GETTYSBURG, Pa. — The Japanese sword captured on Guadalcanal during World War II went to a truck dealer living on a nearby farm. The Smith & Wesson .38 went to a campus policeman from York College. The Indian spear went to a retired Bethlehem Steel worker from Essex.
Piece by piece, the contents of Gettysburg's Soldier's National Museum were auctioned off to the highest bidders Friday. Hundreds of toy soldiers, dozens of vintage and reproduction hats and helmets, and a lot of weaponry, pieces of a collection that had been drawing tourists for more than half a century, drew bids from collectors, fans and folks who wanted a little something to remember the museum by.
"Unfortunately, progress comes," said Christina Dettinburn, 33, of Gettysburg, who for 11 years had been a frequent visitor to the museum and paid $140 for a World War II-era Russian medic's kit to take home as a souvenir. "A lot of people around here were really sad to hear about it closing."
Earlier this year, owner Max T. Felty decided to close the two-level museum on Baltimore Street. Its collection of toy soldiers, dioramas and other remembrances of warfare throughout the ages, almost all of it safely out of reach behind glass, could not keep up with the modern demand for an interactive museum experience, he said. In 2013, during the sesquicentennial celebration of the Battle of Gettysburg, attendance spiked, but otherwise it has been dropping for several years.
The building itself, which dates to the mid-1800s and once served as an orphanage, will remain. Felty plans to restore the facade so that it more closely resembles what it would have looked like when the Battle of Gettysburg raged for three days at the beginning of July 1863. Beyond that, the building's future is undecided, he says.
Day one of the two-day auction began at 9 a.m. Friday, at a hotel down the street from the museum. By the time the bidding ended some six hours later, 515 lots had been sold, at prices ranging from just a few dollars for some reproduction military stripes to well over $1,000 for vintage weapons.
"I'm just collecting Civil War-era guns," said David Strafalace, 67, a retired accountant who moved to Gettysburg a year ago. His prize purchase? A replica U.S. Army .44-caliber revolver and holster he landed for $127. His wife, Eileen, 67, was thrilled with something considerably less dangerous: a metal Civil War toy ambulance and soldier set she got for $45.
The Rev. James Russell, 65, a Lutheran pastor living in Gettysburg, got a diorama re-creating a scene from the notorious Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, Ga. He already owns the diary of a distant relative who was imprisoned in the camp, and thought the two pieces belonged together.
Shane Morris, a 22-year-old social studies teacher from Weatherly, Pa., paid $95 for a World War II-era helmet he hoped would impress his students.
Like many who came to the auction, Morris said he was sorry to see the museum go. "I've been coming to this building since I was a little kid," he said.
Some in attendance were more sanguine about the museum's fate.
"There's plenty of other museums popping up," said Frank Buck, 72, who bought about $5,000 worth of stuff over the course of the day. In fact, the National Park Service revamped, enlarged and moved its $103 million Visitors Center in 2008, and the nonprofit Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum opened in July 2013.
And while most walked away happy with their purchases, not everyone got what they wanted. Josh Thompson, 19, of nearby Littlestown, thought he had landed a German Walther pistol for $575 — until he was told later that you have to be 21 to purchase a firearm on Pennsylvania.
"Yeah, but I saved a lot of money," said Thompson, refusing to get too down.
Felty didn't estimate of the total value the museum's collection would bring at auction.
"I really haven't put any kind of number on it. … Anything would be good," he said.
The auction continues Saturday at 9 a.m. at the 1863 Inn of Gettysburg, 516 Baltimore St. Many of the museum's Civil War-era items and larger pieces will be auctioned off then. That includes pieces from the Soldier's Museum's previous incarnation as a museum exhibiting wooden soldiers carved by entertainer Cliff Arquette, better known to television audiences of the 1960s and early 1970s by his stage name, Charley Weaver.