Unusual Midwestern Museums
You've got your art and history and such – these museums have everything else.
by Leigh Elmore
C.W. Parker Carousel Museum
Leavenworth, KS is known for a number of things: Its westward trail heritage, the historic home of the U.S. Army's Ft. Leavenworth, Midwest hospitality, and, oh yes, prisons, to name a few. But not many remember that Leavenworth once was the U.S. manufacturing center for carnival carousels.
Commemorative carousel horse at the C. W. Parker Carousel Museum, Leavenworth, KS (photos by Leigh Elmore)
"More carousels have been built in Leavenworth than in any other city in the world," declared Jerry Reinhardt, a docent of the C. W. Parker Carousel Museum, which has become the single largest tourist attraction in Leavenworth County since its opening in 2005.
The museum is dedicated to the legacy of "Colonel" C. W. Parker, a native of Abilene, who began making carousels in Leavenworth in 1910 and whose company continued well into the mid-20th century, first continued by his son, Paul Parker and finally, Carl Theel. The museum is located in a spacious modern building on the Missouri riverfront.
Parker was a visionary and completely taken by the technological advances of his day at the turn of the 20th century. He planned to build airplanes as well as carousels and was a tremendous self-promoter. His advertising materials showed his factory as a six-story affair with tall smokestacks, but it was never more than two. "But Parker built more carousels than anybody else," said Reinhardt. And during Parker's heyday he owned the four largest traveling carnival shows in the country, each one using a train 25 cars long.
C.W. Parker's Carousel No. 118 is the featured attraction at the museum and is one of the fastest moving in the country.
The museum has four operating carousels on display. The centerpiece and the one that people can still ride is simply named "No. 118" and is predominately yellow because that was parker's favorite color.
"It is one of the fastest revolving carousels in the country," Reinhardt said, and this writer can attest to that fact by having to hold on with two hands as we raced around and around to the music of an antique band organ. Each hand-carved wooden horse is accompanied by a plaque bearing the names of the benefactors who donated funds that particular horse's restoration. Atchison native Melissa Etheridge, the rock star, donated the money to restore the band organ.
No. 118 was originally built as a "road machine," according to Reinhardt, meaning that it was to be used by a traveling carnival and was made so a crew of four men could assemble and dis-assemble it in a few hours. Built in 1913, "It was pretty much of a wreck when we got it," Reinhardt said.
A detail of the aluminum horse known as Lillybell.
Reinhardt got involved with the Carousel Museum project because he is a wood carver and liked the challenge of re-creating the different expressions of the horses and other creatures that are ride-able on a carousel – rabbits, camels and unicorns, for example. "The tails are real horse hair," he noted.
Two hand-carved wooden horses that are part of the Primitive Carousel, believed to be one of the oldest existing carousels dating from the mid-1800s.
Other carousels on display include what museum officials believe is the oldest operating wooden carousel in the world, made a few years before the Civil War. The horse bodies of the Primitive Carousel are made from hollowed out logs with seven wooden attachments for legs, ears and tail. Two men would turn the contraption with hand cranks. It was last used in a Baltimore, MD city park in 1920. It is on permanent loan to the Parker Museum from the National Carousel Association.
On the second floor of the museum displays are arranged to tell the story of carousels in America, with historical background given on the major manufacturers.
"We've got the most beautiful carousels in the world in this country," Reinhardt said.
Four-year-old Abigail Gordon of Leavenworth enjoyed riding on
Carousel No. 118 on a recent outing with her father Robert Gordon.
The C. W. Parker Carousel Museum is operated by a dedicated team of volunteers, who make the facility available for private events. They give special attention to children's birthday parties, with a dedicated room devoted for them. A catering kitchen is also available. The carousel can be rented by the hour for any special event at the museum.
C. W. Parker Carousel Museum is located at 320 South Esplanade, Leavenworth, KS, www.firstcitymuseums.org.
St. Louis, MO
The first floor entry hall is a cacophony of kids' shouts and other noises as well as a feast for the eyes. (photos this page courtesy City Museum)
What opened in 1997 as one man's attempt to preserve the architectural history of downtown St. Louis has today morphed into what may be the single largest children's indoor/outdoor urban playground in the country. City Museum in St. Louis is a museum that adults can appreciate while their kids cavort in a variety of recreational and educational environments.
Housed in the 10-story former home of the International Shoe Co., located in the Washington Avenue Loft District, the sprawling 600,000 square foot (and growing) facility always seems to be packed with families and kids, kids, kids running just everywhere. Because everywhere you look there is something amazing to see.
The City Museum is the inspired vision of the late Bob Cassilly, who was concerned that the architectural gems of St. Louis were disappearing in the face of commercial development. He sought a place to put a slice of St. Louis's culture on display. And that's the museum part – cornices and doorways of classic old buildings are on display with many decorative elements. But Cassilly and his wife, Gail, also wanted to entertain. The classically trained sculptor set out to make a funhouse for young and old out of the unique, reclaimed objects found within the city's municipal borders.
A young girl lets loose on one of the many slides found at the City Museum.
Today, the museum accepts things from all over. "As we have grown we have had greater opportunities presented to us of stuff from outside St. Louis," says museum director Rick Erwin III. "If you have something cool you want to give us, I'm not going to say no just because it's not from St. Louis. Cool stuff is cool stuff."
Because the museum is constantly finding things and accepting donations, the space is always growing and changing.
The original part of the museum on the first floor is home to a life-size bowhead whale that visitors can walk through and view a large fish tank from the mezzanine or the always-popular "Puking Pig," a water feature. Also on the first floor are a number of crawlways that run across the ceiling, hiding above a sea of fiberglass insulation cut to give the impression of icicles. To get into these, a youngster can climb up a "slinky," which is an old refrigerating coil (donated by Anheuser-Busch), or through a tree house which leads into a giant hollowed out tree that leads to a cabin on the other side of the floor. And on and on …
Hold on - there are four floors, a mezzanine and a roof! Every level is packed with things to see and do.
So what else can you find at the City Museum? How about a sky-high jungle gym making use of two repurposed airplanes, two towering 10-story slides and numerous multi-floor slides, a rooftop Ferris wheel and a cantilevered school bus that juts out from the roof, subterranean caves, a pipe organ, hundreds of feet of tunnels that traverse from floor to floor, an aquarium, ball pits, a shoe lace factory, a circus arts facility, restaurants, and even a bar, because kids have parents.
Part of the outdoor kids recreation constructions at the City Museum in St. Louis.
Most of the materials used to build the museum, including salvaged bridges, old chimneys, construction cranes, and miles of tile are sourced locally, making the entire endeavor a massive recycling project.
Bob Cassilly died prematurely in 2011 while operating a forklift for another creative project he had envisioned: Cementland. Today his vision has been taken up by a host of dedicated artists and volunteers known as the Cassilly Crew.
A sign outside reads: "The City Museum is full of creativity, adventure, and learning … and is fraught with DANGER. Enter at your own risk!"
Already visited? If you go back you'll find something new.
City Museum, 750 N. 16th St., St. Louis, MO, www.citymuseum.org
Odd, odder, oddest?
Some very unique museums in the Midwest
Museum of the Odd - Lawrence, KS
Randy "Honey Boy" Walker has filled his home "Museum of the Odd" with his collections, which include more than 350 sock monkeys and Elvis Presley artifacts that include his hair, a toenail and the piece of a bedsheet slept on by The King.
Other items of note include his collection of antique circus freak trading cards, ashtrays and lamps made of animal limbs, photographs of corpses in their coffins, and a hunk of elephant dung painted and shaped to resemble Adolf Hitler, not to mention a collection of cow hairballs.
Museum of the Odd, 1012 New York St., Lawrence, KS Call for an appointment at 785-843-8750 Find it on Facebook.
Leila's Hair Museum - Independence, MO
Hair. We grow it. We style it. We cut it. We long for it if we don't have enough of it. But there's just one woman in the world that runs a museum in honor of it. In 1956, the budding hairdresser, Leila Cohoon, purchased a 6"x6" frame enclosing a small wreath of human hair from a Kansas City antique shop. Little did she know that object would change her life.
After years of collecting these unusual works of art, in 1986 Cohoon opened her first museum in a small room in the front of her cosmetology school. Today, Leila's Hair Museum is located in its own building and is considered the only hair museum in the world, boasting more than 600 hair wreaths and at least 2,000 pieces of jewelry made of human hair as memorials and keepsakes for loved ones.
Leila's Hair Museum, 1333 S. Noland Rd., Independence, MO 816-833-2955. Find it on Facebook.
Glore Psychiatric Museum - St. Joseph, MO
Within a complex of city-operated museums in St. Joseph, the Glore Psychiatric Museum is the most unique and often unsettling. While it chronicles the 130-year history of the state mental hospital, known harshly as the "State Lunatic Asylum No. 2" in its earlier days, it exhibits and traces the development of psychiatric treatment in America.
Artifacts of treatment regimes are displayed along with the creations of many patients, which give a glimpse into the minds of those who suffered from mental illnesses.
Glore Psychiatric Museum, 3406 Frederick Ave., St. Joseph, MO, 800-530-8866, stjosephmuseum.org
Elvis Barbershop Museum - Fort Smith, AR
Diehard fans will always remember March 25, 1958 as the date that Elvis Presley got his first Army "buzz cut." Of course, the site of that historic occurrence is preserved for posterity at the Camp Chaffee Barbershop, where Elvis reported for active duty.
The widow of the barber who cut Elvis' hair, James Petersen, reportedly still has the pair of clippers that were used, and that another barber from the area still owns the chair he sat in. (Why they are not in the museum is a mystery.) Photographs of Elvis during his stay at Camp Chaffee are also on display.
The barracks-like military building has been restored over the years so that it now looks just like it did on the day that Elvis walked through its doors and when his sideburns did not walk out with him.
Elvis Barbershop Museum, 7020 Taylor Ave., Fort Smith, AR, www.fortsmith.org
Matchstick Marvels - Gladbrook, IA
Iowa craftsman Patrick Acton used over five million wooden matchsticks to create at least 65 detailed models of sculptures, both large and small, representing famous buildings, working machines and realistic sculptures. These include a 13-foot long model of the battleship USS Iowa and a 12-foot model of the U.S. Capitol.
Acton's creations are also included in several other museums around the country, including Ripley's Believe It or Not museums on four continents. However, his most intricate designs are on display here.
Matchstick Marvels Tourist Center, 319 2nd St., Gladbrook, IA, 641-473-2410
National Museum of Roller Skating - Lincoln, NE
Every hobby must have its museum and if roller-skating is your thing, then better glide on up to Lincoln, NE where you can immerse yourself in the National Museum of Roller Skating. Exhibits feature the people and artifacts that have contributed to skating history, as well as see how roller skating wheels evolved over the years. Of course, there is an entire section devoted to Roller Derby, which evolved from more an endurance marathon sport in the 1930s to the extreme body contact sport we know today.
National Museum of Roller Skating, 4730 South St., Lincoln, NE, 402-483-7551,
Museum of Osteology - Oklahoma City, OK
Everybody loves looking at skeletons, right? Especially kids. The Museum of Osteology is a unique educational experience. Focusing on the form and function of the skeletal system, this 7,000 square ft. museum displays hundreds of skulls and skeletons from all corners of the world.
Exhibits include adaptation, locomotion, classification and diversity of the vertebrate kingdom. The Museum of Osteology is the first of its kind in America, with a second location now open in Orlando, FL.
Museum of Osteology, 10301 South Sunnylane Rd., Oklahoma City, OK, 405-814-0006, www.museumofosteology.org
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at email@example.com.
Feature Stories Archive past articles