Pieces of History

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A horse-drawn road grader sits in a field next to Ralph Davis' house in Macfarlan, W. Va. It is one of several pieces of antique farm equipment in his collection, which is likely one of the largest private holdings in the state.
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An antique tool used to clean the inside of pipes.
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Ralph keeps this steam-powered washing machine connected to an air compressor for quick demostrations when visitors drop in.
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Ralph's collection also includes household goods.

To the untrained eye, the collection in Ralph Davis’ barn might look like junk he has collected over the years.

Everything from old kitchen utensils and toys to washing machines and motorcycles can be found in his Ritchie County barn.

But a closer look at the extensive collection reveals that more than odds and ends have been stored. Ralph’s collection contains pieces of history.

Ralph has what could be one of the largest private antique collections in West Virginia.

“A friend of mine wants me to take all of this and make a regular museum in Harrisville,” Ralph said.

“He doesn’t know what he’s asking for… It would take quite a few pickup trucks to carry all of this off.”

Ralph, 70, has collected antiques since he was 10 years old.

“I just have always liked old stuff,” he said.

The first of the old stuff that visitors see when they pull up the long, steep driveway to his hilltop home is old farming equipment. In a small field next to his house, Ralph has multiple pieces of history, including horse-drawn farm equipment, including a hay rake, a McCormick grain drill and a road grader.

His antique collection involves more than just finding and storing pieces of the past. For Ralph, it also involves restoration. He has 12 walk-behind tractors, some dating to the 1920s, all of which run.

“I get all the motors to run,” he said. “Some of them are frozen up when I get them, but I try to restore them.”

Ralph has restored several small, water-cooled gasoline engines. He paints them their original color.

Many of his small engines were used in the oil industry. Much of the retired Pennzoil worker’s collection can be used to trace the history of the oil business in the area. Ralph has donated pieces of his collection to the Oil and Gas Museum in Parkers-burg.

One engine he keeps running has special memories for him. It is the engine that powers a 1930 Ford Model A pickup.

“That’s the automobile I learned to drive in,” he said. “It’s all original, oogah horn and all.”

Ralph has a German tape measure and a German flashlight that were acquired by a friend during World War II. For the flashlight to work, a lever connected to a small generator must be pumped by hand.

“I don’t see how you could see much with it,” he said while pumping the handle.

Although Ralph doesn’t know the stories behind most of his uncountable antique pieces, he and friends have researched a few. One is a homemade fiddle for which he traded a few years ago.

“There’s a yellow tag inside that says ‘Walter Wilson, Nov. 8, 1902.’ I found out that he owned a store around Burnt House, W.Va., in 1902. I found that his grandchildren owned Wilson’s IGA in Parkersburg.”

Ralph has built up his collection by trading during the past 60 years.

“If someone comes here with something I don’t have, and wants to trade for something I have more than one of, I trade with them,” he said.

Antique shows and auctions are good places to acquire pieces, Ralph said. He does not recommend farm sales.

“Farm sales are the worst,” he said. “Things are so high.”

Some items in his collection were originally used by members of his family. One such item is an ‘oil thief,’ a device used to measure water in the bottom of oil tanks. It was given to him by his father, who once worked for Valvoline.

Ralph said he has received his share of offers for some of his antiques.

“I’ve had a lot of people come by to buy things,” he said. “For those old Coke signs I have, people will spend big money for them.”

A gasoline pump sitting in his barn is a remnant of the days when gasoline sold for 30 cents a gallon, while a tax receipt dating to 1917 shows taxes of $11.62 on 161 acres of land.

His collection includes some rare pieces, Ralph said. He has a Sears and Roebuck motorcycle, a Victrola with a tag that reads ‘1904,’ and a gasoline motor once used to power amusement park rides.

While his friend tries to talk him into hauling it all to Harrisville to be put into a museum, Ralph continues to work on his collection. Although it is extensive, it will never be complete, he said.

“There always are a few more things,” he said. “Sometimes, you don’t realize it until you see it.” FC

Paul Darst is a reporter and photographer for the Parkersburg (W. Va.) News-Sentinel, where this article first appeared.

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