For more than seven decades, The Darby Collection has been one of Davis & Elkins College's "best kept secrets."
Now, the collection of nearly 10,000 North American treasures is on display for public view in its new permanent home, The Stirrup Gallery of the Myles Center for the Arts.
The Stirrup Gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and weekends by appointment.
Mark Lanham, left, coordinator of The Darby Collection, shows Tucker Valley Elementary Middle School fourth-graders the Italian cart once owned by Henry Gassaway Davis. The artifact is among North American treasures on display in The Darby Collection located in The Stirrup Gallery of The Myles Center for the Arts. The students’ visit marked the first large group tour since the gallery was dedicated in March.
A dedication ceremony for the collection took place in March, and the gallery was named in honor of Board of Trustees Chairman Paul Stirrup and his wife, Karen, who over the years provided support and encouragement for assembling the collection in one location.
Mark Lanham, a D&E student and veteran of the United States Marine Corps, recently was named coordinator of The Darby Collection. He has led D&E students through the gallery for class projects and shown a few special guests around the new facility, and now, he's ready for a steady stream of visitors and groups during operational hours.
The first large group to tour the collection in its new home took place May 29, when 19 fourth-graders from Tucker Valley Elementary Middle School stopped by for a visit.
"This was perfect for what our class has been studying," teacher Cindy Goughnour said. "They've been learning about history from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War."
Dressed in period costume, Lanham and his assistant, Lauren Crickenberger, a senior from Orange, Va., presented the grand tour, answered questions and shared in the students' amazement at the items.
"It's a great way to teach kids history," Lanham said. "They can see and touch a part of American history."
The students, whether history buffs or not, couldn't stop talking about the artifacts while they waited for swim time at the D&E swimming pool.
"I'm interested in history a lot, so I thought it was pretty cool to see all that stuff, especially the things from the 1500s," said Emma Wamsley.
"I loved it," said Zoe Nestor. "I love all of the bowls, and the stuff they have that was before Christ is awesome. I'm going to go home and tell my brother about it."
Kandase Nestor said she's "not a history person," but found the collection "really, really cool that they have all this and it's all because of Mr. Darby."
The artifacts, representing everyday items used by mankind from the Stone Age through the early 20th century, were donated to the college in 1942 by collector Hosea M. Darby. The Elkins architect, building contractor and businessman had a fascination with the "rare and unusual," which inspired him to collect the array of items.
Perhaps the most notable portions of the collection are the 300-plus Spanish, French, English and American powder horns, considered by experts to be among the top five collections in the country, aside from those displayed at the Smithsonian Institution. The collection also contains approximately 90 guns, including rifles and pistols, dating from the 1600s to the Civil War era; 800 to 900 pieces of pottery; a rope bed dating back to 1795; and various weapons, tools and cooking utensils.
The collection remained in the Darby's home until the 1960s, when it was moved to the campus. The efforts of numerous volunteers interested in Early American and Native American history and artifacts became essential to preparing the collection for eventual exhibit. For nearly 35 years, beginning in 1969, Elkins resident Dorothy Lutz dedicated countless hours to organizing, researching, registering and cataloguing the artifacts. She sought advice and guidance from museum professionals in Williamsburg, Va., the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and other experts regarding exhibit design, interpretation, preservation, appraisals and management.
Gilbert F. "Bud" Rexrode, a retired Elkins pharmacist, served as curator of the artifacts. In the early 1990s, Lutz and Rexrode adopted a system to catalog and number the items according to usual museum practices. Sue McMillon also helped catalog the collection from 1999 to 2002, and several D&E students have assisted throughout the years.
Not all of the items are yet on display, and some are awaiting repair. In the future, an area of the museum will be designated for rotating displays. Lanham said he wants to "keep it evolving to make it even bigger and better."
Lanham said he can accommodate groups of up to 40 people. He's also willing to incorporate an interactive tour, if requested.
"I'm really glad people are taking an interest and they're getting something out of it," Lanham said.