Thursday, September 21, 2000

With all due respect to Old Glory, the national pastime and apple pie, few symbols better represent America than the farmer.

So Kitty and John K. Parlett’s farm-life museum in Charlotte Hall, Md., feels like part time machine, part tribute to this country’s resolute character.

Mr. Parlett’s museum doesn’t just trot out a few dusty tractors and hoes for a visitor’s perusal. As Mr. Parlett puts it, it paints the full picture of farm life, from the wheat-threshing machines to cast-iron pots to cook the day’s hard-earned dinner.

“My dream was to build a museum that covered the entire span, from the ox plow through to the modern-day equivalent,” Mr. Parlett says of his wares, which date from the early 1800s to the present.

It’s important for Mr. Parlett to “put the entire picture together,” as he puts it. Visitors can see carriages and blacksmith tools as well as old cooking utensils from an era long gone.

“The small stuff ties it all together,” he says. “I try to tell the whole story. That’s what makes it more interesting.”

Including items such as wooden bathtubs, “the kind you’d see John Wayne in,” he says, gives viewers a better sense of the farmer’s life.

The Parletts will open up their expansive museum early next month for the third annual Southern Maryland Farm-Life Festival to benefit the St. Mary’s County Chapter of Christmas in April, a national group that helps rehabilitate the houses of low-income homeowners. The chapter has helped repair 346 homes during its 10-year existence.

The event will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 7 and 8 with the help of up to 200 volunteers. The Parletts open their more than 60,000 square feet of exhibits only for special occasions, plus twice a year for area schoolchildren.

The festival will feature working displays of old-time shingle splitting, blacksmithing and woodworking, plus a petting zoo and hayrides.

Mr. Parlett moved to Charlotte Hall 42 years ago and began his collection right away.

It’s a good thing Mrs. Parlett has proved to be a faithful, and loving, collaborator in his pursuit.

“I had no idea it would become this large. It’s overwhelming,” Mrs. Parlett says, “but it’s something the two of us enjoy together.”

“She’s my No. 1 asset when it comes to collecting, and as a wife and a friend,” he says. “It’s taken a hundred percent of her cooperation.”

Most of the museum items came from the Parletts’ travels around the Northeastern United States.

“If it’s a weekend, and I’m breathing, I’m on the road,” Mr. Parlett says of his collecting regimen. “The fun is in the hunting.

“All of a sudden, you walk in a barn, and there it is,” he continues, his face aglow with the thrill of the hunt. “You know all the parts of the puzzle… . You know you’re going to make it fit.”

The next item to add to his collection “is right around the corner,” he says. “I might not know what it is till I see it.”

A stroll through any of the Parletts’ exhibits reveals the dedication the couple bring to their work.

No farm, no matter the era, could claim to be as well manicured as the Parletts’. Only the occasional spider web mars the displays. The tractors sparkle as if the paint were still tacky, each item has its place, and every section is labeled clearly to inform the viewer.

Mr. Parlett is old-school, from his clean-cut hair to his no-nonsense way of life. Yet he brings a child’s curiosity to his work.

He tells visitors about each piece, from its original use to where he purchased it, with his eyes opened wide as if he were recounting it for the first, not the thousandth, time. He can’t share details quickly enough.

A cheerful bell welcomes visitors into the general store. Inside, a plethora of items await, from tobacco and pharmaceutical goods to mail service.

“The general store acted as the community meeting hall. It covered all aspects of rural life,” says Mr. Parlett, a veteran farmer who also served in the Maryland House of Delegates as a Democrat in 1980 to ‘87. “It kept [the farmer] going from one crop to another.”

In the store, as in virtually every other exhibit, toys can be found amid the antiques. Mr. Parlett knows children’s attention spans are limited, so he does all he can to keep them engaged.

Part of his farm recounts Maryland’s ties to the tobacco industry, a centuries-old partnership that some might not appreciate, given the current anti-smoking climate.

“The word ‘tobacco’ is taboo today, but it’s the staple crop of Maryland since 1634,” says Mr. Parlett, who uses an oxygen tank to alleviate his emphysema after years of his own tobacco use. He even tells his youngest visitors about tobacco’s connection to their home state, but with a caveat.

“I discourage them from smoking, but we need to tell our history,” he says.

Tractor Heaven features more than 40 restored tractors, all gleaming John Deere green.

Many of the tractors demand hours of work to restore them to their former glory.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of pleasure, too,” Mr. Parlett says, his eyes drinking in the restored model.

The Parletts’ property consists of a working farm that spreads over 160 acres and grows mainly corn and grain.

“The farm is nothing like it used to be,” Mr. Parlett says, when 40 head of cattle, not today’s 13, grazed on the property.

The Parletts aren’t finished with their museum. They recently purchased a hardware shop near Baltimore and will incorporate it into the exhibits in the next few weeks. And every weekend contains the potential for adding new items.

When asked how much his collection is worth, he quickly gives a witty but heartfelt response.

“The value of the collection is the memories that people take with them,” he says.

WHAT: The third annual Southern Maryland Farm-Life Festival

WHERE: Charlotte Hall, Md.

WHEN: Oct. 7 and 8, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

TICKETS: $5 donation, students $3 donation, children under 6 free

PHONE: 301/884-4337

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