A treasure: The Jefcoat Museum in Murfreesboro

Published 3:04 pm Saturday, January 31, 2009

If you’ve not visited the Brady C. Jefcoat Museum in Murfreesboro, you’ve missed a great treat.

With my wife, Sherry, executive director of that community’s chamber of commerce, I was privileged to be able to do that in the company of Brinson Paul, probably the single person most prominent in bringing to Murfreesboro this collection, sought after by many of the best known venues in the nation, including the Smithsonian, but finally secured by Murfreesboro.

What is now the Jefcoat Museum was built in 1922 as Murfreesboro High School. It graduated its last high school class in 1972 and closed as a school in 1992.

It has been open as a museum since 1997 and can be visited by the general public on Saturdays and Sundays, or by groups by special arrangement at other times.

The museum contains more than 12,000 items and is, to say the least, eclectic.

It includes at least three elements that are the largest collection of their kind anywhere, and a fourth that might be.

Brady C. Jefcoat, Paul told me, is 94 years old, lives in Raleigh and remains very active. He was a plumber, then an electrician and finally a general contractor. He married late, my host told me, and his wife died early. Jefcoat began his collection to help assuage his grief.

As anyone who has visited the museum will easily understand, I cannot possibly give you an accurate picture of its magnitude.

But let me give you some little snapshots…

In the basement of the museum is a room – a huge room – full of early washing machines.

A washing machine is a washing machine is a washing machine, right?


For me, what these machines illustrated was the ingenuity of those who came before us.

On the top of one of them was a gear set that looked like it was missing several teeth. It wasn’t. What happened was that, as the gears turned and as they came to the empty space, they turned back on themselves, creating an agitating action within the machine.

Another had a large “belt” of sorts. Paul explained to me that the family dog could be put on the belt and as the animal walked, the belt provided power for the machine to which it was attached.

And on and on and on.

The ways in which those who came before us used their minds to make their lives or the lives of their loved ones slightly easier or slightly more convenient were fascinating to me.

The museum includes a collection of traps – mouse traps, including one that resets itself after catching one of the little pests, rabbit traps, gopher traps, mole traps, squirrel traps and on and on and on.

There is a collection of door knockers.

There is a collection of irons – more than 1,000 of them, the largest such collection in the world.

Some of the irons are made of iron, some of brass, some are for commercial use, some for use at home. A device in the collection – called a “fluter” – was designed to ruffle cuffs.

Again, what the whole collection illustrates is the ingenuity with which our maker gifted some of those among us.

There is a collection of Chinese tools, a collection of glass insulators like you used to see on telephone poles, a collection of maple syrup taps, a collection of beekeeping equipment, and there is a huge, 45-gallon, ornate agricultural boiler used to boil up pork to get lard. The cast iron boiler, which probably weighs half a ton or more, Paul told me, sold in 1898 for $17, freight included.

The Jefcoat collection includes blacksmith tools, carpenter tools, kitchen tools, service station (back when they really were service stations) equipment, cobbler shop equipment, including an X-ray machine used to accurately fit children’s feet.

There are saws and lawnmowers – some of the latter as ingenious as some of the washing machines – and a collection of dairy equipment.

There is a collection of butter churns and, again, you cannot possibly grasp the ingenuity evidenced by them until you have seen and touched them yourself.

There is a radio room filled with all sorts of (appropriately enough) radios, from one that looks like a Coke bottle (the lid is the on-off switch and the base is the tuner) to very rare Edison radios. Many of the radios in the room are in very fine, furniture quality cabinets, and many have separate, free-standing speakers with their own, matching cabinets.

The collection includes player pianos and organs, and phonographs – one room houses 264 of them – and music boxes that play wax cylinders or perforated metal discs or very thick plastic records. There’s a bell organ whose center keys play bells when stops are pulled out. There’s an organ grinder’s box.

On the museum’s first floor, you will find a wall of bedpans, a display of tiny hats that were salesmen’s samples, a collection of postal scales, of barbers’ tools…

Paul showed us a Crosley Icy Ball, a device that, before everyone had a refrigerator, used anhydrous ammonia to make ice. It was a complicated process. You’ll have to let your tour guide explain it to you.

One room, a re-creation of Jefcoat’s bedroom, is home to a brass tudor bed that came from England and dates to the early 1500s. On the wall on either side of the bed are slipper racks – his made of leather and hers embroidered. At the foot of the bed is an elaborate, trunk-sized music box that dates to the late 1700s and incorporates a bird that whistles and flaps its wings, and drums that can be turned on or off to facilitate relaxation.

A fireplace mantle in the room came from the Moses Cone mansion and incorporates a large Seth Thomas clock.

I’ve told you about only a fraction of the things I saw… And, because the hour was getting late, I did not even step into three of the museum’s rooms.

The fee for a tour of the museum – and it will be a guided tour – is $8 per person.

You should invest that $8. I guarantee you will get far, far more than your money’s worth.

David Sullens is president of Roanoke-Chowan Publications LLC and publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald and the Gates County Index.