Perry scoured the countryside when few others cared about 19th century artifacts, books and old paper. Those items were readily available and cheap. Now, in a time when hundreds line up at each stop of "Antiques Road Show," prices are high. The good stuff has been bought and sold and bought again.
When he died in 1981 at age 88, Perry left thousands of books. They filled his large, three-story house. There were books and maps, the life history of the Shenandoah Valley, West Virginia, the Civil War. It was a gold mine.
"You name it, it was there," says Len Shepherd of the Virginia Historical Society, which received more than 6,000 volumes from Perry's estate. "He had a catalog. We weren't able to figure out exactly how it worked, but you could understand his categories. Then he also had this elaborate numbering system. Clearly, he spent hours and hours on this stuff."
Another 2,000 books, including a complete set of the official record of the War of the Rebellion, went to the town library. The books form the core of the Thornton Tayloe Perry Room, a quiet sanctuary with carpet deep and soft as cotton. There are no clocks in the Perry room. Time doesn't matter. Large tables polished to a high gloss invite visitors to sit, read, spread out research papers. About 50 people from around the country call each month for help with local genealogy.
"They're usually astounded that a small West Virginia town would have this resource," says Lance, the pride in her voice unmistakable. "They just expect we're going to have a couple of books."
None of the books circulate. Lance knows human nature. If the books were loaned, she'd have to work like the devil to get them back. So, they stay here.
That's fine for Denise Alkire. She loves the Perry room. Sometimes she does genealogy research for people she has met online. Other times she just sits in the silence of this bibliophile's paradise and reads. There's always something new for a hungry mind.
"There are some books that probably nobody has opened, except him, and that's a shame," she says, fingering a century-old volume.
Downstairs, there's a glass display case with mementoes of Perry's life: a piece of V-2 shrapnel, old army photos, his pipe.
"He was a very sociable person," says Crane. "I wouldn't call him eccentric at all, just interesting."
He kept a museum behind his house, open by appointment only. It remained largely untouched until his survivors decided to sell. Newcomer and company could barely get inside the building at first. Things were stacked almost to the ceiling. The auctioneers gave the family 17 boxes of personal items. The rest filled eight truckloads.
Now, it's is all up for sale: the Richmond rifle from the Confederate States of America, weighing 18 to 20 pounds, the signed pictures of Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest, the baseball signed by Lefty Grove. Everything.
"A lot of this stuff is going to be important to museums and libraries," says Newcomer. "This is stuff that you just can't get, you just can't find."
Mahala Doyle wrote one letter. There are only 10 known copies of a broadside issued in Charles Town two days before John Brown's execution. One is up for sale. Like the Doyle letter, it is a piece of history that offers a glimpse into the emotions of a distant time. The broadside told people to stay off the streets.
"What it illustrates is the kind of extreme paranoia that existed in the aftermath of [John Brown's] raid and how afraid people were that they were going to be descended upon by hordes of abolitionists," says Noble, of Harper's Ferry park.
Noble hopes he does not lose the Doyle letter. But if Mahala Doyle's heartfelt words end up in private hands, he is confident the letter won't be lost to the public. Deals are often worked out where items are loaned or donated.
Newcomer won't venture a guess on how much these items will bring at auction. All depends on the passions of the day, the money on hand. The fat years on Wall Street translate to deeper pockets for private buyers.
"That makes it tough for public institutions to compete for these things," says Noble, understandably cagey about the national park's bankroll. "We'll just have to see where the market goes."
What: "Americana at Auction"
When: Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m.
Where: York Fairgrounds,Carlisle Road (Pa. Route 74), York, Pa.