Unofficial NCSHP Historian Transforms Hobby into Traveling Exhibit

Two men standing in room full of framed SHP artifacts.
Friday, July 12, 2019 - 11:53am

When Jim Thomas started collecting law enforcement patches when he was 21-years-old, little did he know that a handful of patches would grow to be one of the most comprehensive collections of NC State Highway Patrol history that exists today.

According to Thomas, his time as a law enforcement officer introduced him to the hobby of patch collecting. Patch collecting is a common practice among members of law enforcement, emergency management and public safety communities. Many individuals collect as many patches or other artifacts like challenge coins, badges or similar memorabilia from various law enforcement, federal or public service agencies (there are even patches for postal service members) that they can. 

Through this hobby, Thomas was introduced to many North Carolina patrol members in addition to those he partnered with while on duty. He acquired more patches that dated back to the early 1930s and eventually expanded his collection to include badges, which are even harder for a collector to find. 

As his collection of patches and badges grew, Thomas frequently visited schools to talk about law enforcement and use the items to spark conversations. Thomas said his passion spiraled from there, leading to a 40-year journey to reach where he is today. 

Upon retirement, Thomas was able to devote more time to his history hobby while simultaneously running an antique shop with his wife. When not working in the shop, he was scouring eBay, attending auctions or setting up meetings to chat with retired troopers.

“I was fascinated with patrol history and wanted to hear about their experiences,” Thomas said.

Over the years, Thomas carefully cultivated his collection, even travelling as far as California to purchase a hard-to-come-by item. What started as a shadow box with a timeline of NCSHP patches and badges transformed into framed photographs, uniforms, license plates and even an engraved pocket watch from a former commander. Each item in Thomas’ “mobile museum” is meticulously arranged and labeled. If you ask, Thomas is always happy to dive into the history of any item and add personal anecdotes on how he acquired it.

One of the most interesting items Thomas has in his collection is also one of the most fragile. He has the first patrol regulations manual from 1929. When he first received it, Thomas says he got a kick out of some of the outdated rules and regulations from the patrol’s first year like, patrolmen had to seek permission from their commander to get married and that no patrolman should hide behind trees or buildings to catch violators. 

Thomas has partnered with NCSHP on multiple occasions, bringing his artifacts to display at events and celebrations. Most recently, Thomas set up an entire display inside the State Capitol rotunda for the patrol’s 90th Anniversary Celebration.

Besides his hobby, Thomas has another personal connection to the highway patrol—his son is a trooper. Sergeant J. M. Thomas is currently a member of Troop D. The elder Thomas jokes that he should have known his son would grow up to join the patrol after being immersed in it for most of his life. 

Thomas hopes that one day all the artifacts in his collection will find a home in a museum or historic site and be used to honor the patrol’s legacy within the state. He plans to continue to grow his collection and partner with NCSHP for events as long as he can.

Kirsten Barber