by ECW Correspondent Amelia Kibbe
Longtime friends Thomas Place and Steve Teeft sat talking one day about the number of Civil War relics they had each collected over the years. “We both have great collections, but absolutely nobody sees them but me and you,” Teeft said.
Although not right away, that observation grew into something larger, and today the two men are co-partners of Echoes Through Time, a Civil War Museum in Springville, New York, just south of Buffalo. It is the only museum in the Empire State solely dedicated to the Civil War.
According to Place, his appreciation for the Civil War began when he received a Civil War collectable in his elementary school days.
“I’ve been collecting Civil War relics probably since I was eight years old,” he said. “I’ve collected my whole life.”
Place began a job working as a Civil War reenactor the 36th Virginia Infantry, where he met Teeft, also a reenactor.
However, after reenacting for many years, Teeft hurt his back, forcing him to change careers.
“He wanted to stay involved, so he started taking some relics around to reenactments and stuff for educational purposes and that was kind of the start of it,” Place said.
Not long after, Teeft opened up a museum, comprised mostly of his own relics, in the former Summit Park in Niagara Falls. The museum then moved to the Eastern Hills Mall in nearby Williamsville, and soon Place came on board as a partner. “It was kind of funny,” Place said. “My son came up to me and said, ‘Dad, you know you’ve been fighting that war for 28 years and you haven’t won yet.”
So, he decided to hang up his reenacting gear and add his collection of relics to Teeft’s. Today, he estimated about 70 percent of the total collection, although chartered, comes from the men’s homes.
Two years ago, Teeft and Place lost the lease and found themselves looking for a new home for their growing collection.
“[Eastern Hills] was good to us, so we are not complaining,” Place said. “It was kind of ironic, though, that it was a ‘Made in America’ store that bumped us out.”
But soon, through a friend, Teeft and Place heard of an empty building—built in 1868—in the picturesque town of Springville, about half an hour south of Buffalo.
“If you go out front over one of the windows, it says ‘Union Block,’” Place said. “We can’t prove it, but we like to think that it was built in dedication to the Union Soldiers.”
According to Place, Springville has been working to have a historical, small-town atmosphere, so it was the perfect new home. While the new space is a little smaller, Place said they just rotate exhibits to make sure everyone has a chance to see everything.
The museum, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, survives solely on donations, Place said.
The collections include both original period pieces and exact reproductions, he said. Volunteers—both adults and school children—help put together all the exhibits, he said.
Some of the most-treasured pieces include a lieutenant’s sword once belonging to a soldier from a town near Springville, nearly a dozen original firearms, uniforms from the three major military schools—West Point, The Citadel, and Virginia Military Institute—original artillery pieces, and a rare book collection, including a first edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“If you can put a story behind what you have, it’s so much more interesting,” Place said. “It’s cliché, but everything in this place has a story. Anything that is not in glass, we encourage people to pick it up and hold it, so they can get a feeling of history.”
Additionally, Place said he and Teeft sell Civil War books at a highly discounted rate.
“Our goal is preservation and education. We are not here to make a buck,” he said.
One third of any profits goes to Civil War Trust, a non-profit organization created to preserve Civil War battlefields.
Along with running the museum, both Place and Teeft offer lectures, organize programs, volunteer with park and monument services, and belong to groups such as the Buffalo Civil War Roundtable and the Concord Historical Society.
“Our biggest goal with everything is that their memory is never forgotten,” he said. “Whenever I do a lecture, especially to school kids, I always tell them, ‘We are not here to glorify war because war is a terrible thing. But sometimes you have to fight for your freedoms and what you believe in.’”
Additionally, as a new program, the men host the Western New York Civil War Society the last Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. The program, co-sponsored by the nearby Lucy Bensley Center, features Civil War guest speakers.
“The whole idea is to keep the memory alive,” he said. “There’s so much going on these days—sports and video games and everything else—and they teach less and less of the [Civil War]. So in our own little way, we like to think we are helping keep the memory alive.”
With a growing collection, thanks to loans and donations, Place said Echoes Through Time is looking to expand. Both he and Teeft continue to work to renovate the downstairs, which currently houses a 1600-volume research library.
The museum at 39 E. Main St. in Springville is open to the public Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m., Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m., and Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Although hours vary, both Place and Teeft will open the museum for special groups or tours.
“This is more a hobby out of love more than anything else,” Place said. “And to educate others. We love what we do.”