recent purchase of the Astoria Builders Supply building across the street, which provides 30,000 square feet of climate-controlled space.

"It gives us the space to collect for the next 50 years," said David Pearson, deputy director of the museum.

Pearson said the museum wouldn't ordinarily take items like Clemson's on their own, but the background and comprehensiveness make it different.

"Knowing the story that he personally collected all of these and brought them all back to Oregon adds some significance to it," he said.

The most recent Clemson donation was 5,000 photo postcards of ships from all over the world. "There are about 24 of those boxes," said Smith. "We've just begun going through those."

The museum has also received many boxes from Clemson of ships in a bottle. The museum only had about five of them before Clemson came along. They likely have four times that now, Smith said. "Every self-respecting maritime museum should have a few ships in a bottle."

The sheer amount of posters, models and souvenirs show how important American shipping and maritime travel was at the time, before companies from other countries took over the enterprise and many of the cruise lines went away with the rise of air travel in the 1960s.

The bulk of Clemson's collection will be for archival purposes, but some of it is considered exhibit worthy. At some point, Smith said, there could be a glimpse into Clemson's world and passion.

The museum has only scratched the surface of the collection's historical value.

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.


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