Text by Karl H. Kazaks | Photos by Tom Wallace
In Pulaski, faraway times are not forgotten at the Raymond F. Ratcliffe Transportation Museum. The museum’s artifacts are small and large – ranging in size from a curio in a cabinet to a train diorama encompassing more than 2,000 square feet – and they all embody the town’s past, its memories. There, in the line of soapbox derby cars – marked and unmarked but maintained – reside the dreams of middle 20th century boys.
In the corner, the antique railroad inspection car speaks to the grit which built the town, as coal from nearby deposits fired foundries and smelters and attracted railroads in the late 1800s. The black-and-white photo of women sitting in front of their sewing machines making Virginia Maid nylon hosiery is a snapshot of post-war Pulaski.
On a wall hangs a reminder of the last day passenger rail service visited Pulaski: April 30, 1971, written in chalk on the departure board which once hung in the railway station. Flanking the sides of the main hall, the gems of the collection: Vintage vehicles in the automotive gallery, including a 1940 LaSalle Series 50 four-door sedan and an 80-foot long by 26-foot wide train diorama built by Dr. Milton Brockmeyer as an exact scale representation of central Pulaski in the mid-1950s.
The museum has been in its current location, a stand-alone metal building adjacent to the Maple Shade Plaza in downtown Pulaski, for five years. It opened in 1986 in the basement of the town’s municipal building and was named for Ratcliffe, the recently deceased town mayor. Eight years later, the museum moved to the town’s restored train depot, where it remained until fire damage in 2008.
The oldest vehicle in the automotive gallery is the town’s first fire truck, a 1909 International Harvester, complete with an axe strapped to the side, wooden spoke wheels and an open carriage. The second oldest vehicle also comes from the fire department: a 1917 LaFrance pumper, the town’s first pumper truck. Chain-driven, the truck is almost entirely original. Designed for a team of four men, the LaFrance is much more elaborate than the 1909 International Harvester, but it still has an open carriage.
The 1940 LaSalle has been in Pulaski since it was brand new, when it was bought by Pulaski resident Hensel Eckman. He drove the car until 1966. That year – you can still see the car’s 1966 inspection sticker – the car was gifted to Pulaski’s Gem City Museum, which donated it to the Ratcliffe Museum just last year.
The two-tone, green-on-green LaSalle has an eye-catching design, with a pointed, narrow grill, a long swooping nose, and an elegant body, accented with sidewall spares and a wide running board. The car has a 123-inch wheelbase and a 130hp V-8 engine.
The interior features a high-arching ceiling, creating an airy cabin for passengers. The interior is still original, down to the wide, spindly steering wheel, ashtrays in the arm rests of the back seats, and the simple interior door panels. The driver’s door, for example, is adorned with barely more than a simple, short armrest and a door pull.
The LaSalle also smells like an old car: a relic, dusty and musty, a preserved emblem of the New River Valley in the mid-20th century. The same could be said of Dr. Brockmeyer’s train diorama. A Pulaski dentist, Dr. Brockmeyer worked with Willie Ryan, an artist employed at Pulaski’s Dalton Theater, to create a miniature image of their hometown. It is vast in scale, with scores of buildings and hundreds of features, including a replica of the signal tower now kept in the museum.
“They would go out and measure buildings at night,” in order to build replicas to exact scale, relates Jay Turner, a member of the museum’s board and the chairman of its Collection Committee. They also took photos of the surrounding hills and landscape, then projected those photos to paint the backdrops to the diorama to scale.
“There weren’t any hobby shops,” Turner explains, “so they made everything themselves by hand,” utilizing as building material objects as diverse as cereal boxes and beer cans. Running through the model town is an O-gauge model railroad track with operating train. Some of the town features in the diorama are no longer found outside the doors of the museum on the streets of Pulaski – buildings have been torn down, railroad tracks have been torn up.
But thanks to the efforts of the curators of today and the collectors of times past, inside the Ratcliffe Museum, Pulaski’s past lives on.