Stinchcomb was living in Ferguson, in the house he'd grown up in. One day while out walking his dogs, he noticed that a house on the next street was for sale. He thought he'd mention it to Tussey, who was looking to move from Maplewood to someplace closer to his job at Lighthouse for the Blind in Berkeley. (Tussey is legally blind; he keeps a modified microfilm reader in his basement so he can study his record labels.) When he called Tussey to tell him about the house, Tussey said he'd already bought it. Three years later, in 2008, when the house next door to Tussey's went into foreclosure, Carell bought it. With Tussey's help, he packed up his collection and hauled it from Portland to St. Louis. It took five weeks.

They'd planned to set up the Missouri 78 RPM Archive as soon as Carell arrived in Ferguson. They'd found the perfect building, and they thought they'd have the profits from Carell's Portland house, which had appraised at more than $600,000. Then the housing bubble burst.

One autumn morning, Tussey and Carell meet at the latter's house to mull their options. (Stinchcomb, who has promised to join in the archive only when it becomes a reality, is not in attendance.) It's a sunny day, but Carell's den, filled with records (and VHS tapes and Carell's stereo system and his despised computer), is dim.

Bruce Stinchcomb's wax cylinder device. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.
Jennifer Silverberg
Bruce Stinchcomb's wax cylinder device. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.
A late 1800s gramophone. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.
Jennifer Silverberg
A late 1800s gramophone. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.

"We're kind of blue this morning," Carell confesses.

The state of the fledgling Missouri 78 RPM Archive is not strong. The nonprofit's cofounders have their incorporation papers (which Tussey faithfully renews every year), a bank balance of $155 and a handful of T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "Waiting to Play For You, Waiting to Sing For You." The building they had their eye on for a repository is now the Ferguson Brewing Company.

And, stacked on shelves in their respective bungalows, they have a quarter of a million records nobody seems to want — or care about.

"The archive is a pipe dream," opines Tim Brooks of the ASRC. "Especially in the Internet age. Online you can find anything you want. You have to have something rare to get people to look at it."

Brooks comes by his skepticism honestly. He has met too many collectors with similar dreams, including a man in Pennsylvania who has been trying for five years to find someone interested in his collection of every song that was ever featured on the long-running radio (and later TV) program Your Hit Parade.

"He has the records that are most common in the first place," Brooks explains. "It's not special just because he has them all in one place. No one will want to pay for it. It's sad. The man put a great, great deal of his life into assembling that collection. It's sad no one wants to reward him for all that work."

Sounds a lot like the Ferguson trio's collection, which Tussey describes as "a core sample of everything in America."

Tussey owns the world's largest collection of Vernon Dalhart records. Dalhart was the first country & Western star — his recording of "The Wreck of the Old 97" with "The Prisoner's Song" on the flip side was the genre's first million-selling record — though his reputation was eclipsed by many of the artists who followed him, including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.

When Jack Palmer, Dalhart's biographer, was dying, he offered to bequeath his collection of Dalhart records to the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has a large archive of folk and country & Western music. Tussey says the university turned him down.

Steve Weiss, curator of the Southern Folklife Collection, says Palmer decided not to donate the collection. "We were pursuing it," Weiss says. "Dalhart is a central figure in the early history of country music. But Jack was concerned that we already had a lot of what he had. We take 78 rpm records all the time."

Whatever the case, Palmer died soon after, and Tussey bought the collection, adding it to his own already considerable stash of Dalhart. ("My mission is to make Dalhart a household name," he declares. "It's a cause that burns in our breasts," agrees Carell, who happens to have the world's second-largest collection of Dalhart records and has written a scholarly essay — as yet unpublished — about his importance.)

Tussey's Dalhart collection rings his living room. That's due in part to the fact that Dalhart's oeuvre is vast and Tussey's inventory remarkably thorough, but also to the fact that unlike LPs, which accommodated roughly 30 minutes of recorded sound per side, a single 78 could hold, at most, five minutes per side. So a single album composed of 78s contains up to a dozen records and can weigh as much as ten pounds. ("The albums are really just books with the pages replaced by shellac," observes Vintage Vinyl's Lew Prince.) Cylinders, which can't be stacked or shelved, hog even more space and must be stored in a climate-controlled environment. And someone has to pay for it.

"It's hard to sustain and very challenging," says Sam Brylawski, the Library of Congress and UCSB curator. "[The archives] aren't running themselves. You're always fighting to raise money and pay the staff. The National Endowment for the Humanities gives out preservation grants, but those are shrinking every year. Preserving our heritage is a big challenge."

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