SHEFFIELD, Mass. — A spoon bit brace, wooden shovel, mud shoes for horses; these were a few of Milt Barnum’s favorite things.
For nearly 50 years, the late Sheffield native collected nearly 1,000 kitchen gadgets and farm tools; familiar and not-so-obvious items that date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Today, the Sheffield Historical Society is the caretaker of Barnum’s prized collection, with about 300 tools temporarily on display for two more weeks. The exhibit at the society’s Old Stone Store on Main Street is also the first step toward creating a permanent exhibit for all to see year round, according to the nonprofit group.
“It’s important to keep young people in touch with the past that we’re losing so fast because we live in a throw-away society,” said Al Romeo, Sheffield Historical Society volunteer.
Romeo and society president Paul O’Brien are co-curators of the exhibit, which had its roots in the mid-1960s, when Barnum began amassing his collection, often with his wife, Marion, of almost 70 years. He would regularly share the items through his popular “What’s It?” program, asking the public to guess the implements he brought with him.
O’Brien said some of the head-scratching tools are part of the current exhibit, with visitors invited to write down their guess of “what’s it.”
Among the more recognizable items are crude ice skates, an early hand drill to drill holes for pegs in post-and-beam construction and a wagon jack used in the replacement of a broken wagon wheel.
Romeo said Barnum’s collection was a gold mine for an antiques collector like him, but a challenge to determine how they should be arranged for the exhibit.
“It was like being a kid in a toy store, but we had to figure out where all the kitchen stuff should go and separate out all the farm stuff,” he said.
In time, society volunteers hope Barnum’s tools will have a permanent home in a circa 1870s carriage barn, one of seven historic structures the organization owns and maintains in town.
Dana Barnum sees the barn as the perfect place to keep his father’s spirit alive, as Milt Barnum was a founding member the Sheffield Historical Society 42 years ago.
“He really had a passion for the historical side of things,” Barnum said. “When my daughters were little, they would go looking for my father at the barn – he loved it there.”
After Barnum’s death in 2011, his family sold the collection to the historical group for $10,000. Dana Barnum said it wasn’t about the money, but ensuring the items remained in good hands locally.
The society’s leaders found the price was more than fair to keep the collection in town.
“Milt was a fixture in town and as founder of the Sheffield Historical Society, he had his hand on everything,” O’Brien said.