William Ivey lifts a 200-year-old rifle above his head, cradling the gun carefully, his palms upturned. It looks as if he’s making an offering to the gods, but Ivey is simply holding the firearm high so a visitor can get a better look at it.
The gun is a North Carolina longrifle, a weapon many know by its more popular names, the Kentucky rifle or Kentucky longrifle. Picture the long-barreled flintlock carried by legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone.
“Look at that architecture,” Ivey says. “Tell me that’s not like a piece of sculpture. I don’t care if somebody doesn’t like guns. They can’t help but like that. Some collectors look at an object and — I think I agree with them — they say, ‘Boy, is that thing not sexy?’ It’s got certain qualities or elements about it that turn on emotions.”
Ivey fires off a barrage of attributes he sees in the gun: the slender “wrist” of the wooden stock; the sophisticated relief carving; the delicate engraving on the brass patchbox, where the gun owner stored accessories; the graceful curve of iron that forms the trigger guard; and more. Much more.
The gunsmith etched his name, A. Frazier, on the barrel. Ivey explains that gunsmiths Alexander Frazier the Earlier, who was born in 1776, and Alexander Frazier II, born in 1797, worked on Muddy Creek, near the Deep River, in northern Randolph County. He says he doesn’t think the younger Alexander Frazier produced the gun — he has seen and handled so many rifles that the trademark elements of individual craftsmen are cataloged in his mind. It’s possible, he says, that a smith named Aaron Frazier, an uncle of Alexander II, who lived in the same area, may have made it.
“These gunsmiths were true artists,” he says. “They wouldn’t have called themselves artists, but they had a sense of proportions and a sense of architecture and a sense of balance that they created out of wood. Every gun they made was different.”
The man who made the rifle, Ivey says, was no mere blacksmith. He was also a mechanic with the technical skill to design and assemble parts to manufacture a weapon that would be accurate at a distance of 100 yards or more. But he was also a woodworker and wood-carver, silversmith and engraver. He was a multitalented artisan who added decorative flourishes to his rifles for a simple reason: to make them beautiful.
An attorney by profession, Ivey is good with words. He describes the gun with a zeal you might expect from a museum curator who loves a painting or a sculpture. Ivey says he has an appreciation for those things, the visual arts, the Rembrandts and the Rodins. But what really trips his trigger are decorative arts — like the rifle — beautiful objects that were made for everyday use.
Ivey’s home, a grand, two-story brick residence in the Georgian style, is a fitting repository for a grand collection of longrifles, furniture, and pottery. But Ivey does not collect all longrifles or just any furniture or pottery. The longrifles he accumulated over the past 40 years were made in North Carolina. His pottery is Tar Heel born and bred, too. The furniture hails from even closer to home. “I have tunnel vision,” he says. “It needs to be Southern but, in particular, focusing on Piedmont North Carolina.”
He also collects Confederate troops artifacts.
Ask Ivey why he collects things, and the man who can rhapsodize for hours about 18th-century rifles, corner cupboards, and salt-glazed crocks fired in groundhog kilns is at a loss for words. He is silent for several minutes, pondering, it seems, how it all began.
He collected Boy Scout patches as a boy growing up in the Randolph County town of Asheboro. He still has a few prized ones, including a patch commemorating a Scout jamboree at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York City. But he passed most of his patches on to another collector when he was in college. Trading patches was an easy way to meet fellow scouts. Another appeal: Ivey’s primary interest was collecting patches representing Southern lodges in Scouting’s national honor society, the Order of the Arrow. The patches usually included designs relating to history or to animals, two topics that he liked a lot.
Ivey was so enamored with history as a young man that he thought he might like to become a history teacher. He also pictured himself as a Boy Scout executive. He decided that he wanted to practice law after an Asheboro attorney named Deane Bell made a compelling presentation at a high school career day. He earned a degree in industrial relations from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then graduated from the UNC School of Law in 1966.
Was he attracted to objects made by local craftsmen because he’s a hometown boy at heart, one who made a conscious decision to hang his law shingle in the town of his birth despite having offers to work for a federal judge or with large legal firms in big cities? Did Ivey grow up to collect historical objects because he is a history buff?
“I wish I could uncover what makes a collector a collector,” he says, “because they’re funny ducks sometimes, including myself.”
Ivey is 71 and semi-retired, working just a couple of days a week. He was a young attorney — and not yet a collector — when his father gave him his first longrifle as a Christmas present in 1969. Ivey had asked for an old gun to hang over his mantel. Not long after he got the rifle, however, the first sign of his future predilection surfaced when an idea popped into his head: “Boy, I sure would like to have a powder horn to go with that.”
Within about a year, Ivey became a member of the collecting fraternity, a full-fledged, if still unschooled, funny duck. He purchased two more longrifles and proudly carried them to a gathering of collectors. An old-timer surveyed the guns and suggested that Ivey should educate himself before he bought any more. He took the advice. Nearly four decades later, Ivey says he still learns something every time he visits a museum or a fellow collector, every time he holds a gun in his hands and surveys the workmanship.
The first pottery in Ivey’s collection was a salt-glaze jug that Randolph County potter E.S. Craven made in about 1875. Ivey bought it at an auction in 1976. He bid because he liked the look of the jug. He began seeking out pieces made by other Seagrove-area potters — a territory that includes several counties — focusing on 18th- and 19th-century works. Eventually, he was scouring the entire state for signed pieces. Later, he began buying 20th-century pots. He sees value in contemporary pottery, too, because of the tradition of making pots in the center of the state that stretches back, unbroken, for nearly two and a half centuries.
The first antique furniture he bought was a blanket chest made of walnut. He bid on it at an estate sale in southeastern Randolph County. Ivey had no idea how old the battered chest was. He just liked it. He later learned that he’d made a shrewd purchase; the chest likely dates to the 18th century.
“That purchase made me realize that I did have a good sense of recognizing good pieces,” Ivey says. “There was no way to necessarily research it. It was having a good sense of design and a feeling for it. You’ve got to have a feeling for it.”
Ivey doesn’t just collect things, though. He also collects stories about the people who made or owned the guns, clocks, corner cupboards, pots, plates, jugs, and other items that he has accumulated. “If you don’t have a feel, or a relationship, with the object,” he says, “then you’re better off to let somebody else own the object. I don’t want to own just an old corner cupboard. I want to own a corner cupboard that I’ve got some idea where it was made and about when it was made.”
In his living room, Ivey points to a nearly head-high chest of drawers made of walnut. It bears a date, 1796. The piece was made in or near the Snow Camp community in Alamance County, Ivey says. He knows its family history. It once belonged to George Foust and his wife, Barbara Kivett Foust. She died in 1831; he died in 1836. Ivey knows where they are buried — Stoners Cemetery near Bellemont.
If you know the history, he says, a nondescript gun or ordinary grandfather clock assumes new meaning. “Suddenly, the object, whatever it is, begins to speak to you,” he says. “It’s not just an innate object sitting in a corner.”
When his collecting days are done, the important pieces in Ivey’s collections will be placed in museums, such as The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts at Old Salem (MESDA), or in the care of other collectors who share his philosophy. It’s paramount to him to take care of the things he has, preserving them for future generations to enjoy and learn from.
“I consider myself not only a collector, but a preservationist,” he says. “I sometimes will take better care of it than the family would because I understand how to do it. We don’t own any of these objects. We’re only custodians for a period of time.”
A sideboard made of walnut and cherry stands against a wall in the dining room. It was crafted in Randolph County, circa 1810, and it stands about 48 inches high; the legs comprise about three-quarters of the height. Ivey explains that sideboards were Southern creations, made for storing linens and tableware and such.
Ivey recalls the day when the former owner of the sideboard told him that he was thinking about cutting off a portion of the long legs to make a coffee table. Ivey was horrified. Altering antique furniture in a minor way, such as using sandpaper to buff away dents and dings, significantly damages a piece’s historic importance — and its monetary value. Sawing off the legs would destroy any value. Ivey paid a premium price for the sideboard.
“I kept it from being destroyed,” he says. Today, the sideboard is worth about five times what Ivey paid for it.
“One dealer told me I had a great sense of things and realized when to pay too much,” he says, grinning.
Annette Ivey smiles sweetly when she gives her assessment of her husband’s avocation: “This family can only afford one collector.”
But who can put a price on history?
Ivey holds up a Confederate knife in a leather sheath from his private collection.
“A lot of people look at this and say, ‘That’s just an old knife.’”
On closer examination, he says, one sees a name and a date inscribed on the leather scabbard of the knife with a D-shaped hand guard. One notices that the grip is fashioned from curly maple, indicating that a Kentucky rifle maker — or a blacksmith associated with the rifle trade — may have made the knife. The inscription reads: T.G. Furches: knife August 11th 1862.
Furches, who was from Iredell County, enlisted in the Confederate army on August 8, 1862, according to Ivey’s research. The words were inscribed three days after his enlistment. Furches was a member of Company H, Fourth Regiment, North Carolina State Troops. He died less than three months later on October 28, 1862, at Winchester, Virginia.
“So this knife, this old knife, suddenly is now not just an old knife,” he says. “It’s a story. You can almost feel it.”
Ivey turns the knife slowly, almost reverently, in his hand. When he ponders it, he says, his thoughts roam far away.
“I see that guy. I see him going up through the Shenandoah Valley, walking all the way, or most of the way, after a brief period of training, with very meager clothing, a farm boy from home fighting for his state or regionalism. And, suddenly, a pause, for the sadness of his short career as a soldier.”
In fall 2010, William Ivey published North Carolina Schools of Longrifles 1765-1865. The coffee-table book, with photography by Kenneth Orr, contains more than 1,200 color photographs of 213 longrifles, powder horns, and bags, and a bonus section including objects from the North Carolina Confederacy. To order, contact Ivey at (336) 625-3314, or go to northcarolinalongrifles.com.
Chip Womick writes for The Courier-Tribune in Asheboro and is the author of Remembering Randolph County: Tales from the Center of the Tar Heel State.