Brady Jefcoat’s legacy: new fund supports lifetime of collecting

For years, Brady Jefcoat had the satisfaction of knowing that the fruits of his hobby -- an amazing collection of irons, record players, farm equipment and other Americana -- were bringing enjoyment to others. He made sure that after his passing, people could continue to enjoy viewing his treasures for decades to come. The Wake County resident, who died last year at age 96, established the Brady Jefcoat Fund at NCCF. The fund is for the support of the Brady C. Jefcoat Museum of Americana in the Hertford County town of Murfreesboro (population: 2,000).

Jefcoat and a team of volunteers opened the museum in an old high school in 1997, filling it with thousands of items purchased at yard sales and flea markets. Today, it is the largest privately run museum in the state. It has more individual items -- 13,000 at last count -- than any museum in North Carolina, public or private. The collection includes the country’s biggest exhibit of washing machine equipment, butter churns, irons and music boxes. Every item that has a motor, moving parts or other working mechanism still works, according to those associated with the museum, thanks to the elbow grease and loving care Jefcoat lavished on these flea-market finds.

“Brady’s real aim was this: If he liked it, he wanted it, and if he really liked it, he wanted to corner the market,” said Brinson Paul, a member of the Murfreesboro Historical Association and the museum’s director from 1997 to 2007.

Paul recalls making weekly trips to Jefcoat’s home near Raleigh to load up his pickup truck with items destined for the museum. The two became close during the six years it took to collect and curate the Americana and turn the old high school into a museum. “I felt like I knew him better than I knew my dad,” he said.

Despite its relatively out-of-the way location, the museum attracts roughly 2,000 people a year to its twice-weekly guided tours. It’s not just the locals who come: The museum has hosted visitors from every continent, according to Paul. It is mentioned on Smithsonian.com and more than 10 other travel websites.

By all accounts, Brady Jefcoat was a lot like the legacy he left behind: Tough, hard-working and practical. He rose from humble beginnings in Orangeburg, S.C., to become a plumber and electrician in Raleigh, the city his family relocated to in 1921 when young Brady was five.    

Despite losing the use of his right hand in a car accident when he was 16, Jefcoat found success in the building trades, eventually becoming a contractor. He did a variety of projects, including several buildings for N.C. State University, and constructed 17 homes, often using discarded construction material, and in many cases second-hand items. He also built his family home in the Swift Creek community of Wake County, completing it just two years before his wife, Lillian, died of cancer in 1972.

Those who knew Jefcoat say he turned to collecting to help battle the grief that overcame him after losing Lillian. His first find was a contraption he initially took to be an old sewing machine but later discovered was an Edison cylinder phonograph. He ended up fixing it, just as he did with so many of his purchases, and buying many more just like it from estate sales and flea markets, primarily the one at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. Today, that phonograph is one of 264 working models on display in the museum.

"It made him a stronger man," said Colon Ballance, the museum’s current curator, in an article about Jefcoat that ran in the Raleigh News & Observer in 2009. "When he was given some of those first pieces to work on, it took his mind off grieving so much. It gave him a sense of direction. Then everything blossomed."

Phonographs caught his eye, but so did Daisy rifles. The museum has 100 of them. He brought home irons and washing machines, but also Wurlitzer juke boxes, period furniture and even a couch from the set of Gone with the Wind. A bed that dates from Tudor England? Yes, Jefcoat snapped up one of those, too.

By the early 1990s, Jefcoat’s collection was so large he knew he had to do something with it. He was approached by the Smithsonian and the N.C. Museum of History, according to Paul. But it was not until he was invited to be the commencement speaker at tiny Chowan College in Murfreesboro that he became serious about parting with his trinkets and gadgets. That’s when he met with the board of the Murfreesboro Historical Association, who had just the right plan for showcasing and caring for the collection, not to mention access to an unused high school just waiting for a new purpose. Unlike other museums that came courting, the Association readily agreed to Jefcoat’s one condition: That they display every single item of the collection. (Other museums would have relegated the bulk of the collection to storage, noted Paul.)

The Historical Association works hard to grow the endowment so the museum can continue to flourish. “We have a fish fry each fall and a pork fest in the spring,” said Paul. “Plus we have an open house at the museum with antique cars and rides for the kids, and we sell barbecue at the N.C. Watermelon Festival in town every summer.” Money, he noted, doesn’t grow on trees.