Cowee School reopens museum spaces; some classes offered

Jim Geary, director, curator, and founder of Down Memory Lane Toy Museum, has compiled two extensive books on antique toys.

Deena C. Bouknight, Contributing Writer

Jim Geary, director of the Down Memory Lane Toy Museum, housed inside the Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center, said the 2,500 or so toys in the space he and his wife, Sandy, opened four years ago have not had children or adult visitors to enjoy them since March. But all that will change, he hopes, when some aspects of Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center reopen Oct. 1. 

“We’re going to reopen the school for limited classes and allowing museum spaces to reopen. We’ll be limiting each room to six students and/or visitors. We will also require folks to wear a face covering while inside the building.,” said Cowee School director Stacey Guffey 

Guffey indicated that Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center, like other businesses and organizations, has struggled since it closed its doors in the spring due to the N.C. governor’s pandemic mandates. 

“We’ve spent the summer pursuing grants to help us through the pandemic and to replace some of the lost revenue,” he said. “Thanks to funders such as the North Carolina Arts Council and the North Carolina Humanities Council, we have been able to survive. We continue to be extremely grateful to the county for their support. We couldn’t have made it through the year without Macon County.”

A Playful History

Rent and upkeep for the Down Memory Lane Toy Museum are a labor of love for Jim and Sandy Geary. They sometimes receive donations, but primarily the couple uses their own funds to offer the museum to the public. Jim began collecting toy cars in 1950 when he was 10 years old. A parade of antique cars in his hometown of Latrobe, Penn., spurred his interest. His 1911 toy Rolls Royce is in the museum, as are his more than 600 Studebaker toys, the wooden toy tractor his father made him, Sandy’s 30-plus-year collection of antique construction equipment toys, and much more. 

The museum also houses donated doll collections, including one donated by Pat Mesta, a former geography teacher who used her collection of international dolls to explain cultural differences to students. 

However, at least 80% of the museum exhibits items collected or obtained by the Gearys. 

“It’s definitely a lifelong hobby,” he said. “I guess I’m a big kid. I play with the toys, and my blood pressure goes way down when I’m here at the museum … when the trains are running.” 

Recently, he acquired a child’s-size circa 1900 wooden fire truck as well as a hand-made in 1995 child’s-size version of a 1930-33 Duesenberg.

Geary is a member of at least a dozen antique-toy-related Facebook sites, has published two informational books on antique toys, spends hours researching, and has become a go-to source for historic toy aficionados nationwide. “I tell them where to find parts, history of the toys, how to restore …,” he said. “And talking about the toys and allowing people to reminisce and go down their own memory lanes is why my wife and I have this museum. There are stories that go along with all old toys.”  

Although the Gearys enjoy being inside the Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center, their existing collection has outgrown the space there; plus, more people want to donate impressive toy collections to the museum and there is no additional space. The couple would eventually like to occupy a 2,000-2,500-square-foot space closer to downtown Franklin that an owner might provide as a tax write-off. Another goal is a larger playroom where children can be surrounded by the antique toys but then play with toys like Lincoln Logs and trains. 

“Children these days don’t play as much with actual toys,” said Geary. “They are focused on screens instead. But when kids come to play in our very small play area at the museum space we have now, parents can’t get them to leave. Kids begin to realize how much fun it is to actually play with toys.”

With so many children schooling from home due to the pandemic, Geary would like to see more parents bring children into the museum as an educational outing to learn history through the toys. 

Although museums and some classes became available Oct. 1 at Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center, Guffey explained that all of the live events were canceled for the rest of the year. “But we hope conditions improve so we can have a great season starting next spring with the concert series and our regular festivals,” he said. 

Guffey encouraged the Macon County community to support Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center by attending classes or visiting the exhibits. 

“Follow us on social media and in the local media for announcements on upcoming fundraisers and on-line events this fall and winter.” 

He also pointed out that Cowee School is making drive-up WiFi internet access available to students, families, and workers who need to work or study on-line. The signal reaches both the upper and lower parking lots. The network is coweecommunity. The password is coweewifi.

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