A Collection of 'Ordinary' Things, and the Stories that Make Them Extraordinary

5/4/2013 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

There are big historic things, like steam locomotives, dinosaur bones, the pyramids and Old Ironsides. And there are little historic things, like betty lamps, early telephones, bottle openers, goosewing axes and the thousands of everyday things ordinary Americans used in their everyday lives from the 1700s to the early 1900s.

Barry and Elaine Navarre live with thousands of those everyday things in their Lehigh County, Pa., home. And, with the thousands of things come thousands of stories. The Navarres have been collecting for about 30 years, and they have focused their attention on artifacts that made life easier for ordinary folk, both the bare essentials, like rush lamps, and some little niceties, like fans to drive flies from the kitchen.

Some of the Navarres’ treasures are stored in drawers and on shelves in the basement. Many are on display throughout their house. If, from that description, you might expect a bit of visual mayhem on entering the Navarre house, your expectation would be totally wrong. Although they have surrounded themselves with museum-quality pieces, the residence is a comfortable and tidy home. The artifacts, humble in origin but rich in history, look perfectly placed and artfully arranged.

Barry Navarre is a walking file cabinet of everything he sees in his house, and, like a file cabinet, everything is organized and in its place. Navarre, a retired tool-and-die maker, has a firm grasp on detail. For example, he’ll be giving a speech to the Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley in Ephrata, Pa., on Wednesday, Aug. 28 at the Ephrata Public Library. The Navarres already have checked out the room. And, as of Friday, March 29, Barry had selected 137 items to take along to Ephrata, photographed them, prepared a slide show and outlined a script to go along with the slides. He also had written and printed, on nice parchment paper, an introduction to his presentation, entitled “Tools of the Past.” And he’s timed his presentation. It’s about an hour.

This is a full five months before the event. A procrastinator he is not.

A passionate collector he is. A paragraph in the handout he’ll be distributing in Ephrata reads:

“When I hold an early tool in my hand, I can feel the toolmaker’s artistic effort that he put into the tool’s making. The pride in his craft is often shown by his signature on the tool. I also feel the warmth of the owners throughout the years who were fortunate enough to have used these tools. I call these feelings that I experience, the ghosts of the past,’ talking to me through the tool.”

Navarre is also a maker of things that others find collectible. He recently finished building a Stirling engine, named after the inventor, Englishman Robert Stirling, who created his original engine in 1816. The Stirling is an external-combustion engine that can burn just about any kind of fuel, and some models, like Navarre’s, use hot air the way other engines use steam. Because of their adaptability and simplicity, Stirling engines never seem to go away, and recent models have been made to run with the sun as a heat source.

Navarre’s engine is a gleaming example of his work, and stands out even among the hundreds of intriguing artifacts in his basement workroom-storeroom-museum warehouse.

Navarre retired in 2003 after a 32-year career with Western Electric. He wasn’t quite ready to quit work, though, so he enrolled in the auctioneer school at Reading Area Community College. It was a natural step for somebody who’d been going to auctions for decades. Whether he’s holding the gavel or a bidding number, Navarre will forever be an auction aficionado. He’s backing off a bit from his own auction business — lugging sofas down from clients’ attics has lost some of its appeal — but he’s more than willing to help other auctioneers with their sales. And he’s even taught classes at RACC to prospective auctioneers.

In addition to scale-model engines, Navarre made the two rifles that are hanging on the wall above his living room fireplace. Both are muzzle loaders that owe their design to rifles from the early 19th century. There is a Hawkens-style rifle with a cap lock firing system. Cap locks use small cartridges of copper or brass filled with a kind of gun powder. When a hammer strikes the cap, it ignites the charge which, in turn, ignites the powder that has been tamped down into the rifle barrel.

There’s also a flintlock on the wall. Flintlocks work the way cap locks do, but they tend to be less reliable in cold weather. The flintlock is a Navarre design with a curly maple stock that incorporates many of the touches from his favorite manufacturers.

Navarre does not make the barrels. It’s a time-consuming process. There are artisans who make rifles for their own enjoyment or for sale to others, but they tend to specialize. You either make barrels or you make rifles, he said. He buys his barrels and steers away from making rifles for other people.

There are other wondrously curious things in the Navarre home. A bamboo needle cutter so you could cut a new one for your Victrola. There’s a century-old cone of sugar, a humane chicken killer, intestine scrapers, a shoelace cutter, metal baby bottles and more. There’s a wall display of star-shaped, S-shaped and other-shaped anchor plates which are used in conjunction with long tie rods to keep brick walls from bowing outward.

It becomes quickly obvious to the visitor that the artifacts in the Navarre home are just things. What gives a thing its meaning is the story behind it, and how it was used to improve the lives of the original owners. These are stories that almost cry out to be told.

Barry Navarre is, in fact, using the collection for the basis of a book. It is sure to capture his and Elaine’s enthusiasm and their love for the stories. And you can be certain it will have a very detailed index.

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