WATERFORD -- The first rain of the season always brings with it a smidgen of angst:
When it began spitting this past week, I thought: Did I leave anything out in the open it might damage or rust?
I never did get around to cleaning the eaves or inspecting the gutters.
Did I really need to water the lawn or wash the cars with the forecast claiming a "slight chance" of precipitation?
But those are minor issues compared to what Modesto resident Joe Miller faces these days. When he looks toward the sky, as he did Thursday and Friday, he does so through the holes in the roof of the dilapidated barn he owns near Waterford.
The barn houses the collection of antique horse-drawn vehicles carriages, wagons, an ambulance, hearse and stagecoach among them amassed decades ago by his grandfather Pierce A. Miller. Joe Miller inherited the collection about a decade ago.
The years and neglect have been unkind to the barn particularly its single-floor eastern wing, the side walls of which now lean dramatically. Miller recently tore off tons of shingles to ease the strain, and he's negotiating with a contractor to stabilize the building so that he can reroof.
Ultimately, though, he faces a greater kind of strain: What to do with this montage of history? In fact, the amiable Miller has struggled with this dilemma for the past decade. Not only are the pieces threatened by the condition of the building, they also get coated with dust from the almond orchards nearby.
Meanwhile, a group of ranchers and history buffs has formed a nonprofit organization The California Carriage and Horse Powered Museum with hopes of developing a living museum dedicated to transportation in the days before carburetors and fuel injectors.
The group wants not only to showcase yesteryear's wagons, carriages, buggies, ambulances, hearses and stagecoaches, but also create a working shop to display the actual maintenance and crafting of these pieces. It hopes to someday offer buggy and wagon rides to visitors, giving the region a prime tourism attraction. Six members strong, the nonprofit plans to expand its board to add expertise and resources.
Like Miller, the nonprofit figuratively has hit a wall. But in its case, the wall is Miller. The nonprofit's existence is predicated upon his participation because he owns the collection it wants to display.
The group has spent money on an attorney to establish the nonprofit. It is roughly six months away from getting its tax-exempt status approved by the Internal Revenue Service. The nonprofit has solicited bids by certified appraisers who could tell it and Miller the current value of his collection, and it has narrowed down the bidders to two finalists.
But the group won't spend thousands of dollars on an appraisal unless Miller commits to donating some or all of his collection to the museum.
Hence, the stalemate. Local rancher David Clark, chairman of the nonprofit, said the all-volunteer organization can only wait to see what Miller wants to do.
"If we don't get a commitment from Joe, there's no point in going forward and becoming a full-fledged nonprofit," Clark said.
"We need to come to some kind of terms to know where we both stand," Miller said. "That's where we are finding out the viability of it (the nonprofit)."
The organization's board met Thursday afternoon to discuss its viability. Miller missed the meeting, staying at the ranch to move the pieces out of the rain.
His options? He could sell the entire collection, the whole ranch and be done with it. He could donate some of the pieces and sell the rest. He could opt to donate some or all, writing off the donation amount at tax time. He could sell some and loan the rest to the museum.
Or he could do what he's done for the past decade, which is to hope the next big storm doesn't knock down the lower barn and bury that part of the collection beneath the rubble.
His problem, Miller told me, is compounded by the economy. When he assumed control of the property about a decade ago, the land and the collection were worth probably twice as much as they are now. Had he donated, say, half of the collection and sold the other half 10 years ago, he would have still made a small fortune. OK, a large fortune.
"What I can donate now is far less," he said.
What about his grandfather's legacy? Pierce Miller, by all accounts, took great pride in the collection and that others enjoyed seeing it.
"As far as my grandfather is concerned, the history of it is not a factor at this point," he said. "He actually used them (the pieces). It's up to me as to what I want to do with the collection. Preserving it for this area or not that's up to me."
No argument there. It is Miller's decision alone. But the barn repair is still weeks if not months away from again effectively sheltering his delicate old horse-drawn buggies and such.
Ultimately, Miller can choose to preserve his grandfather's legacy locally by working with the fledgling nonprofit and its museum. Or he can keep the collection within his family. Or sell it to collectors, piece by piece or in its entirety.
Or, it can decay beyond repair or even be destroyed on his watch.
As he said, it's his call. The experts are predicting a wet winter.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.