James Michael Gaynor ’73

James Michael Gaynor '73
James M. Gaynor passed away July 31, 2014. Jay was director of historic trades at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation at the time of his passing. He was one of the most caring people that you are likely to come across in life and was dearly loved by all family, friends and work colleagues. He had an insatiably inquiring mind and over his life, he developed probably the most comprehensive understanding that has ever been accomplished in the study of historic tools and trades. Perhaps the most singular thing about Jay was that he shared that knowledge so generously and freely with anyone who showed an interest, whether they be academics, working tradespeople or just interested amateurs or collectors. Not only was he hugely knowledgeable and willing to share, he was also immensely interested in whatever his colleagues and friends were doing, sustaining that level of interest throughout his career.

Jay was born in Elkton on Oct. 31, 1950. His parents, Michael (now deceased) and Frances Gaynor stayed in Elkton until 1957, when Jay’s father took up a job at the Woodrow Wilson Rehab Center in Fishersville, and they moved there. They lived at the Center until 1959 when they moved to Waynesboro into a house his parents had built and where his mother still lives.

He started school in Fishersville Elementary, moving on to Westwood Hills Elementary before going on to Kate Collins. He graduated from Waynesboro High School as class valedictorian. After two years at Davidson College, Davidson, N.C., he entered William and Mary College in Williamsburg where he received his bachelor’s degree in history with honors in 1973. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

He spent time during the summers of 1971 and 1972 doing architectural research for the Ohio Historical Society at the historical sites of Ohio Village and Zoar Village and in 1973 he became assistant curator at Ohio Village and in 1975 was appointed associate curator of history. It was during this period that he became more specifically interested in historic tools and trades.

In 1977 he was appointed director of the High Point Museum, High Point, N.C. In 1980 he and Joseph Hutchins formed the Jamestown Tool Company making high class english-style bronze woodworking planes. They only made around 50 of these beautifully-made tools all of which were finished to the highest degree with the exceptional attention to detail that was characteristic to Jay’s approach to anything he undertook.

In 1981, he was appointed Curator of Mechanical Arts at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and left High Point for Williamsburg where he lived for the remainder of his life. During his time as Curator, he worked to improve the collection at the Museum. By studying specific tools and technology, he advanced a whole new way of looking at objects based on the way they were made and the tools used rather than the style.

In 1994 he curated Colonial Williamsburg’s tremendously successful exhibit, “Tools, Working Wood in 18th Century America”, which ran from January 1994 through June 1995 in the DeWitt Wallace Gallery at Colonial Williamsburg, which brought together the best of many collections from both America and Britain. He edited the publication “Eighteenth-Century Woodworking Tools”, a collection of the papers presented at the symposium that accompanied the exhibit when he brought together leading historic tool experts from England and America. He co-authored, with Nancy Hagedorn, the book “Tools, Working Wood in Eighteenth Century America” which gives a lasting record of the exhibit and is a seminal reference work for anyone interested in this field.

In 2002 he was appointed director of historic trades and a consulting curator for mechanical arts, responsible for all historic trade shops and tradespeople at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He carried out his duties with great thoroughness and care whilst also managing to be fun, caring and a wonderful friend to them all. To everyone who was associated with him in Colonial Williamsburg, his passing is a huge loss that will leave an immense hole in their lives. As part of his duties he ran a number of symposia covering various trades, including the hugely popular Woodworking Symposium, that takes place in January of each year.

He has written and lectured extensively on historic tools and trades. He was a founding member of the Tools and Trades History Society in Britain. He served on the board and was president of the Early American Industries, continuing to serve on various committees after his term.

He has many interests besides the historical study of tools and trades including archery, he ran a tournament each year in Williamsburg, military history, particularly regarding World War II, amateur radio and model building. He took a huge interest in the activities of his nephews and the children and grandchildren of his friends and loved to spend time in England, pursuing the activities of many like-minded friends.

When growing up in Waynesboro, he was an active member of the Westminster Presbyterian Church and after moving to Williamsburg was a member of the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church.

He is survived by his mother, Frances; his brother, Walter; sister-in-law, Malina; nephews Clay, wife, Becca and son, Reed Gaynor of Washington, D.C., Will Gaynor of Austin, Texas; his beloved friend, Jane Rees of Wellow, England; and many aunts, uncles and cousins.

Two memorial services will be at Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, Richmond Road, Williamsburg, on Friday Aug. 8 at 1 p.m. and at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Mount Vernon Road, Waynesboro, on Saturday Aug. 9 at noon. A reception will take place after each service in the churches.

Honorarium may be made to the Endowment Fund of the Early American Industries Association c/o Executive Director, PO Box 524, Hebron, MD 21830-0524, email: eaia1933@verizon.net or the Williamsburg Salvation Army, http://virginiasalvationarmy.org/williamsburgva/.