Howard Johnson’s Old Time World collection of yesteryear classic boats, motors, cars, and memorabilia is one of a kind. Just like him.

howard johnson
Howard Johnson has a passion for old boats. 

A visit to Howard Johnson’s seven-acre farm in Upper Marlboro, MD, is like stepping back in time. Stashed in 22 outbuildings large and small is one of the most eclectic collections of 1940s, 50s, and 60s memorabilia you’ll ever come across, all curated by an energetic 78-year-old dreamer with a twinkle in his eye and his down-to-business wife who knows her way around an engine just as well as around a cooktop.

“People know I have a passion for old boats,” Johnson tells PropTalk. “They’ll call me up and say, ‘this old boat that’s in my barn needs a home.’ I’ll tell them to bring it on up… or I’ll load up and go and get it.”

Bob Hamilton, past president of the Chesapeake Chapter of the Antique and Classic Boat Society (ACBS), calls Johnson a “treasure.” He goes on to say, “Howard embodies the spirit of the ACBS, as he has spent years not only preserving classic boats for future generations but also sharing his love and knowledge of beautiful marine craftsmanship with the public.” Just recently, Johnson hosted the ACBS membership at his farm for a tour and lunch. 

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Memorabilia frozen in time.

Presently, Johnson has 105 boats tucked around his farm, most of which are in one or two barns that he has built to house his collection. Others sit on blocks or rusted trailers covered by an assortment of tarps.

“I probably have the world’s largest collection of Whirlwinds,” Johnson says with a smile. “These boats were built down the road in Cockeysville using technology the US government utilized to build gliders. The result is a very light boat that can really get up and go.” The boats’ conditions range from poor to concourse-ready.

Johnson has just as many stories as he has boats. Pausing beside a mint condition Whirlwind as he conducts a meandering tour of his collection, Howard regales your reporter and his pals with a story that’s almost too good to be true:

“A fireman called me one night. He said a lady called the fire department about a smell in the basement. He checked it out and she had her husband’s old 1953 Whirlwind (down there) piled high with his things. Soon after buying the boat, he passed away from a heart attack. She didn’t use the basement, so she let it sit there but now she wants to move to a smaller place. The fireman told her about me, and she looked at my website,, and he called and gave me her number.

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Hurry Home is an 18-foot Ventnor classic race boat owned and restored by James Holler at Old Time World. 

“The boat had never been in the sun or rain for the last 70 years. One thousand dollars—she wanted 20s, no big bills, near the Addison Metro Station on the DC Line. My stepson and I slid the boat right into my pickup with plans to go back for the trailer and still new engine. In one hour, we unloaded this and went back for the rest. She wanted $100 for the paddles; at 89 she still loved them, so I forked over the dough and said, ‘Many thanks!’

“(The) next day we scrubbed the 70 years of dirt off until 8 p.m. Now here is a brand new, 70-year-old Whirlwind boat! What a treasure!”

Like a buddy of mine once said, “you can’t make this stuff up.”

As we followed Howard around his “working” barn called the Arena, where he has stored the majority of his boats (some in good condition, some in need of more than a little love), Howard’s life story comes pouring out in a series of vignettes that slowly reveal the character of the man and the roots of his passion for old boats.

My first questions started Howard off on a ride down memory lane:  

“When did you start collecting?”

“How many boats are presently in your collection?”

“Why do you do it?”

howard johnson
Howard and his wife, Cheryl.

Standing underneath the transom of a partially restored 1948 Owens triple stateroom cruiser, built in Dundalk, Howard smiles, looks up at me, and holds forth on his early years.

“My parents would buy a new boat every year when I was a kid. Ten foot, 12-foot, and on up. Sometimes, we’d keep the old boat, but there was always a new boat for me to play with. We’d headquarter on the Severn River, anchor out in some of the larger boats, and later he and my mother bought a little place there. Dad told me I wasn’t going to spend my time reading comic books. I was going to learn the value of work. He taught me about building and fixing things. My mother taught me how to refinish all kinds of things… I started out with furniture, and it grew to boats. One day Dad looked me in the eye and said ‘Howard, if you’re looking for a good time, hard work is less troublesome.’ I guess what he meant by that was a man (or a boy) would never lack for good fortune if he just kept working at whatever task was in front of him.”

Johnson has been working hard all his life. He parlayed his talent as a woodworker into a freelance career as a restorer. One of the Whirlwinds tucked into a prominent spot in the 50x80 Arena building was his first project boat. “I learned a lot working on that boat,” he goes on to say. “Those boats are amazing in how light and how stiff they are. Things of beauty.”

Everywhere you look in the Arena you see evidence of boats that are most likely in their final resting places. Most of the boats “in process” have been cleaned up; some sanded down to bare wood. Most stripped of controls, gauges, and fuel tanks. Scattered among the project boats are some real gems, mostly restored and looking like they are ready to take to the water.

Howard herds us up into the pilot house of a classic 1940 Chris-Craft Sport Cruiser. “This is a twin of a boat my dad had. It was named The Leda. We spent lots of time hanging out on the Severn in a boat just like this.” Howard then points with pride to a foam core display of him in his youth grinning ear to ear at the helm.

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Johnson’s wife, Cheryl, is an accomplished mechanic and restorer in her own right. 

To delve into the “why” Johnson collects boats, you first need to take the measure of the man.

Johnson and his wife of 18 years, Cheryl, have built a partnership based on love, entrepreneurship, good times, and sharing.

“I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to marry Howard,” chimes in Cheryl. “Whenever I hear the phone ring, I look at Howard and just say ‘Here we go again… another wayward boat’s going to come up that drive, and we’re going to give her a bath and a new home.”

Johnson and Cheryl share duties on the farm and in taking care of the boats. “He tells me what to do,” Cheryl says with a laugh, “and I do it.” Johnson’s wife is an accomplished mechanic and restorer in her own right. “I’ve got my own workshop, my own toolbox. I’m pretty good with small engines, and I keep Howard on task.”

Sometimes the enormity of all the work that needs to be done on all the boats in his yard is overwhelming. “Just walking around the barns, running my hands over beautifully varnished wood keeps me young and gives a great sense of purpose. Sure, there are some boats here that need more work. That’s part of the challenge. Are these boats ‘my babies?’ Not quite. I like boats. But I like people more.”

That’s when he and Cheryl throw a party for friends, neighbors, and well-wishers all.

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Dancing up a storm. 

“We get in a couple of bands, set up tables in the shop; we provide the mains and people bring the sides. Then we dance, dance, dance.” Cheryl and Johnson were recently seen cutting quite the rug at a local St. Patrick’s Day party. “The jig music was just in the right cadence,” Johnson says. “We really hopped around the stage.”

Now our little tour has moved into another barn, this one containing some of the more finished boats plus an assortment of old-time memorabilia displayed just like someone left it on a bench and wandered off to take a walk. A banner proclaims, “American Memories Museum.”

“We call it Old Time World,” Howards proclaims proudly. All housed in a 40x100-foot building called The Museum, it’s a monument to post-war pop culture.

Here is a that Whirlwind Howard got with the help of the fireman referenced above. All spruced up and named Miss Eva. Over there is a 1958 Ford convertible. Two classics, a 1961 Century Arabian and a 1955 Thompson 13-footer, bracket a welcoming banner. There’s even a vintage Panasonic recorder playing a nostalgic selection of Dean Martin tunes.

Johnson once seriously considered staging a large portion of his collection in a museum setting.

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Lunch is served, thanks to Cheryl. Yum. Meatballs slathered with grape jelly and Sweet Baby Rays BBQ sauce.

“The more we got into it, the more roadblocks like funding, insurance, and staffing got in the way. Right now, we are content to share the joy of our collection with people who appreciate the simpler times these boats, cars, and whatnots represent.”

Then it was time for lunch. What a spread Cheryl put out. Sitting in the shop with hundreds of paint cans lining the walls and with more hand tools than one might find at the Indy 500, we dined like kings on homemade meatballs slathered with Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce and grape jelly. (“The jelly is my secret sauce,” Cheryl confided.)

My compatriots were completely overwhelmed by the scope of Howard’s shop. Then, the mood turned serious as one of my friends (a catboater and a powerboater) got into a discussion with Howard about buying one of the Whirlwinds we had seen on the tour.

The boat was in pretty good shape. “She only needs some varnish and a motor and controls,” Howard told us. “Give me $2000 and she’s yours.” Thinking the price would be much higher, my friend, Chris Graae, swallowed hard. I could see the wheels spinning as he sorted out how to break the news to his wife that he’d bought a70-year old wooden boat.

“I’m not ready to pull the trigger right now… but you never know. Looks like fun and it would be a great way to extend Howard’s legacy to my part of the South River.”

I told him I’d help sand and varnish. Stay tuned. 

Johnson bemoans the fact that so few younger people are interested in wooden boats. “It’s a lot of work. But lots of rewards for those who stick to it. My hope is that some people will see what we have here and become inspired to carry on the traditions.”

In a perfect world, Johnson and Cheryl would conduct tours of their collection every week and stage boat restoration classes on the weekend.

Given the realities of age and limited resources, that’s probably not going to happen. Johnson’s doctors advised him to pare down his collection of cars after recent open-heart surgery. 

If you, however, have a hankering to step back in time and experience life like it was a decade or two ago, drop Howard an email and inquire about a tour of Old Time World.

You’ll come away impressed with Johnson’s collection, and even more so, you will be immediately drawn into Johnson’s spell. He is a believer and has devoted his life to sharing the joy of the simpler life with those he and Cheryl meet on life’s highway.

You might even come away with a full stomach or an old boat if you play your cards right. Donations of cash, checks, and old boats accepted. You can reach out to Howard at: [email protected].

howard johnson
The author (second from right) with his touring pals and Johnson.

Note: In his ‘spare time,’ Johnson is a well-respected author. One of his books is available on (“Boats in my Blood”). Another book, “Wild about Whirlwinds,” is available on Johnson’s website

By Craig Ligibel