Alex Jason, the Maine teenager who used lawn-mowing money to build one of the most impressive collections of rare and historical Apple devices, recently packed it all in a 26-foot truck and made a heartbreaking trip to deliver it to a new owner.
The dream of creating a museum with the collection had hit a snag. Alex had the building and even an impressive board of directors that included Mac designer Jerry Manock. But raising capital to renovate the site proved near impossible in sparsely populated Maine.
A decision to cash out would make sense and seem wise. High school freshmen don’t regularly make that kind of dough. But the deal he struck with Lonnie Mimms, a well-respected vintage tech collector from Georgia, not only keeps Alex’s dream alive, it puts it on a fast track.
In addition, the most valuable jewel of the collection, a rare Apple I, stays in Alex’s possession — that is until it moves into a proper display case in Maine’s very first science and technology museum in the capital city of Augusta, where officials are eagerly working with Alex and his dad, Bill Jason, on the planning.
“We tried to make this happen after a year and it wasn’t going anywhere,” Bill Jason, who made the trip with his son to deliver the collection of vintage Macs, told Cult of Mac. “This was his dream since he was 10 years old and in this neck of the woods, it wasn’t flying. He was heartbroken. But suddenly, there’s new momentum.”
It’s a lot to digest, especially for fans of Alex, a following that grew after Cult of Mac profiled the wonder kid collector last year. Alex’s story, about how he traded a dirt bike for his first Apple computer and by 15 had amassed a collection Apple artifacts considered to be among the best in the world, was picked up by other media outlets around the world.
The basement of the Jason home became Alex’s Apple Orchard, with more than 250 pieces, including everything from rare prototypes and an original copy of Steve Wozniak’s coding notes for the Apple II to that incredibly valuable Apple I, which may be the only one in existence with working original chips.
Alex wanted an Apple computer and pulled an old-fashioned horse trade, offering a mini bike and a snow blower for an iMac G5. He tried to tinker with it but the computer was already at its limits for upgrading. So he sought older Macs to take them apart, get them working again and learn about how they are put together.
“I just wanted a nice computer,” said Alex, who recently turned 16. “But I realized those computers are being thrown away. That’s kind of how it snowballed. I wanted to create a collection, share it online and create a museum.”
Apple museum plans
The blueprint for a museum emerged after Alex had more than 50 pieces. Father and son were attending vintage computers shows, where Alex met other collectors, including Mimms, who helped him with acquisitions. He also met ex-Apple engineers, some of whom believed Alex would give a good home to the prototypes they once worked on and still had in their possession.
Bill Jason quit his job as an accounts manager at a hospital to co-pilot his son’s museum idea. A private school in nearby Fairfield donated an old library building for what Alex wanted to call the Maine Technology Museum. It would be a home for his collection, but also feature interactive STEM programs for area students.
Manock, Apple’s first design guru (1979-1984), learned of Alex’s collection when he attended the Macintosh 30th Anniversary Celebration in Cupertino in 2014. A member of his original design team sent Manock a link to Alex’s website. Amazed at what he saw, Manock asked if he could visit the next time he was in Maine.
When he learned of the museum plan, he joined the board of directors and helped recruit inventor Chuck Colby, once a vendor sanctioned by Apple to manufacture Mac-compatible portables.
But the fundraising hit a ceiling at around $50,000; the board estimated it would take at least $1.5 million to renovate the old building for tech infrastructure, displays and security. The feedback Bill heard suggested the public would have little interest in static displays of old computers. The development seemed not stalled, but dead.
Alex thought if he could sell the Apple I, he could save the rest of the Orchard and maybe raise some money to get closer to meeting projected costs to open the museum. Apple built 200 Apple I units in 1976. Fewer than 70 are known to still exist.
Last August, an Apple I prototype hand-built by Steve Jobs himself sold at auction for $815,000.
Bill Jason said the Apple I, which they keep in a secure location away from their home, was appraised at $700,000. An auction could fetch a high price, but many of the most important auction houses set their schedules a year or more in advance. The time Bill Jason had taken off from work, now at two years, was beginning to take a toll on family finances.
There was interest in the machine from the Apple Museum in Prague and a private collector in Dubai, but the offers, when considering the remaining balance on a loan the Jasons took out to acquire the Apple I, didn’t seem enough for the museum project.
However, several pieces in Alex’s collection, especially some of the rare prototype devices, had collectors calling. Alex did not want to break up his beloved collection but after a family meeting, they decided they had no choice.
“This is like a startup that you put everything into,” Bill Jason said. “This wasn’t going to attract big investors. This is very grassroots. It’s mom-and-pop, a father and son with a dream.”
Bill Jason contacted Mimms, who has been a mentor to Alex ever since they met at a vintage tech festival he hosts. Mimms, considered the most important collector, had his own museum plans in the works.
His Computer Museum of America in Roswell, Georgia, only hints at the breadth of his collection. He has more than a quarter-million tech artifacts, but most of them sit in six storage facilities. His current museum only opens for special occasions or by appointment. Its current location is a tech history footnote, an old CompUSA store, once part of a thriving retail chain.
However, Mimms has found a new building that will house a more sizable portion of his collection. It would be a museum with regular public visiting hours and would include an events center. He hopes to move in and open it sometime this year.
His current museum includes an Apple Pop-Up Museum, a set of rooms dedicated to Apple, but his collection includes other historically significant machines like the Kenbak-1 from 1971 and the Altair from 1975.
The Apple part of his collection is impressive and starts with the Apple I — four of them, in fact.
“I take it very seriously,” Mimms told Cult of Mac in 2016. “I am looking for historical significance and the stories behind them that bring them to life. Otherwise, they’re just boat anchors.”
Mimms made an offer for Alex’s entire collection, except the Apple I. The undisclosed amount allowed Alex to pay off the loan on the Apple I, buy a car and bank away an amount that should cover college, Bill Jason said.
With Mimms, Alex’s collection remains intact and for public education — just as he had hoped.
During a week in November, Alex boxed up a large chunk of his identity. Mimms had invited the Jasons down to a robotics competition he was hosting at his Georgia museum. He paid to rent a truck and have them drive the collection down.
“We talked about the story behind each piece during the drive down,” Bill Jason said.”It was bittersweet. Lonnie is a gentleman and it means a lot to Alex that the collection is going to him. While we were down there, he treated Alex like royalty.”
Maine Technology Museum
But just as the sale of the collection was ending one chapter in Alex’s life, another was being written with great momentum.
The Maine Technology Museum board was shifting gears to pursue a museum with little or no historical component. It would focus heavily on interactive displays and feature contemporary and future technology, like robotics. A partnership with NASA is now in place to develop exhibits, and the board just landed an agreement with National Geographic to develop programming.
The city of Augusta, in the midst of a downtown revitalization project, came calling. Alex and Bill Jason are now working with Augusta city officials to identify a site for a science and technology museum.
“They have regular interactions with our mayor and we’re scouting locations in the downtown,” said Michael Hall, director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, who added that technology could become the focal point of the city’s growing museum district.
“It’s extremely impressive that they have these connections and got this going,” he said. “It’s going to be a huge boom for the economy.”
Alex is encouraged by the momentum. His close circle of family and friends praise him for his maturity in refocusing the museum dream, which may work out better than he ever expected.
Right now, though, Alex is still grieving the loss of his once-great Apple Orchard. The basement is empty now; however, there are signs something new may grow in the space.
Alex recently acquired 20 new Apple artifacts.