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Jim Costa

West Virginia Renaissance Man

By Belinda Anderson

Photographs by Michael Keller

Jim Costa dips his brush in a can of lacquer and strokes the protective fluid onto a piece of history that he has rescued from ruination. "I'm restoring a drive wheel from an 1820 treadle lathe. There was a lot of butchering done to it through the years. Mechanically, I've restored it. And now, I'm aesthetically restoring it and sealing out all the elements."

Jim Costa in his blacksmith shop
Jim Costa of Summers County in his blacksmith shop, surrounded by a small portion of his vast collection of functional tools and historic farm implements.

A warm, dry day has lured Costa into the yard behind his log home, itself a major restoration project. Civil War veteran Jim Duncan built it in 1868. Costa, with help, dismantled it and moved it from Green Sulphur Springs to property near the Greenbrier River in the Talcott area of Summers County. "That put me in the hospital. I got hold of a log the wrong way, and whew, ..." he says, recalling a minor but painful back injury.

Dressed in a striped shirt with a banded collar, blue work pants, and a straw hat, he continues ministering to the parched wood. "This is a living relic of a bygone era. In that day and time, this was very much an item of necessity for a man who was a good, skilled cabinetmaker." Costa walks around the wheel to apply more lacquer to the white oak and walnut. "He took many hours to build this thing. See this joint work here? That takes skill to do. Remember, this was all done by hand."

Many in West Virginia know Costa as a musician, playing the fiddle and banjo, singing, and instructing classes in traditional mountain music at festivals and workshops across the state. But he also is a devoted curator and conservator of the artifacts of his regional heritage. Over the course of his 50 years, he has collected thousands of tools and other pieces used in farming, blacksmithing, cabinetry, and home tending. Much of his collection came from the counties of Monroe, Summers, Greenbrier, Fayette, Nicholas, Raleigh, and Pocahontas.

Don't call these items antiques. For Costa, these pieces - restored to usefulness - are living links to the people who settled West Virginia and those who preceded them. "To me, these are mini-monuments to these people individually or to their culture," Costa says. "I'm interested in all the material culture of that period of self-sufficiency, what people made - wooden bowls, old fiddles and banjos, furniture, muzzle-loading firearms."

You can read the rest of this article in the Fall 2001 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.