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New Haven man's collection finds home in new museum (with slideshow)

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RALPH FARNSWORTH OPENS up the steel shed, covered in old signage, that houses his collection of antique tractors and farm equipment. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

By KATHRYN FLAGG
NEW HAVEN — “I’m a pack rat,” said Ralph Farnsworth, standing in the jam-packed old barn where his father once milked a herd of 10 cows. “I figure somebody’s got to have it, so it might as well be me.”

“It” is everything — or, to be more specific, “anything old,” as Farnsworth puts it.

The casual passer-by at Farnsworth’s North Street home in New Haven will notice a few signs of this fascination with the antique. Arranged neatly on the groomed lawn by his barn are a few old tractors, all in pristine condition.

But most of Farnsworth’s treasures are tucked away indoors. Wander into the old milking barn, where he’s collected somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 old gas pumps taken from farms and service stations in the area. Metal signs from long-shuttered service stations and farm supply stores hang on the walls, and up among the rafters sit something like three dozen old soda vending machines, some more than 50 years old.

There’s an old drag saw, and a two-man chain saw from the 1950s — the list goes on and on.

And as it turns out, this is just the tip the iceberg. In fact, Farnsworth jokes, the barn is where he keeps his “junk” — the real treasures are up the hill.

Farnsworth, a collector at his core, isn’t interested in turning a profit, or trading his finds. But he knows what he likes, and for as long as he can remember he’s been collecting just that in a sprawling three-building complex on his property.
A lifelong New Haven resident, Farnsworth, 68, is retired these days.

When it comes to gathering his treasures he’s a generalist, not a collector of any one item or from any era in particular. Nowhere is this more evident than in his enormous museum. Built over the course of more than three decades, the museum sits next to the house where Farnsworth grew up.

There, his one-man collection — the work of a lifetime — serves as a record of the ephemeral objects of everyday life.

Inside the 5,600-square-foot building, the treasures of Farnsworth’s collection are neatly arranged by room. In one is an approximation of a general store — cans and foodstuffs line the walls, and dark wood counters are piled high with scales and milkshake makers and old jars and curiosities.

Down the hall, another room is chock full of around 90 Edison phonographs and thousands of records. Many of these came from Farnsworth’s father’s collection.

During a recent tour, Farnsworth set an old canister record on an Amberola Model A phonograph — manufactured between 1909 and 1911 — and placed the sapphire needle on the revolving cylinder. A scratchy, warbling tune came drifting out of the phonograph’s horn. Then there was the 1922 Edison diamond disk, which plays a quarter-inch thick record.

He’s got 30-some-odd cash registers, dozens of toy tractors, a 1928 Seaburg jukebox, and an astonishing electric-powered Wessell piano that plays tunes automatically. There are dozens of old household items: vacuum cleaners, electric toasters and irons. In the dairy corner, next to the milking machine Farnsworth’s father once used, are lined up glass milk bottles from dairies near and far.

Older visitors to the museum, Farnsworth said, are delighted to see the relics of their youth: a lunchbox they might have carried as a child, for example, or a model of an early tractor their father once owned.

“People remember seeing this when they were a kid,” he said with a shrug.

And in Farnsworth’s case, many of these exact items were around when he was a child. His toys line the walls in one upstairs nook, and the old straw hat his father wore while farming in the 1940s dangles from the corner of a rocking chair.

In fact, he said, it was his father and his grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression, who inspired him to start collecting. They never threw anything away, he recalled, and the habit stuck.

Farnsworth isn’t kidding about saving nearly everything. He has stacks of old newspapers arranged by year, paper cups from old fast food joints, and parking tickets from his family’s annual trip to Disney World in Florida. He keeps menus from restaurants, brochures from car dealerships, and paper bags from McDonald’s. In a room devoted to John Deere tractors, he’s amassed hundreds of brochures and tractor guides.

As documentarians go, Farnsworth is humble about his remarkable collection — a collection so massive that even after hours in his museum, it’s impossible to take in even a fraction of the items.

And in an age when new appliances are built to be quickly replaced rather than repaired, Farnsworth said there’s value in keeping the well-made tools and accoutrements of an earlier era.

What’s more, to his mind, someone needs to be keeping these things — otherwise, he said, they simply disappear.

“You just don’t see this stuff anymore,” Farnsworth said.

That is, unless you pay a visit to Farnsworth’s museum.

Ralph Farnsworth’s museum is open on request, and visitors wishing to visit his collection should call him at 453-2275 to set up an appointment.

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