The Times West Virginian

January 18, 2012

Belting it out

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

WHITE DAY ROAD — There’s something you need to know about Gary Michael.

“I collect ... things,” he said with a laugh.

The garage off his White Day Road home is filled with antiques ranging from fishing equipment to holsters, key chains, pen knives and more.

But his pride is his collection of more than 700 belt buckles he’s amassed in just a few years.

He’s got big ones. Little ones. Some that cost under a buck. And some over a lot of bucks.

And in between are the ones he finds at flea markets and auctions, and gets from friends. He inherited some from his late father.

It all started three years ago when he finished a contracting job for some people in Colfax.

“They brought out two boxes of belt buckles and asked if I was interested. I made an offer of $100 and they took it. And I got 113 belt buckles.

“That got me started,” he said with a laugh. He already had a couple, but these were the spark that ignited the fire.

He doesn’t know exactly how many buckles he has. He doesn’t keep a list of what he’s got.

“Now, that’s a winter project,” his wife Joan said with a laugh. “It will keep him off the streets.”

His collection hasn’t been appraised and isn’t insured. He doesn’t specialize in any particular kind of belt buckle.

“As long as they’re pretty,” he said. Now his collection tops out at more than 700 and he’s still looking every weekend at local flea markets and shows.

He’s got some that are about 30 years old. He’s got pewter buckles. Brass. Gold. Silver. Leather buckles.

About 20 or more are WVU buckles (all given to him). Buckles are from just about every state. From fuel companies. Trucking companies. About 200 from coal mining companies.

“They seem to be in great demand,” he said.

He’s even got an Elvis buckle.

“I just collect for my own pleasure. It’s just something to do. I’m not after any particular kind. Just any kind. I like a variety.”

If they come dirty, he doesn’t polish or clean them.

“That’s part of their history,” he said. But he does wear them.

He doesn’t sell them.

“And I don’t buy off eBay,” he said.

“Our grandson is 14 now and he can wear a different buckle each week until he graduates and not wear the same one twice,” Joan said.

His glass-encased display covers almost an entire wall in his garage, with additional cases near the door. As crowded as they are, there’s always room for more.

“When I run out of space, I’ve got more walls,” he said. “And if I get rid of things, I’ll have room for more cabinets.

“I’ll take care of that Sunday,” he said, grinning at an empty space. He planned to hit three flea markets that day. He uses some of his other antiques to trade and barter with.

They’ve lived in this house since 1969, when Interstate 79, within earshot just down the road, was just an idea.

“It was so quiet you could hear the cows pulling grass out of the ground,” Joan said. “But you get used to the noise.”

The constant sound of cars and trucks whizzing busily north and south is almost like white noise. You hear it but you don’t really notice it.

“It’s louder when it rains,” she said. “And then when it snows, it’s real quiet and you wish you could open the windows.”

He used to collect baseball cards.

“I couldn’t put them all in a pick-up truck, I had so many. I didn’t have an Honus Wagner, but very few people have that. I have a lot of Mickey Mantle things. A bat and ball autographed by him. A 500-home run ball, signed by about 10 different people who’d gotten 500 home runs. Things I didn’t want to sell.”

He doesn’t know if there’s an official belt buckle collectors association or society, or even if there is an official price guide.

“Yet, if someone offered me $1,000 for my most very favorite belt buckle ... he’d probably own it,” he said, laughing.

“I think they’re interesting,” Joan said. “You can look at them every day and see one new. You just have to look. He found one the other day he didn’t even know he had, even though he hung it up,” she said, laughing.

“People are shocked when they see the collection,” he said. “I know I never dreamed they made that many belt buckles.

“I like old stuff. I’m just a pack rat,” he said. “And believe it or not, I have been cleaning this garage out. You should have seen it before!”

His favorite from the entire collection is his first and, in his opinion, the prettiest: from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

“But really, I just like to look at them. I don’t care how old they are,” he said.

“Take 5” is featuring local residents with interesting hobbies. To be included as a Wednesday “Take 5” feature, contact Debra Minor Wilson at 304-367-2549 or dwilson@timeswv.com.

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.