The first indication that Mike Perry isn’t your usual bank executive is the mud on the tires of his Cadillac.
As he wheels out of the parking lot at Bank One headquarters in Huntington, W.Va., Mike tells a visitor that it isn’t a long drive to the “farm.” In fact, Mike’s two worlds are about 15 minutes apart.
In town, Mike has a prime office on the third floor of the bank building, where he is chairman of the board of Bank One-West Virginia. A plaque from Sen. Robert Byrd sits prominently on a shelf. Copies of Executive magazine lay on a table. Visits to the governor’s office are not uncommon. Last year, he served as interim president of Huntington’s Marshall University.
At the farm, Mike is quick to shed the trappings of the business world. A broad smile crosses his face as he introduces his visitor to Heritage Farm Museum and Village, a project in restoration which Mike and his wife, Henriella, have pursued for the better part of 30 years.
“I enjoy my work and I’m proud of what I’ve done, but this is a whole other world, you see,” Mike says. “This is a whole other part of me, the part I enjoy the most.”
Mike’s banking career finds him rubbing elbows with many a millionaire. He’d rather be out in the country, spending time with his snuff-rubbing neighbors.
“I find my friends out here can do things my other friends can’t do,” he says. “Fix things. Build things. They have ingenuity and creativity. Guess what? That’s the backbone of our heritage here in West Virginia.”
Heritage Farm is dedicated to illustrating how life was lived in early West Virginia, to showing what it was like to carve a life out of these rugged hills. Mike says young people today would do well to recognize the lives their ancestors lived.
“If it wasn’t for them, there is no us,” Mike says. “I admire these people so much. West Virginia settlers were not so much different from settlers in Ohio or Kansas, but gosh, think of the adversities they overcame. Once you came over the hills, if you wanted something, you had to make it.”
Mike’s collection began in 1973. At that time, Mike was a successful attorney with a beautiful brick home in Huntington. He spent a lot of his free time golfing, and mentions with a hint of pride that his handicap was as low as 5. But between work and golf, Mike had little time left for his three children.
“My wife lovingly pointed out that I might do well to take up a more family-related activity,” Mike says.
It was a suggestion that Mike accepted. Instead of going golfing on Saturdays, Mike and his wife started going on “junking” trips. Then, he took it a step further. He purchased the land on which Heritage Farm would eventually be located. At that time, the house in which the Perrys would live was a burned-out shell. Still, they knew that this was the environment in which they wanted to raise their children.
As the children grew, so did the Perrys’ collection of antiques, and the museum along with it. An old barn was converted into the first museum building. Today, the village consists of 19 buildings, including a church, three log cabins, a country store and blacksmith shop.
Mike begins his guided tours at the first museum building. The exterior gives no clue what awaits inside. Old and graying, the building looks like what it was: an old barn. But open the front door …
“This is a 1917 Model T,” Mike says, beginning the narrative. The car is painted with a thick, rich coat of red paint. “Henry Ford used to say that you could get a Model T in any color you wanted, as long as it was black. Well, Henriella wanted hers red.”
It doesn’t take long to get an idea of the extensive nature of the Perry collection. They wanted to illustrate the progression of washing machines, for instance. So, there are dozens. They wanted to show the many different kinds of irons. They have more than 100. There is a rebuilt dentist’s office, a doctor’s office, a barber shop. There are farm implements of every kind, hundreds of tools of various natures.
The vastness of the collection is aimed at giving an accurate picture of the huge number of companies that were “trying to build a better mousetrap,” as it were. For instance, as many as 2,600 companies have built automobiles in the U.S.
“That’s what made this country so great – competition,” Mike says. “We’d all still be driving black Model T Fords if it wasn’t for Chevrolet.”
As illustrated by the red Model T, the Perrys are not strict preservationists. For example, a reconstructed church, used as a meeting room, has modern conveniences like bathrooms, lighting, even air conditioning. The cabins are the same.
“I never romanticized the old days, nor do I want to return to them,” Mike says. “I’m glad I don’t have to hook up a horse and buggy, or turn a crank to start my car. I’m thankful for all the modern conveniences, but I never want to forget where all of these things came from, and the creative genius that took us from where we used to be, to where we are.”
What a trip it’s been. More advancements in technology have taken place in the last 100 years than took place in the history of time. Mike revels in the wonder, and has tried his best to illustrate that change. In doing so, he says an understanding is reached. For instance, in observing the end of the era of agricultural America, one becomes less unnerved about the end of the industrial age and the beginning of the information age.
As technology advanced, Mike observes, fewer and fewer humans were needed during the end of the agricultural age to produce the needed food. As difficult as it is for people to lose their jobs in the face of change, the transition from the industrial to the information age is no more illogical.
“Imagine leaving the family farm to go work at an automobile factory in Detroit,” Mike says. “Now that was real change.”
Mike’s quest to illustrate the progression of progress in America has led him to some unusual acquisitions: a Conestoga wagon … a 1908 electric-powered flatbed truck with wooden wheel spokes once used to deliver the Saturday Evening Post … a 1901 cheese cutter manufactured by IBM … an animal-powered treadle.
The origin of many of the pieces in the collection, Mike confesses, is unknown to him. For instance, he has an outdoor area filled with antique tractors and steam threshers. Ask somebody else the story behind them. After all, Mike says, he needs help in building something so large. Actually, hundreds of friends have helped out: restoring artifacts, providing information, building exhibits.
“There is no way one person can be knowledgeable about everything,” Mike says. “It takes help.”
Some days take more help than others. One day a year, on the first Saturday in May, Heritage Farm is open to the public. Last year, 3,000 visitors walked the grounds. It took 120 volunteers to pull off the day’s events.
Mike wants to open the farm to the public, but not just as a one-day attraction. Instead, he would like to see families take “learning” vacations and stay in the log cabins. He wants business groups to use the farm as a meeting place for retreats.
“The challenge is, once you start something,” he says, “how do you provide for its future? There has to be a way to pay for this once I’m not around to subsidize it.”
Neither Mike nor Henriella Perry take the time to add up how much they’ve spent on their collection. To do so might frighten them into stopping. Actually, acquiring such an extensive array of antiques wasn’t as difficult as it might seem, Mike says.
“We found most of the stuff ourselves, and most of it has been right around Huntington,” he says. “Once word gets out that there’s an idiot willing to pay for this stuff, they find you. You don’t have to find them.”
The latest project is restoration of a schoolhouse. It was found in a remote location, in mountainous terrain. Hauling it out in one piece proved impossible, so the old schoolhouse was sawed in two. The two halves were brought to the farm and rejoined, and now the Perrys have set about arranging the interior.
Another project, and probably another junking trip.
“Henriella and I will probably be out in the truck this Saturday,” Mike says, “looking for old desks.” FC
For more information: Heritage Museum & Village, 3300 Harvey Road, Huntington, WV 25704; phone (304) 522-1244; online at http://www.heritagefarmmuseum.com/. Tours of the Museum of Progress, Museum of Transportation and the Country Store Museum are available to the public all year, Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The last tour begins at 2 p.m. (Except for major holidays and in the months of December, January and February, tours are available, weather permitting).
Tim Maloney is a reporter for the Parkersburg, W.Va., News.