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Discover Mid-America — August 2006

From Elvis to Tom Mix to Prairie Dogs to Hair and More...

by Ken Weyand

Although the heyday of independent “roadside museums” may be over, their spirit lives on. Often overlooked by travelers speeding by on the interstates, a number of unique and unusual museums can be found throughout Mid-America.


The sod house was constructed inside the Fick Fossil Museum in 1975 by the local FFA chapter. (photo courtesy of Fick Fossil Museum)

Usually located in small towns or along two-lane highways, independent museums can also be discovered tucked away in the hearts of cities. An occasional storefront in a neighborhood shopping area will house historical displays. Portions of shops and restaurants frequently have old photos and other artifacts that are there to attract customers, but also help preserve history and make for entertaining browsing.

Not always promoted by chamber of commerce advertising, the typical independent museum frequently began as an entrepreneurial effort by a collector. Not a few of the early-day museum efforts were thinly disguised profit centers for hucksters of cheap souvenirs, their “museums” often seen as “tourist traps.” During the early 20th century, Americans discovered the road trip, giving travel entrepreneurs in the “trinket trade” a ready market.

While most of the “tourist traps” are gone, many lesser-known museums contain unique items that make a visit worth the time and admission price. Following are a few you may want to add to your list of travel destinations:

In Oakley
Kansas has been a fertile place for unusual museums, roadside and otherwise. At the intersection of I-70 and Highway 83, just north of Oakley in western Kansas, is Prairie Dog Town. Described by one writer as a “combination petting zoo and freak show,” Prairie Dog Town also features dozens of birds, snakes, bobcats, bison and “other critters,” many rescued as orphans. One of the last of the roadside museums featuring animal oddities, the museum is known for its billboards along I-70 touting the “8,000 pound prairie dog.”

Visitors to Prairie Dog Town are also treated to a six-legged steer, five-legged cow, and a two-headed calf. They have plenty of photo opportunities, including the numerous prairie dogs that have the run of the place.

Prairie Dog Town is open daily May through October. Admission is $6.95 for adults, $4.95 for children 11-15, and $3.95 for children 3-10. Call 785-672-3100.

Also in Oakley, at 700 W. 3rd Street, is the Fick Fossil and History Museum. Created by Earnest and Vi Fick, private collectors, the museum features some 11,000 fossilized shark teeth, a sod house, fossils of prehistoric fish and marine reptiles, folk art created from fossils and rocks, and more than 1,000 historical photographs of the area. The fossils and shark’s teeth were discovered locally, indicative that a vast sea once covered Kansas.


The mosasaur skull is the oldest documented specimen anywhere in the world. (photo courtesy of Fick Fossil Museum)

Janet Bean, museum director, said the prehistoric mosasaur skull, displayed at the museum, is the oldest museum specimen anywhere in the world. Fossils and shark teeth figure in the composition of several pieces of art, including a creation picture prepared by Vi Fick, and a depiction of a shark made up of more than 3,000 shark teeth gathered on the Kansas plains.

The museum, which shares space with the city’s library, is open year-round. Summer hours (Memorial Day to Labor Day) are 9-5 Mon.-Sat., and 2-4 Sundays. Winter hours are 9-noon and 1-5 Mon.-Sat. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. Call 785-672-4839 or visit www.discoveroakley.com.

Hair and more
One of the most unique museums in the world has to be Leila’s Hair Museum, at 1333 S. Noland Road in Independence, MO. The private museum, celebrating human hair as fine art, is owned and operated by Leila Cohoon, director of the Independence College of Cosmetology. It is the result of Cohoon’s nearly 40-year hobby of hair collecting, and features some 200 wreaths and more than 2,000 pieces of jewelry made from human hair. Some of Cohoon’s unique hair creations were made in the 1800s, including an 1853 floral tapestry made of hair from 156 members of the same family.

The Victorian Hairwork Society, devoted to hair art, is headquartered at the museum. Archived photos and press releases are on file, and a hair wreath by society members is on display.

Although using hair to make art is no longer in fashion the way it was in Victorian days, Cohoon sees hair collecting as a universal trait.

“We still have the habit today of saving hair,” Cohoon said. “When Baby gets his first haircut, Mother saves the hair. We don’t know why, we just put it in a book and that’s the end of it. But at least we still have the habit.”

The museum is a work in progress as Cohoon acquires hair jewelry from antique dealers, garage sales, auctions and individuals.

The Hair Museum is open 9 to 4 Tues.-Sat. Admission is $5 for adults. Children under 12 and seniors are $2.50. Call 816-833-2955.

A unique Kansas museum chronicling 140 years of telephone history is the Museum of Independent Telephony, 412 S. Campbell, in Abilene. When telephones first became popular in the U.S., independent companies sprang up to serve the growing customer base. At one time, as many as 6,000 such companies existed throughout rural America.

The museum contains more than a dozen interactive sites that demonstrate telephone history. Displays include a Wonderphone, Hush-a-Phone, an Aqua Phone and a “mother-in-law” phone.

The museum, which is open year-round, also tells the story of local entrepreneur C. L. Brown, whose Brown Telephone Company, chartered in 1902, was a predecessor of Sprint. Call 785-263-2681 or visit www.mitmuseum.com.

Missouri has its share of independent museums, large and small. One of the oldest is the Bushwhacker Museum in Nevada, MO. It occupies the city’s old stone jail, built in 1860 and used for exactly a century. The jail re-opened as a museum in 1965. Considered to be the oldest structure in Nevada, it was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

Vernon County had been the site of raids by John Brown and other “Jayhawkers” from Kansas in the 1850s, stirring bitter feelings among the county’s pro-slavery residents. When the Civil War broke out, Nevada came to be known as the “Bushwhacker Capital,” as Vernon County sent a cavalry regiment to the Confederate army.

On May 24, 1863, Bushwhackers fought a battle with a Federal militia on the Nevada Square. Two days later, the militia retaliated by burning the town. Within three months, the infamous “Order No. 11” authorized the burning of farm homes and barns throughout western Missouri. The Bushwhackers were scorned as outlaws, and many, including the James-Younger gang, continued as outlaws after the war.

The museum, operated by the Vernon County Historical Society, contains Civil War and Bushwhacker mementoes, old medical paraphernalia, tools, and other items relating to area history. The not-for-profit museum boasts that it has never taken a penny in government funds, but is supported entirely by its visitors and friends.

The museum is currently housed in the Nevada Public Library, 212 W. Walnut. The Old Jail Historic Site is located at 231 N. Main. Visitors are welcome daily May through September and weekends in October. Call 417-667-5841 or visit www.bushwhacker.org.

He has not left the building
People who believe Elvis is still among the living have a compatriot in Bill Beeny. His Elvis Is Alive Museum in Wright City, MO, certainly helps preserve the memory of the King, and may leave a few visitors scratching their heads.

Located just off I-70 at the Wright City (199) exit about 50 miles west of St. Louis, the museum got its start in 1981 as a café with a collection of ‘50s-era celebrity photos to help draw customers. Ten years later, Beeny said, it was dominated by Elvis lore.

Is Elvis alive? Beeny went from being a skeptic to a being a believer in the early 1990s. After museum visitors repeatedly asked him about the possibility that the funeral had been faked, Beeny conducted his own independent investigation. Now he is convinced Elvis was spirited away after doing undercover work to expose a mob drug ring, and another corpse was buried in his place.

In 1997, a lab on the East Coast tested the DNA of two tissue samples, one from Elvis in 1975 and the other from an autopsy of the body purported to be Elvis in 1977. John Herrington, in Web News Cleveland, reported at the time that the DNA test concluded that the tissue samples came from different people. This evidence, and more, is offered for all to see at the museum.

In an interview, Beeny said he had talked to an elderly aunt of Elvis at her home in Memphis, and she corroborated that Elvis had been spirited away to avoid more than 100 death threats due to his undercover work.

“The gentleman in the coffin was definitely not my nephew,” she had reported to Beeny.

The museum features a “Tomb room” with a replica of Elvis’ tombstone, and photos of “Elvis sightings” from true believers. A “Tape room” offers recordings of Elvis describing things that happened after his funeral. Another room details an FBI document linking Elvis with the Witness Protection Program.

Beeny, a licensed minister, has performed a few weddings at the museum. Occasionally an Elvis impersonator will be on hand to perform “Love Me Tender” for the bride and groom.

Visitors in recent years have noted that the museum has shrunk somewhat, with Beeny using part of the original space for other projects.

“One of our current projects is an Internet radio show devoted to Elvis,” Beeny said. “Recorded Elvis hits, interviews with Elvis, and a few Elvis impersonators are featured from midnight to 6 a.m. at www.mightystreamradio.com.”

The free museum is open 9-5 Mon.-Sat. Call 636-745-3154.

Airgun history
Sometimes a commercial enterprise can put together a notable museum as it seeks to celebrate its history. This is the case with the Daisy Airgun Museum at 202 W. Walnut in Rogers, AR.


This unique restored building houses the Daisy Air Gun Museum in Rogers, AR. (photo courtesy of the Daisy Air Gun Museum)

In 1960, the company’s corporate offices housed an impressive airgun collection. But in 2000, the collection became the basis for a full-scale museum. Staffed by Daisy retirees, it occupies a building in downtown Rogers built in the 1890s. The non-profit museum features an historical overview of airgun development since the 1700s, a presentation of Daisy history, and old packaging and advertising. A gift shop offers numerous collectibles and a full line of Daisy products.

Believe it or not, the Daisy company began life in 1886 as the Plymouth Iron Windmill Company, located in Plymouth, Michigan, near Detroit. Windmill sales were slow, and by 1888 the firm teetered on the brink of liquidation. Desperate to spur sales, the company began giving away air rifles to farmers as premiums. The farmers were more interested in the company’s air rifles than its windmills, and by 1890, the firm’s focus had switched to marketing airguns.

Testing an airgun on a shooting range, the company’s general manager, Lewis Cass Hough, had exclaimed, “It’s a daisy!” The name stuck. By the end of the year, the windmill company had produced 50,000 airguns, the majority being delivered to within 100 miles of the factory.

By 1903, Daisy had surged to the lead in airgun sales, outlasting 30 competitors. In that year it introduced the lever-action repeating rifle, which became the company’s mainstay. During the Depression years, Daisy kept business booming with advertising and innovating marketing, including a unique trade-in program.

Daisy was prohibited from manufacturing steel items during WW-II, but produced war essentials for other companies and built non-metal toys. Daisy VP and later president Cass Hough (son of the founder) served in the 8th Air Force. A decorated fighter pilot and test pilot, he was noted for breaking the sound barrier with a 43,000-foot test-dive in a P-38 Lightning fighter plane.


Early marketing material on display at the Daisy Air Gun Museum. (photo courtesy of the Daisy Air Gun Museum)

In 1958, the company moved from Michigan to Rogers, AR. Its modernized factory was opened ahead of schedule. A Shooting Education program for young people was established in 1963. A pneumatic airgun for adult shooters was introduced in 1972. In 1997, the company opted to use components from other manufacturers, and opened a new assembly plant in Neosho, MO. The Rogers facility remains as a corporate headquarters and museum.

Joe Murfin, CEO of the Daisy company, said that two daisy retirees and one employee-manager keep the museum going.

“We get a lot of visitors who tell us about their Daisy experiences,” Murfin said. A not-for-profit corporation has been established that will preserve the Daisy artifacts for the future.

The Daisy Airgun Museum is open 10-5, Tues.-Sat. Admission is $2 for adults and free for children 16 and under. The museum’s gift shop is the only place in the world that offers every Daisy product, including airguns, ammo, slingshots, and other items. Call 479-986-6873 or visit www.daisymuseum.com.

King of the cowboys
To the west in Dewey, OK, the Tom Mix Museum tells the story of Tom Mix, the original “King of the Cowboys.” Between 1909 and 1935, the rodeo champion-turned actor made 336 feature films, including a few “talkies,” some of which still survive and are shown at the museum. Most of the actor’s extensive gun collection is on display, along with saddles, movie costumes, promotional posters, photographs and other memorabilia.

Mix, who was a hero to millions of men and boys during the first third of the 1900s, was born in 1880 in Mix Run, PA. Always an adventure-seeker, he served in the army, then moved to Guthrie, OK, and worked on the 101 Ranch before becoming a rodeo cowboy. In 1909, he won the National Rodeo Championship at the Frontier Days rodeo in Prescott, AZ.


The rustic front of the Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, OK. (photo courtesy of Tom Mix Museum)

While in Oklahoma, he attracted the attention of the Selig Polyscope Co., a Hollywood filmmaker, and his movie career began. A superb athlete, he introduced rodeo-style stunt riding to the Western movie genre, and did his own stunts for years.

In the early 1920s, when hourly wages averaged between 30 and 40 cents, he was making $17,000 a week. A big circus fan, Mix purchased the Samuel B. Gill Circus in 1934 and toured North America.

Although his movie career ended in 1935, the Ralston Purina Company kept the Tom Mix name in front of millions with its “Straight Shooters” radio program from 1933 until 1950. Ralston gave away truckloads of Tom Mix premiums, including guns, rings, books, lariats, bandanas, badges and other items that are still being collected today.

Mix died in 1940 near Florence, AZ. He ran his custom-built 1937 Cord roadster off the road to avoid a work crew, and died when a metal suitcase flew off the car’s rear shelf and hit him in the head. The suitcase is on display at the museum.

Museum manager Margaret Berryhill, said she thought Tom Mix was the greatest showman of all the western stars in his era.

“Many people thought Tom Mix didn’t make many talkies because of his voice,” she said. “Not so. Many of the silent movie stars couldn’t memorize lines so they dropped out. Tom made 24 talkies before he died.”

The museum was completely renovated last fall.

“We took down old burlap from the walls that had been put up in 1968,” Berryhill said. “Everything was completely repainted.” She said the museum is also local information center for the area, which is rich in antique shops.

“We get a lot of men who come to visit the museum while their wives are shopping for antiques. Dewey also has a Tom Mix Festival the third weekend in September,” Berryhill added.

The museum, at 721 N. Delaware in Dewey, is open daily except Monday. Hours are 10 to 4:30 weekdays and 1-4:30 Sundays. A $1 donation is suggested. Call 918-534-1555 or visit www.ok-history.mus.ok.us.


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