Local curator maintains mobile museum

Jan. 25, 2014 @ 05:03 AM

Milton Cole’s occupations have run the gamut from farmer and military policeman to building contractor and maintenance man for Moore County Schools.

In his retirement, he added another job title — museum creator and curator.

Cole, who celebrated his 78th birthday earlier this week, started constructing a mobile museum about three years ago. He built a shack on a trailer so he could haul it around with his truck, filled it with antique tools, toys and other treasures he either found or had donated by friends and family, and transported it to various church and social gatherings in Lee and Moore counties.

He hasn’t taken it out lately because of health issues, he said, but he’s still maintaining it and adding to his collection. And that’s the whole point.

He acknowledges that the world has changed, adding, “That’s the reason I got all this.”

“It ain’t no money thing,” he said. “I just want to have all this somewhere because in 100 years, no one will know what any of this is.”

Even in this day and age, many of the items have been obsolete for quite some time. In 100 years, most of the artifacts he has collected will be well more than 150 years old. Some will have even surpassed 200 years, like a cider press donated by a now-deceased Virginia man.

“He knew he didn’t have long, so he asked me to take it for him,” Cole said. “I guess he figured his family wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

Cole is a meticulous cataloger, labeling just about everything in his cramped museum to indicate what it is and who gave it to him. About half the items are old tools — axes, picks, scythes, plows, tobacco instruments and more — and the rest are assorted oddities like tomahawks and 1930s air rifles, bricks from the long-demolished school down the road from his house between Cameron and Carthage, an elephant skin belt and a wallet from his dad’s leather work coat.

His wife, Judith Cole, said she doesn’t share her husband’s same love of history and quirky antiques — at least not at the same level. But she still admires his passion, even if she’s not sure where he’s going to put all the pieces he’s still searching for.

“I’ve enjoyed watching him get it ready — he’s really worked hard over the years,” she said, before adding with playful exasperation: “He’s still looking. I don’t know what he’s going to do with it when he gets something, though.”

Indeed, he ran out of room and has started nailing things like saws, rakes and yokes to the outside of his mobile museum. Inside, along with the tools, are family heirlooms such as his Army medals, photos and drawings of his parents and grandparents, Judith’s baby shoes and even the wooden car-racing game Milton got for Christmas in 1948.

There are also history lessons. A picture of Cole’s dad and several dozen other men assembled at Fort Bragg, waiting to be sent off to build ships, taken April 8, 1941 — just months before Pearl Harbor — foreshadows the American manufacturing boom World War II created that helped bring the country out of the Great Depression.

A Webster’s Dictionary from 1902 is full of many miniature lessons on culture, history, war, politics, technology, religion and medicine. The book opens with pictures of all the flags of the world from a time when the Ottoman Empire still existed and defines the Philippines as a U.S. colony; it doesn’t list words like television, router, penicillin or airplane.

And a picture of Cole’s son with the giant pumpkin he entered in a Moore County agricultural contest in the ‘70s — alongside his first place ribbon and the 25-cent prize he got for winning — tells about inflation as well as fashion trends.

Because so much of the museum focuses on the Depression and life in the rural South, Cole said most of the visitors he gets when he takes the museum places are people of his generation, or those who grew up on a farm. Judith Cole said it just makes sense that people of a certain age would be more drawn to it.

“Usually it is older folks,” she said. “I think either you like stuff like that or you don’t, so if you grew up with it and know about, you’re more likely to want to come see his collection.”