One of my first stories for Maui Time Weekly was on the old Paper Airplane Museum in Kahului’s Maui Mall and its earnest curator Ray Roberts (you can see some of the amazing aluminum can models he built for the museum here). It was a quiet, quaint place run by Roberts, a soft-spoken retired shop teacher, and full of both aircraft history and good cheer. Writing that story was a very gentle, entirely satisfying way for me to start my life on Maui.
But the museum–which he boasted was the “largest paper airplane museum in the world”–closed a few years ago. I never found the time or proper hook to track down Roberts and find out what happened until now. Recently I began a project that requires me to update some of my old Maui Time stories, so I called Roberts to find out what had happened to him. While he gave me far more information than I actually needed, he also told me a fascinating story I’d never heard before.
Roberts started off by saying that explaining what happened to the museum first required knowledge of how it began, back when Hannibal Tavares was still Maui County Mayor. Roberts, who had been collecting paper airplanes for many years, decided that he needed to store it somewhere. So he and his wife Edy went looking for a place near Kahului Airport. Eventually, they found a more or less permanent site at the Maui Mall. I say “more or less” because each location he’d move into carried the stipulation that if landowner Alexander & Baldwin found an actual tenant, then Roberts would have to pack up and move out.
“We still had to pay our fair share of rent, insurance, etc.,” Roberts said. “And if we opened late or closed early, we were fined $75. It was serious stuff.”
It wasn’t long before people started donating photos of airplanes–all sorts of airplanes, many of them historic. So Roberts began putting them up on the walls. Then one day Mayor Hannibal Tavares walked in.
“Hey Buster, where’s your 50(c)3?” Roberts said Tavares asked him in his usual no-nonsense fashion, referring to his operation’s non-profit status.
Roberts said he didn’t have any such status.
“Listen Buster,” Tavares then told him, “this is a museum. It’s involved so many people, it must be preserved. So go to the state building and get your papers.”
Roberts did exactly that, though he says it took him two years and cost him $300 (money he paid a guy to do the paperwork who ended up skipping out without filing a page).
For about a decade, things were stable for Roberts and his Paper Airplane Museum, with reporters popping in now and then to do stories on him (mine from 2003 doesn’t seem to be online, but you can read Hana Hou‘s take here). But in 2005, A&B told Roberts they’d found a more suitable tenant for his spot, and said he had to leave. But the company then offered him a slot at their Kahului Shopping Center.
“Something told us, ‘Don’t do it,” Roberts said. “So many people entrusted us with their historical materials. So we thanked A&B–we had no animosity towards them–and put everything in storage.”
A week later, the venerable old Kahului Shopping Center burned to the ground.
To this day, the Paper Airplane Museum remains in storage, though Roberts seems optimistic about finding a new location and reopening. His preference is for a spot near Kahului Airport, and he says discussions with airport managers are ongoing.
Those wishing to help Roberts and his museum can email him at RayTCM@webtv.net.