Thomas’s horse-drawn passion lives on in museum
BLACKSTONE, Va. — Robert “Bob” Thomas III carries on his father’s passion for horse-drawn, antique vehicles.
Robert Thomas Jr. was born in Nottoway County, Va. and was a farmer, cattleman, horseman; high school teacher, coach, principal, college professor, and postal worker. But his true love was the history and collection of carriages.
“He always had an interest in horses,” Bob says. “Even when I was growing up, he had a horse and a small cart that he would drive down to Danieltown, Va., which is about 18 miles. He would drive that horse and little cart all the way down to see his grandfather, Marvin Davis.
“I think it was just the love for the past,” he continues, “but my dad always said his second major probably should have been history, even though he was a science major. Taking him to a museum, I probably could go in and read the things in about 30 minutes, but he would be there for an hour. My mom always got a little upset with him on that, taking so long, but he was absorbing everything he could.”
Thinking back on those memories, Bob says he and his father often traveled together to auctions in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Indiana; he collecting antiques and his father collecting carriages and old farm equipment.
“It was a way to associate with me,” he says. “I was preserving things, and he wanted to preserve things that were agricultural related, because he knew they were disappearing, knew also the agricultural lifestyle was changing, and many of the types of crops were basically not being grown anymore.”
Visitors can see Bob and his dad’s collection at the Robert Thomas Carriage Museum in Blackstone, Va.
The collection includes one- and two horse-drawn carriages, buggies, carts, wagons and others that are fully restored. Bob emphasizes that a buggy is usually a one-seater, and a carriage carries more than one person.
Much of Thomas’s collection was in poor shape when he started purchasing them in 1970 at low prices. Bob says his father purchased his first buggy in Altavista, Va. Two years later he bought a two-seated Surrey.
Thomas’ interest took off after that. He kept meeting more and more people who knew about carriages and buggies.
Bob says his dad even joined the Carriage Association of America, which was founded in 1960, according to the organization based in Lexington, Ky.
Because the metal rimmed wheels needed replacing on the vehicles, he learned how, but Bob says he never used that trade because his father always bought new wheels instead.
Thomas had many of the antiques vehicles restored by Ted W. Hughes with Chalk Level Carriage and Buggy Works in Piney River, Va. His early restorations cost between $3,000 and $6,000.
After many of the antique vehicles were restored, Thomas and his wife, Marie, donated the carriage, buggies, carts, wagons and other equipment to the town of Blackstone.
To help cover the cost of museum operations, the town applied for funding and received $448,000 from the Virginia Department of Transportation Enhanced Project.
In addition, the town received a donation from the Thomas family of $50,000 to get the museum started. The town also donated water and sewer taps, landscaping, lighting, sidewalk and parking, according to the town. Additionally, the town applied for a second round of funding in about June 2008.
The total budget for the project equaled $624,960.
Bob says after the two years of operation, the museum’s enrollment increased from 200 to 1,000 visitors.
Most foot traffic was between summertime and Christmas.
Much of that increase was attributed to his and his mother’s willingness to carry on Thomas’ passion.
It also was attributed to a nearby Christmas display of a train collection owned by businessman Bobby Daniels.
In 1999, Thomas had a heart attack and ministroke then later was diagnosed with dementia. The Robert Thomas Carriage Museum opened in September 2007. Fortunately, Thomas was able to see his dream come to fusion before his death in December 2007.
For his last ride, he rode in a two horse-drawn hearse that was loaned from Farmville, Va.
His wife carried on the tradition by welcoming visitors to the museum until her death in 2020. In her funeral, she rode in the hearse that was part of her husband’s collection.She once said her favorite vehicle was the Pannel Boot Victorian Carriage, which consisted of green velvet upholstery.
Thomas’ favorite probably would have been the Victorian too, Bob says, because he spent the most money on that one. “He always kept it covered,” he adds. “He had the horses, but he never hooked it up.”
The Rockaway (1812) and the Victorian (late 1800s) are Bob’s two favorites. “I kind of like the Rockaway,” he says. “Of course, I always tend to be toward the oldest things. It is the oldest, but also the most unique.
It’s closest to probably what most middle-class Americans at that time would have had because it was partially enclosed and partially open.”
Does he think his father would have done anything differently involving his collection or establishment of a museum?
“As far as the carriages, I think a few more varieties could have been added because we have some of the same ones,” Bob says. “We have about six that are all similar, but they’re different in each way. Because if you bought a buggy, you could make it anyway you wanted to. The stylings are different, but it’s the same buggy frame.”
Bob says his dad always wanted a farm museum established in Blackstone, but so far that dream hadn’t materialized.
Today, Bob still looks online and visits farms that have carriages and buggies.
He thinks of buying more to add to his father’s collection but will hold off for now.
If he can someday save enough money, he’d like to purchase an antique milk wagon and/or stagecoach at some point to add to the collection, but they can be quite expensive to restore.
Bob appreciates his father’s passion for antique vehicles and the time that he spent in collecting them.
“I’m thankful for the fact that he had a vision to do something with it; otherwise, he would have sold them, and I don’t know where they would have gone to,” he says. “It also gives people an opportunity to see many of these carriages they would have never seen anywhere else.
“My dad’s collection has been an inspiration for me in preservation of what’s in the past,” Bob continues. “We’re starting to lose so much of that now in the last two years because people want to rewrite history.”
Bob’s history and memories live on in his father’s antique vehicle collection. “I’ve ridden in the sleigh, the Surrey. I’ve ridden a Victorian in my wedding, but it wasn’t this one. I sat on the hearse the day my father was carried to the grave.”
One of his greatest pleasures is seeing children’s eyes and faces light up when viewing the beautifully restored carriages and buggies.
“They always think automobile,” Bob says. “That’s all they’ve seen, and not knowing that something like this existed many years ago. That horse transportation was the only form of transportation.
“Their eyes light up as you tell them a little story about one of them,” he continues. “The sleigh ride [for instance] gets them all excited about hearing “Jingle Bells.” That relates to what a sleigh looked like and things like that.
“It’s just that passion in history that I have, that these carriages continue to push me in preserving and looking for ways to try to bring the past to life.”
Some of the Robert Thomas Carriage Museum collection (dating back from the early 1800s to the early 1900s) includes:
• Thomas Family Buggy;
• Spindle Seat Buggy;
• Piano Box Buggy (six of them): One-horse drawn typically used by doctors;
• Buggy: one seat shellback, one-horse drawn;
• Pannel Boot Victorian Carriage : Named in honor Queen Victoria;
• Rockaway Carriage: For family use, open in the front and enclosed in the back;
• Runabout Buggy: One-horse drawn, one seat, open top;
• Runabout Carriage: A scalloped seat back edge and panels on back of seat;
• Phaeton Carriage: Drop front, one-horse drawn light vehicle with a falling top;
• Canopy Top Surrey;
• Extension Top Surrey: known as an Auto Top Surrey, two-horse or one-horse drawn, top folds down;
• Thornhill Wagon: One-horse drawn;
• Thornhill Wagon: Two-horse drawn;
• Canopy Top Wagon: Three spring, removable rear seat;
• U.S. Mail Wagon: One-horse drawn;
• Concord Wagon: With side springs for comfortability ;
• Oil Wagon: Slat body, removable seats;
• Veterinarian wagon;
• Wicker Governess Cart: One-pony drawn;
• Pony Trap: One-pony drawn, usually used on fox hunts;
• Road Cart: Known as a Sulky, for one rider, one-horse drawn;
• Road Cart: For two passengers, one-horse drawn;
• Cart: For farm or freight use, one-horse or one-oxen drawn;
• Log Cart: Used to haul logs.;
• Ammunition Cart: A U.S. Army cart from World War I; and
• Portland Cutter Sleigh: One horse, two seated.
To schedule a tour, contact the town of Blackstone at 434-292-3041 or 434-292-7251.