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Displays of Affection
An autumn road trip to idiosyncratic museums
Writer: Joshua Schriftman
An outhouse, a lily, and an old wooden shack that houses the reliquary of a dead star of silent Westerns; an assemblage of all things Lucy and Desi; a narrow building crowded with calliopes, carnival noise and nickelodeons. I discovered these wondrous sites and their zealous keepers as I traveled in search of our most remarkable local museums.
Before I go further, I should probably qualify what I mean by "remarkable." Pittsburgh, of course, has many remarkable museums. The Carnegie museums, for instance, would be a perfect place to start -- if by "remarkable," I meant "beautiful," "cultured," "educational" or any of a number of other perfectly respectable adjectives. Instead, I'm thinking more along the lines of "unusual."
My main source of guidance on this journey was Roadside America (roadsideamerica.com). Ken Smith, one of Roadside's founders, accurately explains his service as "the most insanely comprehensive guide to the most insanely weird stuff you can see across the country." He also explained to me that when the roadside gig started back in '85, there was no information available on the local and the weird. Chambers of Commerce would lie and deny the existence of the local eight-legged pig farm ("although we knew damn well it was there," added Ken). Now, though, through the efforts of Roadside and other aficionados of odd, hacks and amateurs like me can have just a little more access to these less mainstream destinations.
On the Trail of Tom Mix
Armed with printouts from Roadside America and a handful of other local guides, I set out on a short road trip with an old friend to try to encounter some of these remarkable spots. The first place we visited was just such a gem of fringe Americana: The Tom Mix Comes Home Museum, built at the site of Mix's early childhood home in Driftwood, Pa. Tom Mix himself was a cowboy. Some enthusiasts, such as Ray Flaugh, owner and curator of the museum, might even say he was the original cowboy. He starred in more than 300 silent Westerns and rounded up his own Wild West circus that toured internationally. However, his humble beginnings seven miles west of Driftwood would never foreshadow his great fate.
So humble were Mix's beginnings that there's not even a sign indicating where one ought to turn off of Highway 555 to find them; my travel companion and I had to backtrack twice to get there. When we finally arrived, though, we knew immediately that our trip had been worth it. The first thing we spotted, in a small field next to a creek, was the legendary Outhouse of Tom Mix. Accompanied by an explanatory plaque, it resided next to the Lily of Tom Mix, the Bell of Tom Mix, and Tom Mix Creek. The Outhouse of Tom Mix actually turned out to be an historically accurate reconstruction of an outhouse built atop the actual Tom Mix Crap-Hole, but the effect was the same. Adding to the effect, there was nothing reconstructed at all about the sunken, ruined foundation of his childhood home nearby.
If that outhouse and the grassy hole in the ground next to it didn't give you a feel for this lost American star, though, you could still go inside the museum proper and, for a small fee, receive a tour from Ray Flaugh himself. His somewhat rehearsed tour was accented by moments of surprising and unexpected passion as he showed us everything from Tom Mix penny arcades and board games to circus posters, cigar-box labels and Tom Mix comics; he pointed out Tom Mix on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and a Tom Miks [sic] cinema advertisement from India; we saw a poster depicting Tom Mix and Pancho Villa, books written about Tom Mix (one entitled Tom Mix Died for Your Sins), and so very many pictures of Tom Mix. One picture had Tom Mix standing next to John Wayne -- "an imitator," Flaugh explained. "Everyone wanted to imitate Tom Mix."
Apparently, however, the days of the Mix museum are coming to a close. Once there was an annual Tom Mix Round Up, where folks would dress up and theatrically wed and hang each other. Once, you could purchase a small part of the land where one day would stand a monument. (Ronald Reagan, visionary that he was, did just that and you can still read the praise-laden letter he wrote to Flaugh to accompany his $100 contribution.)
After the tour, the old fanatic told us that he put together the museum because he feels uniquely lucky to be a part of America, and he wanted to preserve a piece of his country's great past for others to enjoy. As he candidly spoke with us, his passion never faded, but his focus did. He started telling war stories from Korea, explaining the complexities of war, and discussing the moral decay of soldiers in strange lands. My advice is to get out there and see this museum while you still can.
I Love Lucy (more than you know)
It's hard to explain the flickering passion in Ray Flaugh's eyes. Walter Benjamin, the early 20th-century German-Jewish scholar, wrote of collectors that "One has only to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired." It was that magical moment of transportation that Flaugh seemed to use as the foundation for his museum, and that magic was evident in the next museum we saw: the inimitable Lucy and Desi Museum, in Lucille Ball's hometown of Jamestown, N.Y.
As you enter Jamestown on Route 40 just east of Erie, a sign welcomes you to the town and informs you of its celebrated progeny, in case you didn't already know. Additional signs will point you toward the downtown location of the museum. There the curator and director, Ric Wyman, was kind enough to come meet us and show us around after hours. Not far into his talk it became clear that this man, who moved to Jamestown "for the love of Lucy," was another man who saw an inspired past through the objects of his adoration.
Wyman showed us around the small museum with pure enthusiasm. We walked among images of silent Lucy miming Harpo, sickened Lucy with her cheeks puffed out with chocolate, irate Lucy stomping grapes, and drunk Lucy selling Vitameatavegamin. Wyman showed us an original Desi Arnaz painting as he told us about Desi's flight from Cuba during the Batista revolution, and we learned that Lucy's favorite flowers were lilacs. Wyman explained that the seasonal theme for the museum was fashion, so we saw displayed the burlap sack dress (the "Paris Original") draped over the body of a Lucy mannequin, and a portfolio containing pages and pages of fashion designs for Lucy from her best designers. Honestly, my eyes glazed over a bit as we flipped through the portfolio, but it was still entertaining to see Wyman get so excited.
After a little while, I started to remember my own childhood love for the show, discovered as it was on school-day mornings when tests and unfinished homework kept me home in bed feigning tummy aches. I shared my favorite episodes with Wyman as he explained to me that this was the first show to be filmed simultaneously with multiple cameras. I recalled Desi's role in Oscar Hijuelos' Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love, and Wyman told stories about Desi and Lucy acting in front of live audiences, which was something TV studios had never done before. His enthusiasm was infectious; we bantered about Lucy and Desi for some time.
After I left the museum I felt a little dizzy with all I'd just learned from Wyman and his museum. I felt like I'd gotten a chance to glimpse that inspired past the way he must see it as he gazes upon his own collected relics.
Daydream on Kruger Street
The Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum in Wheeling, W.V., was our first noteworthy stop the next morning. The museum is huge, one of the largest of its kind, and it houses room after room of toys. Almost every wall in the building is lined with glass-cased shelves, and each shelf is filled with some manner of toy or train. It is a moment of America's childhood frozen under glass, an expanse of Tyco butterflies and Marx moths pinned and preserved for posterity -- a scene both exhilarating and spooky.
The museum itself is set in an old elementary schoolhouse that was bought by one of the owners and the curator of the museum, Allan Miller, and two rooms in the spacious museum house nothing but mammoth model-train layouts. These little cities had three separate trains running on separate tracks with buttons to push to make lights come on and flags go up. The town around the tracks had trees, grass, hills, cars and folks just hanging out at the store and the cafés. You could lose yourself in there for hours. Impressively, or perhaps disturbingly, Miller's not only the part-owner and curator of the museum, but also the guy who built the little train cities.
It struck me that the schoolhouse setting for the museum was simply terrific -- how better to offset the memories of the interminably tedious hours we spent in grammar school than to line the walls of the schoolhouse with toys?
At one point on our tour, Miller pointed out an old '70s-style model house that was made as an exact replica of the Brady Bunch household, but without the Brady name. That way, he explained, there were no royalties to pay. Elsewhere in the 24,000-square-foot schoolhouse, in a room full of dolls, he pointed out Sindy, a direct copy of Barbie that sold successfully in England for some years, but then failed to sell at all in America when Marx Toys tried to bring her back across the Atlantic.
In addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of his beloved toys, he also had a penchant for social analysis. He pointed out a small international troupe of metallic two-dimensional soldiers from 1938 that were meant to be used as BB gun targets. He explained that each soldier in the set had a different point value that was determined by its nationality, and that even though America hadn't entered the war yet, you could still get a feeling for the national spirit from the high point values attached to the Germans.
It's hard not to start imagining how the points on the Bush-era soldiers would add up, but Miller would be the first to point out that we just don't make toys like that any more. Our toys these days, he told us as we wandered from the Combat Room to the Western Room, are safe first and interesting later. They come with the stories that tell you what they can do. The old toys weren't "scripted" that way, he said; they required imagination.
Another room featured an entire wall full of Hot Wheels cars. My travel companion immediately ran over to the wall and started pointing out the different cars that he'd owned as a child. Miller smiled and said that this was what he loved about running the museum -- that everyone who comes in finds something that takes them back to their childhood.
Miller told us that for as long as he could remember, he'd been habitually collecting toys. Then one day his habit brought his collection to the point where investing in its transformation into a museum only made sense
Walter Benjamin also wrote that the collector has "a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional utilitarian value," but rather the collector "studies and loves them as the scene, the stage of their fate." Sure, the toys are great to look at and play with, but what really makes them special is much more than what they can do. It is that they have been captured, pinned down, named and immortalized.
The toy museum was to be the last stop on our magical museum tour, but I felt that I hadn't yet grasped what was really going on in a lot of these remarkable places. Mix's unexpected passion and history, Lucy's love and dedication, and the limitless learning of the toys each gave me a window into a phenomenon about which I felt I still needed to know more. So a couple weeks after I'd returned, I ventured out to one final destination.
I wasn't certain if this location would exactly qualify for the category of "museum," but evidence suggested that either way my trip would be rewarding. I knew, for instance, that once I was there I would find more than 4,200 relics brought together in the single largest collection of its kind -- the largest outside of the Vatican, that is.
The location was St. Anthony's Chapel, and the trip took me only as far as the Troy Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I was excited to explore the impressive-looking chapel, but the next tour didn't start until 2, so I walked across the street to my secondary destination in the area, the chapel's museum.
The museum commemorated Father Suitbert Mollinger, who was the force behind the creation of St. Anthony's and the acquisition of its legion of relics. There were no guides available, but a quick walk around provided me with a working background of the Chapel's history. Apparently Mollinger was independently wealthy, and throughout and after the construction of his chapel, he traveled extensively to collect as many relics as he could. Due to some unfortunate nationalist movements in 19th-century Germany and Italy, thousands of relics had been exiled from their monastic homes into pawnshops or private collections. Mollinger then bought up each piece he found, and he gave them all a new home in the chapel he had built for that purpose.
Curiously, the museum also housed a collection of ancient crutches and canes: big ones, small ones, well-wrought hardwood ones, and cheap, flimsy-looking ones. All of them were old, and, according to their attendant plaque, all of them had been abandoned in the chapel. Not only was Mollinger a collector of relics, but he was also a faith healer and, apparently, a medicinal healer. The museum also included an odd poster advertising Father Mollinger's Famous Herb Tablets, which "will correct every condition due to constipation and sluggish liver." Sadly finding no further explanation of this, I ventured back across the street to the chapel to wait for the tour to begin.
When I walked in, the décor was omnipresent and overwhelming. Every inch of the church seemed to have been carefully considered, from the decorated ceiling and the stained-glass windows to the vividly painted life-size Stations of the Cross that surrounded the pews.
Now, I've always had a peculiar relationship with Catholicism. My lineage is half-Jewish and half-Catholic, and I wasn't particularly raised in either faith. As I sat on one of the pews amidst the stations to wait for a tour to begin, I felt suspended in a mixture of claustrophobia and awe. Carved figures of Christ bled and suffered all around me as parishioners prayed nearby. I looked around nervously, feeling kind of badly about Christ having died for my sins and waiting for someone to ask me to leave, but no one did.
Toward the front of the chapel, past big visible waves of heat rising off the banks of white candles, brass reliquaries and monstrances lined the walls and crowned the altar. Beneath those ornaments, the tour eventually started up. I shook off my paranoid introspection and jointed the small crowd.
The tour covered all aspects of the chapel, but concentrated on the relics. One altar to the left of the nave alone contained 750 relics, while thousands of others were carefully encased in glass and walnut, and hung upon the walls. These relics could be anything from a bone fragment or a hair to a thread from a veil or a toenail. Skulls of saints resided on either side of the nave, and the entire skeletal remains of St. Demetrius were stowed beneath the tabernacle altar.
Our tour guide, Bill Evans, told us that the chapel contained no fewer than eight relics from the Old Testament prophets, and three relics from each of the Magi. It was also home to relics from St. John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, St. Philomena (for whom, in case anyone was wondering, my grandmother is named), and countless others.
There were even two relics from Mary herself, and a stunning 21 fragments from the cross upon which Christ died. Evans identified those cross splinters, along with bits of the crown of thorns and a thread from the dressing that wrapped the body of Christ, as some of the most significant relics in the collection. If all of this is sounding kind of unreal to you, then you might well understand how I felt, standing there and being told I was surrounded by such things. I mean, who knew I could see all this, and then visit the Penn Brewery all in one afternoon?
As overwhelming as it all was, none of these relics were in and of themselves so much to look at. They were generally pretty microscopic, but the believers at St. Anthony's all took it on faith from high church officials that based on the evidence available, the relics are exactly what they purport to be. Our tour guide explained these matters of authenticity to us, and then he started discussing some of the lives of the saints depicted in the chapel.
Now, Evans isn't a man of the cloth himself; he is, however, a man with a fanatical interest in the lives of the saints. He told us about the real George, the one who probably had brown skin before he was adopted by the British; he told us in detail about St. Macarius, the fourth-century Bishop of Jerusalem. He told us the story of Helena finding the cross upon which Christ had died and he told us about her son St. Constantine, the Christian emperor. He told us about St. Mauritius and the 6,600 martyrs of the Theban legion who refused to fight.
He kept on telling us stories, as I started looking around at the crowd's reactions. Unsurprisingly, some people were fidgeting and wandering off, or looking around at other people and jotting down notes about the crowd's reaction. Other people, however, listened intently as though they were hearing their favorite old stories told again with style and grace. Clearly Evans knew his business.
After his talk ended, I approached him and asked about his interest in the saints. He looked a little confused, as though he didn't understand what there was to explain. He told me that they interested him because of their love for God and their willingness to give everything up to God. I wanted to ask him more questions, but I wasn't sure how to approach his -- or Father Mollinger's -- obsession with the lives and relics of the saints without treading uncomfortably close to insulting his beliefs, without pulling his zeal out of a private realm of religiosity and into the public realm of social science.
The more I think about it, though, the more I think there might not have been anything else to ask. The occasional sociologist writes about collecting in religious or spiritual terms because collecting really is like a religious activity -- how far is the distance between a curate and a curator? Perhaps what I had seen at St. Anthony's was simply the least adorned form of collecting -- the most naked museum, wherein the curator is culturally allowed to say that what's on display is truly sacred. Elsewhere, you can see the reverence in the curators' eyes, but if they were to speak it, they would just be inviting ridicule.
"Ownership," wrote Benjamin, contemplating this hallowed connection between the collector and the collected, "is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in [the collector]; it is he who lives in them." For my part, it's more than a piece of hair, an old burlap sack, or a reconstructed outhouse that makes a collection work. It comes down to that burst of life and excitement gained through the objects at hand; it's the rebirth of the collector that makes these museums, reliquaries, and collections fascinating.
My Kingdom for a Curator
Not every museum really worked. Sometimes I ran into collections that had potential, but I just couldn't find anyone to show me how to grasp it. The Degenhart Glass & Paperweight Museum in Cambridge, Ohio, was like this, as was Dan Hardesty's Wild West Museum in Franklin, Pa. Both museums seemed interesting, but without a passionate guide, they may as well have been empty.
Hardesty's Wild West Museum particularly left me wanting more. After I entered through the consignment shop downstairs, the dark displays offered stirrups, lariats, peace pipes and aging currency from the Wild West, all amidst the suggestive scent of mildew and saddles. Sheets of paper telling the histories of Annie Oakley and Bill Cody hung framed on the wall, while a mysterious copy of Sammy Davis Jr.'s Why Me? sat silently under glass.
But you should know that I've only splashed on the surface of a sea of noteworthy nearby museums. To name just a very few:
Â· The Arden Trolley Museum in Washington, Pa.
Â· The Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, Pa.
Â· The Zippo/Case Museum in Bradford, Pa.
Â· The Marx Toy Museum in Moundsville, W.V.
Â· The Larry Auman TV Museum and the Warther Carving and Button House (where you can see a plier tree made of 511 working pliers) all in Dover, Ohio.
If you're feeling really motivated, you could even go a little farther and check out Cleveland's Accordion Museum, or the Living Bible Wax Museum in Mansfield, Ohio, where I hear you can see exactly what those boils on Job's face must have looked like.