Faces: The Collectors – Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Three collectors share what moves them.

Story by Barry Kaufman  +  Photography by Lisa Staff

Everyone seems to have a collection of one kind or another.   

Maybe it’s a box of old comic books, a heavy tome filled with stamps or seashells from various beaches you’ve visited.

But some take the art of collecting to another level. These are the collectors who fill their homes with their prizes, lining their shelves until they’ve created a museum dedicated to their passion.

These are the collectors of planes, trains and automobiles who call the Lowcountry home.

Michael Rainey

A love for all things aviation

Michael Rainey is, at heart, a collector. It’s written all over his 18th century home in downtown Beaufort, where every surface holds some part of his vast assembly of artifacts. One room might see neatly arranged rows of 19th century snuffboxes and Scottish tobacco horns. Another, assorted stoneworks from ancient Rome that he saved from a landfill after surviving an earthquake in Italy. In his garden, you’ll see bonsai trees he cultivated during his time in Japan.

But the true passion project is kept along the walls of an airplane hanger a few minutes away on Lady’s Island. Here, just behind a massive wall of corrugated metal, lies a collection of aviation relics that rivals any museum.

“It didn’t really start from one piece,” Rainey said. “I just kept looking and finding stuff.”

Set beneath a massive unfolded parachute, the collection is arranged on  walls and tables. Three wooden propellers dominate one end of the collection, glossy oaken reminders of the technology that first allowed man to reach the skies. One of them is a Curtiss F1 flying boat, built more than a century ago.

Along another wall, and neatly arranged on department store style clothing racks, is an entire wardrobe of flights suits and sheepskin-lined bomber jackets. Some have never been worn. Some tell a story of the brave men and women who wore them.

He pointed to one flight jacket from the Army Air Corps, which he knows from extensive research was used in the China-Burma theater. “They were probably in Burma somewhere when this guy was promoted to first lieutenant,” he said, pointing to a patch of ink on the collar. “They couldn’t find an insignia so he made one.”

But the ones that tell the best stories are the ones that have the word “Rainey” stenciled on them. They’re personal reminders of Rainey’s own extensive career as a Marine Corps pilot. Starting out flying F-4 Phantoms, he eventually worked his way up the ranks to lieutenant colonel, fighting in the first Gulf War and training pilots worldwide.

“After that I got orders, ‘career enhancing orders,’ to go work with the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he said. “I just went, ‘Yeah right. Getting up at 5 a.m. to get generals coffee?’”

He decided to return to his Beaufort home, where he now offers tours in the single greatest item in his collection: a gleaming yellow “Tiger Moth” biplane. Used by British pilots as a training vehicle, it was sold to the French Air Force in 1946, then transitioned to a French flying club a few years later. It came to the states in the 1970s where it waited until Rainey bought it in 2005 and did a complete restoration.

And now, when it’s not taking passengers up to the skies above Beaufort, it anchors a stunning collection of naval aviation history.

“It’s like any other collection. It forms over the years,” Rainey said. “My advice has always been, just go slow and get the best you can.”

Visit beaufortbiplanetours.com to learn more about the Tiger Moth and schedule your tour.”

Michael Denoncourt

Off the rails for model railroading

For Michael Denoncourt, model railroading isn’t just a way to capture a nostalgic era when the big steam locomotives criss-crossed the country. For this full-time accountant, it’s a way to make sure both sides of his brain get the appropriate workout.

“Building the railroad is very satisfying. There’s something about the creation process,” he said. “Art and math are two different sides of the brain. Maybe that’s one of the things I like about it; it makes me a whole person.”

For Denoncourt, the passion for model railroading started when he received a huge O scale for Christmas. Growing up in southern Maine he was surrounded by trains. The Boston and Maine railroad was just a quarter mile away through the woods and the southern terminus of the Maine Central just 25 miles away.

As he grew in the hobby, he eventually worked up to the HO scale trains he uses now, which are smaller and allow for more elaborate models around them. “But at that point, I was pre-teen, who didn’t have a lot of money so the best I could do was some track on a table I’d built. Then as I became a teenager, there was sports and there were girls and I just kind of lost interest in it.”

He returned to the hobby 13 years ago with a passion, starting with a 4-by-8-foot table in the garage.

“I had to negotiate with my wife, and she gave me rights to my side of the garage,” he said. “Then I realized I had all the space to the walls and thought, ‘What if I were to build some shelf layouts to the left and behind this table and connect them with some bridgework? That would give me a lot more railroad and allow me to do a lot more.’ ”

And so his collection grew, a replica of sights along the Florida Central Line.

“The Florida Central Line is two hours away and they’re very fan friendly. You can go in the yards and, as long as you stay in the prescribed boundaries, you can observe to your heart’s content.”

He divides his layout into three different sections all connected by elaborate bridgework, each representing a part of the line.

The result is a stunning representation of a modern train line viewed through a lens of nostalgia. Or at least it is for now, because Denoncourt said he’s always looking for ways to keep building.

“Already I’m looking at my layout and saying, ‘I could have done this better,’ ” he said. “I’ve given some thought to tearing it all down and starting over again.”

Mark Davis

Corvette King of The Lowcountry

The year was 1960 and a 5-year-old Mark Davis was standing on the floorboards of his mom’s Pontiac as they drove the streets of Proctorville, Ohio. It was then that he spied the vehicle that would change his life forever. According to his mom, he spied a new white 1960 Corvette and started jumping up and down shouting, “Mommy, mommy! Corvette! Corvette,” Davis recounted.

“She told me, ‘It shocked me that you even knew what it was, but you’ve been sick over them ever since,” Davis said.

That’s a bit of an understatement. His spacious Bluffton garage currently houses nine Corvettes and a museum’s worth of memorabilia, posters and banners. And it’s the fifth garage he’s owned. The largest, back in his native West Virginia, held up to 20 Corvettes. Over the years, he estimates he’s owned about 130 different models of Chevrolet’s signature muscle car.

And it all started with a 1969 Corvette he purchased at 17 after saving every penny he could, starting at age 10. That car is long gone, but it’s commemorated with an identical 1969 ‘Vette that currently holds a place of honor in Davis’ garage.

“I always said, ‘If I find a low-mileage original like my first, I’ll buy it,’ ” he said.

In fact, Davis is well-known in Corvette circles as the low-mileage original guy. And he is well-known in Corvette circles, having served as a board member at the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky and having set a Mecum Auction record for an unrestored 1967 Vette he sold. He specializes in what’s called “survivors,” cars that have been maintained since they left the showroom floor.

As you can imagine, that’s rare.

“You can find 20 restored cars for every one low-mile original,” he said.

It’s a detail that makes his already impressive collection even more astonishing. Like the 1958 ‘Vette he owns with just 36,000 miles on it. The car is also a rarity for its signet red paint job, which has earned it the nickname “Siggy.”

Nearly all of Davis’ cars have nicknames, reflecting his genuine love for these vehicles. There’s Rowley, Zora and Stinger, three mid-‘60s muscle with a lot of accolades between them. Rowley is the only “red red” 1965 Corvette in the world. At just 11,000 miles, Zora is the lowest-mileage 1966 in the world. And Stinger has won every award there is, including best in class at Greenbriar.

But to Davis, they are more than just cars. As many as he’s owned, he beams with pride when he talks about each one and revels in the stories behind them. He’s carrying on a legacy from the original owners, caring for these vehicles and preserving them for posterity.

“Some of my friends from the Corvette Museum have come through here and now they call it the National Corvette Museum, South Carolina branch,” Davis said.