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The Robert Thomas Carriage Museum in Blackstone, Va.

The Robert Thomas Carriage Museum has more than two dozen horse-drawn vehicles, including a Victoria, which the wealthy used for rides in the park.
The Robert Thomas Carriage Museum has more than two dozen horse-drawn vehicles, including a Victoria, which the wealthy used for rides in the park. (Becky Krystal/The Washington Post)

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By Becky Krystal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010

Let's face it. We all have our little caches full of various items accumulated during passing phases of interest. My bedroom at home, for example, is the final resting place for abandoned collections of postcards, seashells, gems and coins, among other things. (Sorry, Mom.)

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For Robert Thomas of Blackstone, Va., however, carriages and all manner of horse-drawn vehicles were no mere passing fancy. They were a passion. It started simply, with a childhood horse and cart, but grew into a lifelong fixation.

Thomas died at 76 in 2007, just months after a museum dedicated to his collection opened in Blackstone, a small town adjacent to the Army National Guard center at Fort Pickett. Today, his widow, Marie, greets those who come to see the work that she, too, eventually became a part of. Her son, named Robert after his father, is also intimately involved in the museum and plans to move back to Blackstone from Chesterfield, where he teaches high school, to help promote it and attract more visitors.

On a sunny April afternoon, Marie Thomas met me at the museum to give me a tour of it and the adjacent pre-revolutionary Schwartz Tavern, another Blackstone landmark.

Blackstone's downtown historic district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Main Street is lined with late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, some of which house restaurants, furniture retailers and a cute shop here and there. There's a fair share of vacant storefronts in this town of about 3,600, but given its friendly residents and beautiful facades, the future holds promise.

The Robert Thomas Carriage Museum, just a short walk from Main Street, is undistinguished on the outside. Inside, however, the brick-floored exhibit space replicates the interior of a carriage house. The walls of unfinished wood release a comforting piney aroma, and lights resembling old-fashioned gas lanterns line the support posts. Had a stable boy in knickers and a newsboy cap popped out with a "hello, gov'nor" from behind one of the conveyances, I wouldn't have been surprised.

The collection consists of more than two dozen vehicles acquired by the Thomases and restored by Ted Hughes of Chalklevel Carriage and Buggy Works in Nelson County, Va. Many originated in various locales around Virginia, but others came from West Virginia, New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Occasionally, Marie Thomas said, the acquisition would require a trip.

"Wherever he would see an ad, then he would go," she said of her husband.

The oldest piece is an 1816 Rockaway carriage. Like many of the other carriages on display, it's outfitted with a few accessories that might have accompanied the passengers, including a coal-fueled foot-warmer and a large blanket.

I was particularly taken with the Victoria, named after the British queen. A cute two-seater with plush green upholstery, this style of carriage was favored by the wealthy for jaunts in the park.

In at least one respect, calling the collection a carriage museum doesn't quite do it justice, especially if your notion of "carriage" is largely defined by 19th-century British literature (ahem, guilty). I was pleasantly surprised to find a few unexpected items, such as a beautiful glass hearse, a World War I ammunition cart and a sleigh.

The vehicles are worth admiring in themselves. But I got infinitely more out of the museum by having Thomas show me around. It was clear that the museum is as much about the story of her and her husband's lives as it is about the carriages. There's the surrey (as in " . . . With the Fringe on Top") that they rode into town and down country roads on Sundays and that later carried their daughter to her wedding. Or the buggy Robert Thomas found in a gully on their farm, and the bright yellow road cart he used to train horses.

Marie Thomas also made sure that I saw the photo albums with the before and after pictures of the vehicles, some of which had been in pieces. It's a great way to even better appreciate the care that went into restoring them.

Next was a quick walk through the nearby Schwartz Tavern, which Thomas and her family also oversee. It was an interesting snapshot of the town's early history, but Thomas said it has been tough to garner the resources for its upkeep and to give it the same kind of TLC that has been so clearly invested in the carriage museum.

Blackstone is best seen on foot or from the front porch of one of its lovely houses. On Main Street, I found myself walking much more slowly than I do on my regular commute in Washington. It was a refreshing change of pace.

The next morning, I strolled from my bed-and-breakfast to the Virginia United Methodist Assembly Center, a former women's college with well-manicured grounds. Later, I popped into the Blackstone Antiques and Crafts Mall. With every step I took in this warehouse of vintage and handmade goods, I was sure that I was finding some treasure that had been overlooked by previous passersby. Much, I thought, like the town itself.


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