HEADSVILLE, W. Va., is a place most of us will never visit, but just inside the entrance to the Museum of History and Technology is the Headsville, post office, circa 1860, which probably tells more about the town's life than we could learn from a trip there.
A stroll away is a Cleveland classroom saved from the wrecker's ball and waiting for the whoop and holler of the kids who never returned from a long-ago recess.
The post office and school rooms are just two of several structures, including the newly acquired Cowing "balloon" House, that Smithsonian staff and other interested persons search out to illustrate the architecture of the everyday past.
In the search, Smithsonian experts like Rodris Roth, curator of cultural history; Charles Rowell, exhibits specialist; and Carl Scheele, Nation of Nations exhibit chairman, log thousands of miles over back roads and weed-choked fields.
"I went up hundreds of dead ends," says Scheele, who traveled 10,000 miles and 13 states to find "a building that hadn't changed - and there aren't too many that haven't changed in a century."
He found the Headsville post office by a quirk of fate. He and his wife were sitting in a traffic backup as road engineers laid down tarmac. A road worker asked if the couple was going camping. Scheele described his search, and the man said he knew of just the building, about 40 miles down the road and off a fork.
Scheele didn't expect such a casual conversation to turn up anything, but as he and his wife drove up the fork, turned a bend in the road, and saw Headsville he knew he'd hit hit pay dirt. "I got the feeling that this was it as soon as I saw the pristine condition of the town," he says. "I looked like it hadn't been touched by time."
Scheele also arranged to get the Cleveland classroom. A former teacher in the city, he decided the Smithsonian needed an example of a typical Northern industrial city schoolroom.
He asked the city's board of education if any schools were scheduled for demolition. None were. Several months had passed and he had put the project in the back of his mind, when the school board called to tell him that they had a building. If he was still interested, it was the Smithsonian's for the taking.
Not all the museum's architectural structures involve as much as a search as the post office, or as much of a wait as the classroom.
Roth, who wanted an example of a 19th-century Midwestern balloon house (so-called back then because the arrival of pre-cut wood and meachine-made nails allowed houses to be put up so quickly that to skeptics of that era they looked as if a gust of wind would blow them away), didn't do any scouting at all. She enlisted the help of a University of Illinois architectural historian named paul Sprague. Sprague made numerous trips into the countryside to find an example of the Greek revival, balloon-frame construction that originated in Chicago in the 1830s and revolutionized home building in America.
He found it in Peotone, Ill., on the property of a man who had decided "the shack" on his 30 acres must go. In a variation of 'woodsman spare that tree," Roth explained the house's significance and the Smithsonian's interest.
It was at this stage that Rowell was brought to the scene. Carefully dismantling what had now been designated "Cowing House," after the family who originally built it, Rowell numbered each board to aid in reconstructing the house in the museum.
"Yo merely reverse the procedure," Rowell says about his job that has involved his dismantling and reassembling some 60 building structures. "You take down first the last thing that the builders put up. You number it all for reconstruction. Sometimes you take pictures to help.
The Cowing House, which was financed through a grant from the Certain Teed Corp., now stands next to an 18th-century house that required skilled carpenters, masons and others for its reconstruction.
Smithsonian designer Deborah Bretzfelder wanted museum visitors to see the transition between old and newer forms of housing construction.
And does the Smithsonian find itself badgered by people ready to foist old buildings on it?
"Oh no," says Scheele. "That's not nearly as likely as it is when the subject is furniture or housewares."