One man’s junk is another man’s treasure — the story behind the collection
One of the most enchanting exhibits at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum is often overlooked because it is off-the-beaten path behind the Heritage Center. All who make their way down are always glad they came and want to visit again. Everything in the building was once the prized treasure of the Fitzgeralds of Inverness, Mississippi.
Frank Stanley Fitzgerald and his wife, Erva Mae, collected memorabilia of the Mississippi Delta spanning many decades. Soon after their marriage in 1931, they were in an automobile accident that injured Mrs. Fitzgerald and left her confined to a wheelchair. The couple had no children, and what began as a diversion grew into a hobby that expanded into a museum quality collection. The couple spent many weekends browsing antique shops, auctions, and junkyards and stopping at shacks and sheds in the countryside in search of appealing keepsakes. They found enchantment in items that others disdained. They rescued from oblivion any articles that may be called Mississippi-style Americana.
When they built their home in 1951, Mr. Fitzgerald built one room in the backyard to house their collection. This was soon filled, and he added another room and finally a large room with a big, brick fireplace. This became their private museum that attracted visitors from many other states and foreign countries.
The two smaller rooms, at first glance, seemed stuffed with junk. Everything imaginable was crammed into every crack and corner or hanging from the ceiling rafters. You name it, and it was there, in apparent chaos. On closer observation, a certain order emerged. One wall was covered with an artistic arrangement of wrenches of every shape and size. On another wall, there were scores of flat irons of varying kinds and weights. Those too heavy or too bulky to hang were stacked on the floor beneath. A glass showcase held over 7,000 pencils from near and far, once cited in the Guinness Book of Records. In the center was a lovely coffee table made from a giant oak that was felled by a tornado. A showcase from a country store contained childhood treasures: a wind-up train, tinker toys, a B.B. gun and a piggy bank. Things most of us lost or tossed in the trash.
The centerpiece of the Fitzgerald Collection is the fabulous array of Indian artifacts. For over forty years, Mr. Fitzgerald scoured the Delta, sometimes aided by his Vocational Agriculture classes. A good time for searching was after a heavy rain or flood. In the early days, farmers tossed rocks to the side as they plowed. He found many Indian rocks on the edges of plowed fields. There are over 17,500 Indian artifacts, most from the Mississippi Delta area. The lovely mosaics made with projectile points were designed and assembled by Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald.
Most of the collecting ended in 1978, when Mrs. Fitzgerald died, but Mr. Fitzgerald made occasional acquisitions until his death in 1991. In his late years, he was concerned about the fate of his cherished possessions. The desire to ensure their protection and preservation led him to donate his entire collection to the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum. He stipulated that nothing would be removed or added and that everything would be displayed in one building and available to the public. Mr. Fitzgerald saw the completed building with the replica of his fireplace. He was pleased with the plans for the exhibits that are reminiscent of his own in Inverness, Mississippi. We like to think that his spirit is still among his treasures.