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History in Your Backyard: Museum Celebrating 25th Anniversary

Almost every Baby Boomer has a story – or at least knows someone very close with the story – of their mother throwing away their baseball card collection after they moved out as young adults. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays’ baseball cards, worth hundreds of dollars, out with the trash.

Mike Canaris’ baseball story is Mantle-adjacent.

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His father, a former semi-pro baseball player who grew up in Hazleton, Pa., once met Babe Ruth and got a ball autographed. He kept the autograph on display on his bureau … until he was drafted to go to World War II.

“And his mother, being an old Italian woman, said, ‘What’s a grown man need with a baseball?,’” Canaris said. “She threw it the freak away.”

You can almost hear the chills Canaris gets from telling the story over the phone. Canaris, a Deptford resident, is a history buff and he owns something that’s a lot older and much more meaningful than a Babe Ruth signed baseball.

Among his extensive Civil War artifacts collection is a Union uniform hat worn by his great-great-grandfather, Frederick Denelsbeck, who served as a private in the New Jersey 24th infantry. It was the first item he acquired, as a boy, from his great grandmother.

Photo provided by Mike Canaris
The hat worn by Private Frederick Denelsbeck, who served in the New Jersey 24th Infantry in the Civil War. Denelsbeck’s great-great-grandson Mike Canaris received the hate from his great-grandmother and it started his Civil War collection, which includes hundreds of pieces currently on display at The Museum of American History at Deptford, N.J. (Photo provided by MIKE CANARIS)

“When I was a kid we used to visit her and she had his entire Civil War uniform hanging on a hanger behind a closet door,” Canaris said. “I was lucky to get that hat when I was alive. I pestered her for the hat until she gave it to me. She kept saying to me, ‘When I die, when I die,’ and I knew at 12 years old that if I didn’t get it when she was living I wasn’t going to get it when she was dead. So she gave it to me.”

More than a half century later, Canaris figures he has at least a few hundred Civil War pieces in his extensive collection, a lot of it on display until the end of the month at The Museum of American History at Deptford, N.J. The museum’s Civil War exhibit, which first went on display the first weekend of August, includes bayonets, bullets, swords and more.

Patrick O’Hare Barrows, a Rowan University history major and intern at the museum, says the 50-caliber Smith Carbine rifle is probably his favorite in the collection.

“Whenever I’d think of 50-caliber I’d think of a modern rifle, big, huge,” Barrows said. “It’s kind of cool that technology, the capability to use a 50-caliber round, existed back during the Civil War.”

Ryan Lawrence, The Sun
Among the Civil War collection currently on display at The Museum of American History at Deptford, N.J. this month. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

Beyond the current Civil War exhibit, there’s quite a lot to take in at the museum, which has been open for a little more than a year at its Andaloro Way location. The two-story farmhouse also includes fossils from throughout all periods of history, pre-Columbian artifacts, antique tools and equipment, and local pieces (farm equipment, glass ceramic).

The museum is celebrating its 25th anniversary in November. Andaloro Farms is its third location after calling Glassboro and Berlin home.

“When I was little, when I was 8, I decided to open a museum,” said curator Jeffrey Norcross said. “I told everyone and anyone of any importance, told my preacher, my Sunday school teacher, my grandmom. They said ‘Oh, OK.’ It took 37 years.”

Norcross chuckled. Like Canaris, his love of history began as a boy and never went away.

“I guess I like artifacts,” Norcross said. “When I was a little boy, my great grandfather had a brickyard in Maple Shade and I used to dig there. I used to find fossils. It was kind of nice, when you’re 8 and you’re getting all of this free stuff. (Now) I enjoy working with young folks, we get a lot of interns for Rowan University. It’s great, it keeps you young, They have great enthusiasm.”

Norcross began excavating after going to college at the University of West Florida and Central Florida. Canaris, a former federal agent, finds the majority of his own pieces in Gettysburg, Pa., (he’s friendly with a bed & breakfast owner) and a friend’s “enormous property, hundreds and hundreds of acres of farmland” in Rapidan, Va.

“When I dig something out of the ground like a Civil War bullet, bayonets, when I pick that up, the last person to have that was the person that dropped it,” Canaris said. “I mean you’re talking about holding history right in your hand.”

Ryan Lawrence, The Sun
Visitor Gene Hall talks with museum intern and Rowan University student Patrick O’Hare Barrows at The Museum of American History at Deptford, N.J. (RYAN LAWRENCE, The Sun)

The Museum of American History at Deptford, N.J. is open Thursday-through-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. During last year’s Deptford Township Fall Festival, also held on the Andaloro Farms property, Norcross said he had more than 800 visitors.

Visit southjerseymuseum.org for more information about the museum and its current Civil War exhibit.

RYAN LAWRENCE
RYAN LAWRENCE
Ryan is a veteran journalist of 20 years. He’s worked at the Courier-Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Delaware County Daily Times, primarily as a sportswriter, and is currently a sports editor at Newspaper Media Group and an adjunct journalism instructor at Rowan University.
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