LOWER TOWNSHIP, N.J. - They began with little things. A couple of rusty old train lanterns, some farm implements, a device called a "toe-toaster" that let its users brown slices of bread in the kitchen fireplace and flip them with their feet.

Eventually, their collectors' ardor wasn't satisfied by garage sales and flea markets and Patricia Anne "Annie" Salvatore and her husband, Joseph, began to scout "antique" buildings.

Their passion led to 26 acquisitions - including a blacksmith shed, carpentry shop, and carriage house - at what is now Cold Spring Village, a 30-acre living-history museum on Route 9 about three miles north of Cape May.

"These buildings are spectacular examples of the amazing history of this area, true treasures that would have been lost to time if they had not been found, moved here, and preserved," said Annie Salvatore, who last month received the New Jersey Historical Commission's highest honor, the Richard J. Hughes Award for superior stewardship and lifetime dedication to historical preservation.

As a young couple in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they would travel from Englewood to Wildwood on weekends to visit Joseph Salvatore's mother. The collectors began to notice the area's many character-filled, workaday structures in need of salvation.

Where others saw falling-down eyesores, the Salvatores saw remnants of an eroding past. Asked to sell the nearly forgotten buildings, many owners gratefully donated them if the couple paid to have them moved.

The Salvatores spent up to $20,000 to transport each building as much as 20 miles to what became the village. Except for the Heislerville Store, from Cumberland County, all were salvaged from Cape May County.

Moving buildings in order to preserve them has become prohibitively expensive, said Annie Salvatore, Cold Spring's executive director. In the early days, some argued that transporting structures from their original sites ruined their historical integrity.

But without the aid of a flatbed truck, they would now be splinters in a landfill, she said.

In 2005, the Salvatores thought their collection was done. But when Coxe Hall Cottage, a whaling house from a washed-away section of the county known as New England Town, became available, they had to have it.

The circa 1691 structure, owned by the first governor of West Jersey, is believed to be the county's oldest existing building. Its acquisition was financed through donations from area banks.

Cold Spring Village, which opened to the public 30 years ago, is what a wayside Cape May County town might have looked like between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Annie Salvatore said.

A former nurse, she refers to the period from the 1790s to the 1840s as the "age of homespun," before railroads, industry, and the tourist trade changed the region's culture.

Along the village's winding, unpaved path are treasures first spied by Annie Salvatore's keen eye. The chili-pepper-red Spicer Leaming House, built about 1700, sat near the current Lobster House at the Cape May docks long before there even was a Cape May.

The bright-yellow Dennisville Inn, circa 1778, was a welcome stagecoach stop on the uncomfortable ride from Philadelphia to the seacoast.

The James Hathorn House, which serves as the village's country store, was built in two phases between 1722 and 1780 in Marmora. Nearby are smaller structures, such as the 1850 Ezra Norton House from Dias Creek, which serves as the bakery, and the David Taylor shop, an 1850s cobbler's shop from Dennisville, where basket-weaving demonstrations are now held.

Visitors can enter the buildings, see period artifacts, speak with costumed interpreters, and participate in interactive demonstrations.

It all started in 1969, when the Salvatores bought the George Hildreth farmhouse, built about 1840. It was first their summer home, but now they live there full time. Included in the purchase was an adjacent 35-acre plot that straddles Route 9 and Seashore Road, near where a 19th-century village of 40 houses once encircled a cold-water spring.

Within a few years, the Salvatores acquired the neighboring Cold Spring Grange No. 22, a two-story 1867 wood-frame building that housed a farming organization called the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. They envisioned it as a rehab center for Joseph Salvatore's orthopedic practice.

When that didn't pan out, the Salvatores decided the structure should house a museum of Cape May history. As they collected other buildings, they had them moved to their then-cleared land and opened them to the public. The village, where the old grange is now a quaint restaurant, is owned today by the nonprofit Friends of Historic Cold Spring Village.

Volunteers, including historians and historical architects, helped the couple research the buildings. The cost of restorations has varied, but the tiny Coxe Hall required about $20,000 in refurbishment, according to historical commission guidelines.

Though the Salvatores assumed much of the cost of creating it, Cold Spring Village - which has an assessed value of $3.5 million - has received operating and project grants from the state historical commission, the 1772 Foundation, and the Cape May County Culture and Heritage Commission.

It is open to the public May through September for a small admission fee and the rest of the year offers specialized education programs, including a distance-learning project that reaches elementary students nationwide, Annie Salvatore said.

"Ms. Salvatore's passion and commitment to New Jersey's history, preservation, her colleagues, and the public is beyond exceptional," said Sara Cureton, acting executive director of the New Jersey Historic Preservation Commission.

"She is a model and bastion who has significantly enhanced the public's knowledge of state history while making it possible for future generations to understand our rich state history."

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.