Dream turns hobby to museum

Collection: Clyde Morris says he is `addicted to collecting junk' - from old tools to a 1925 caboose - so he built a museum to show his antiques.

October 03, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

When Clyde Morris was in his 70s, he decided to build a museum. His friends said he was crazy. Virginia, his wife of 55 years, said he was too old. His neighbors simply shook their heads in disbelief, wondering how a man Morris' age could ever see such a project to completion.

But Morris had a dream. As he tells it, he was not to be dissuaded.

"I don't think anyone could have stopped me," he said. "I had it pretty well planned out."

So it came to be that in 1998, Morris opened the doors to the Morris Meadows Museum, a collection of early American antiques and artifacts 35 miles north of Baltimore in Freeland.

Built on a hilltop in the middle of his sprawling Baltimore County farmland, the collection is housed in a 12,000-square- foot, barnlike building.

Today, at 80, his walk a shuffle because of a bad hip, Morris tours his museum with the delight of a man who has been reborn.

With great affection he picks up objects to demonstrate how they were once used, holding them up to the light in his farm-worn hands.

When he answers questions about his treasures, his face dances like a live wire. Even his snow-white hair has an excited, wind-blown look, as if he had just come in from working in his cornfields, which he rents to a local farmer.

At its busiest, the museum attracts up to 150 visitors a week. Entry is free, and $3 buys a tour with Morris - a job the lifelong farmer delights in.

"I tell people how happy I am to see them because I'm addicted to collecting junk, and if no one came to see it, I'd feel really bad," said Morris, dressed for a recent afternoon tour in worn blue jeans and a shirt with front pockets filled with pens, notebooks and museum pamphlets.

To know Morris for a few minutes is to begin to know his "junk" - what he affectionately calls a collection that includes farming tools, furniture, kitchen items and railroad and war memorabilia.

There is a gasoline-powered iron from the 1920s. In his kitchen collection, there is a fluted iron once used to put ruffles in collars and cuffs. There is a framed advertisement for a house from a 1914 Sears Roebuck catalog. Morris said his aunt and uncle purchased that house, transporting it by horses from the nearby railroad station to their property in Freeland.

One of Morris' most prized-possessions is an old record player that churns out a watery-sounding Patti Page singing "Tennessee Waltz." Its only volume control is a side door that can be opened to make the music louder.

For Morris, collecting began as a hobby. Attending antique sales, auctions and markets, he bought anything that caught his eye. Over the years, his buying accelerated. Soon, he had filled the barn next to his farmhouse.

Some items he bought at bargain prices - old irons, barrels and desks from one-room schoolhouses. Then there were splurges, such as a 1925 caboose from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, priced at $3,600, plus $3,600 for shipping.

The caboose sits outside Morris' main enterprise, the Morris Meadows Recreation Farm, a trailer park and campground less than a mile from the museum. For less than $40 a night, recreation vehicles and trailers can rent a campsite on the 100-acre facility.

The park has 300 campsites, in addition to tennis courts, a miniature golf course, a pool and a drive-by museum. The highlight of this drive-by exhibit is Morris' railroad caboose, flanked on one side by four tractors and on the other, an old windmill.

Morris estimates his revenue from the park at $1 million a year. Although he and his wife oversee the finances, their daughter and son are in charge of day-to-day operations, leaving Morris to his museum.

His tours often begin with the shrill clang of a school bell, which he purchased from an old one-room schoolhouse and rigged to the ceiling above the museum's entryway. He then leads groups, or individual tourists, through his dozen exhibit areas, organized by themes that include "The One-Room Schoolhouse," "The Cooper Shop," "The General Store" and "The Blacksmith."

Morris constructed one of the areas, called "The Music Room," for his wife, Virginia. Sometimes, she sits in the room and plays an old piano while visitors come and go. Above the piano hangs a sign that reads: "Dedicated to my wife, who has helped me do anything I want for 50 years."

At the end of a tour, Morris will often gesture to a giant wheelbarrow in the front yard, which he painted with the words: "The Way It Was."

In many ways, the museum is as much about Morris as it is about its content. For him, many of life's greatest pleasures are in the past - or, more specifically, in the past he has created in his pastoral paradise on a hilltop.

Born and raised in his current house to a family of five generations of Freeland farmers, Morris has filled the museum with many shards of his past.

His collection of chicken feed bags, he said, reminds him of when his mother bleached his family's feed bags to make sheets during the Depression.

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