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The world’s oldest ham, collections of clowns and kazoos, and the history of Jell-O. Artworks made from human hair. A museum of working pinball machines that’s a favorite of “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen. You’ll find them all—plus some other wonderfully wacky collections—at these 25 offbeat museums.
The original statue of Pluto, emblem of French Lick Springs Hotel’s mineral water, can be seen at the French Lick West Baden Museum. Photos by Rich Warre
French Lick West Baden Museum
French Lick, Indiana
Yes, that giant statue in the front window of the French Lick West Baden Museum does, indeed, resemble the common depiction of Satan, complete with horns and a pointy tail. Actually, the statue represents Pluto, god of the underworld, the mascot of the hot springs that have been drawing thousands of visitors to the elegant spas in the twin towns of French Lick and West Baden, Indiana, since the mid-19th century. Other offbeat displays at the museum include an exhibit honoring NBA star and local legend Larry Bird, the self-proclaimed “Hick from French Lick.” But the biggest draw is the world’s largest circus diorama, taking up 1,200 square feet and encompassing 150,000 exquisitely detailed figurines. Those little droppings at the feet of the elephants? They’re exactly what you think they are. flwbmuseum.com
Squirrel Cage Jail Museum
Council Bluffs, Iowa
If you’re picturing cute, fuzzy inmates inside this jail, you need to tour the unique structure just across the state line from Omaha for a lesson in history and architecture. Built in 1885, the former jail features pie-shaped cells rotating inside a fixed-cage with just one opening. While the small cells inspired its name, the jail also was called a lazy Susan because the jailer turned a hand crank to access each prisoner.
Only 18 squirrel cage jails were ever built, and only 3 remain today; the one in Council Bluffs is the only three-story version ever built. Tour the cell section that remains as it was when the facility closed in 1969; some believe past residents and staff are still there in spirit. thehistoricalsociety.org/museums/squirrel-cage-jail.html
The 72-pound barbed wire bird’s nest displayed at the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder
Kansas Barbed Wire Museum
La Crosse, Kansas
How interesting can barbed wire be? Very, it turns out—even to city slickers, who can’t help but be amazed at the 72-pound barbed wire crow’s nest on display; it was cut from a tree after being built by birds accumulating thousands of short scraps of wire and sticks.
Exhibits in this western Kansas museum trace the evolution of a simple invention that would redefine the open range landscape. See more than 2,400 barbed wire varieties dating to 1870, antique tools related to fencing, barbed-wire art and other collectibles. Run by the Kansas Barbed Wire Collectors Association, the museum hosts an annual festival the first weekend of May to buy, sell and trade artifacts. rushcounty.org/barbedwiremuseum
Down deep in Strataca: Kansas Underground Salt Museum Courtesy of Kansas Tourism
Strataca: Kansas Underground Salt Museum
Riding a pitch-dark elevator 650 feet below the earth in central Kansas can be the eeriest part of a visit to one of the world’s largest deposits of rock salt, with mine tunnels that are some 20 feet deeper than the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is tall. The reward, once the elevator descends into the Hutchinson Salt Company mine, is exploring the only active US salt mine with a public museum.
Self-guided areas include displays on mining history, tools, short videos showing technology advancements, and a section of famous Hollywood costumes, props and canisters of film presenting the mine’s use as naturally climate-controlled storage. Optional guided train rides take you deeper into the mine. Annual underground events include runs and a bicycle ride. underkansas.org
Do you feel eyes watching you? Nearly 1,000 ventriloquist dummies are exhibited at the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky. Photos by Rich Warre
Vent Haven Museum
Fort Mitchell, Kentucky
Imagine a whole wall of ventriloquists’ dummies seated bleacher-style as if they were watching a baseball game. That’s just one of the surreal images presented at the Vent Haven Museum, the world’s only museum devoted to ventriloquism. Among the nearly 1,000 dummies are Wayland Flowers’ Madame, Shari Lewis’ Lamb Chop and a replica of Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy (the original is in the Smithsonian). There’s also a lineup of ventriloquist puppets that resemble former presidents as well as more whimsical dummies, including a three-eyed space lady, a trash can, and a Frankenstein monster with removable hands and a scalp that unlocks and opens. venthaven.org
Fifi makes her star appearance in the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race. Courtesy of the American Visionary Art Museum
American Visionary Art Museum
A 55-foot-tall whirligig made of recycled material. A hand-crocheted dress depicting a horse, made without a pattern. The world’s first family of robots, including one couple that was married in an actual ceremony. These are just some of the objects among this wonderfully weird museum’s 4,000-plus works of art created by self-taught artists.
Housed in three renovated industrial buildings on a one-acre visual wonderland near the Inner Harbor, the museum celebrates spontaneous, intuitive art through a permanent collection, rotating exhibitions and special events. Even its exterior mosaic walls are works of art, built by at-risk youth in the community. Every May (slated for May 1 in 2021), artists young and old put their best land- and seaworthy human-powered moving sculptures to the test in the museum’s Kinetic Sculpture Race. It’s the one time a year you shouldn’t be shocked to see a 13-foot-tall pink poodle named Fifi rolling down the streets of Baltimore. AVAM.org
Lucy in the Sky with Flowers. Courtesy of Museum Of Bad Art, MuseumOfBadArt.org
Museum Of Bad Art
There’s good reason it’s called “art too bad to be ignored,” for you almost feel compelled to look at this museum’s…ahem, artworks with a mix of awe and angst. Some 700 pieces of bad art—with about 20 to 25 on display at any given time—are housed (most suitably) in the basement of the Somerville Theatre, just five miles from downtown Boston. Works in the collection are an earnest attempt by the artist at good art that went wrong, with a focus on the artistic process as a sort-of misadventure.
Among the artworks are an oil-on-canvas of a dystopian volcanic landscape donated to a museum staff member by the artist at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, a painting of a ferret in a brothel procured at a local thrift shop, an oil-on-artboard of a couple dressed in his-and-her hazmat suits having a picnic in a swamp—you get the picture. Perplexed by any piece? No worries: a tongue-in-cheek written analysis of each work serves to “help the public grasp many of the complexities inherent in the work.” (At press time, the museum was closed due to renovations, but many of the artworks are viewable in the online gallery and so worth the virtual visit.) MuseumOfBadArt.org
Leila’s Hair Museum
You’re bound to be either amazed or grossed out by the antique hair-art collections at this suburban Kansas City emporium. Hairstylist Leila Cohoon came across a framed wreath of delicately woven human hair at an antique shop in 1956 and started collecting to preserve this nearly lost art form, which dates to the Victorian era. Opened in 1986, Cohoon’s museum features walls covered with hundreds of intricate wreaths of hair often made to commemorate living or dead loved ones. Thousands of rings, bracelets, necklaces and other jewelry made with hair are displayed in cases. You’ll also see hair from Queen Victoria, four presidents and a number of celebrities, including a snippet of Marilyn Monroe’s glam bob. leilashairmuseum.net
Klown Doll Museum
Clowns or dolls can trigger nightmares for some people, but the Klown Doll Museum is designed to produce smiles. The bright space in northeast Nebraska radiates a positive vibe. Think 7,800 smiling, colorful dolls—from the museum’s eight-foot-tall wooden mascot Stumpy to happy clowns in an array of sizes and styles—alongside memorabilia and five original clown paintings by Red Skelton, a comedic entertainer who was popular in the mid-20th century.
The museum’s untraditional spelling plays off a community band, the Plainview Klown Band, that formed in the early 1950s to attract tourists. The klown doll theme expanded to the free museum and an annual family festival, held the first Saturday in June. klowndollmuseum.com
Silverball Museum Arcade
Asbury Park, New Jersey
You don’t have to be a fan of Bruce Springsteen’s “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” to break into song—…as the wizards play down on pinball way on the boardwalk way past dark—upon entering this pinball paradise chockablock with vintage pinball machines. For here on the Asbury Park Boardwalk, a pinball machine is not just a pinball machine; it’s a piece of bona fide Americana.
Whereas most museum collections are hands off, this museum encourages hands-on play that keeps the machines in prime condition (otherwise, they could rust up). Pay a single cover charge, and test your flipper skills on a rotation of about 150 of the more than 600 machines in the museum’s holdings. Throwback arcade games—from Pong to Pac-Man—also recall the nostalgia of whiling away Saturday afternoons to the sight of neon and flashing lights and the sound of clacks and dings in a mall arcade. An on-site cafe serves up Jersey Shore staples; think pizza, hot dogs, funnel cake and saltwater taffy—the foods of pinball champions, of course. And if you happen to be a Springsteen fan, it’s rumored that The Boss occasionally swings by the museum when he’s in town. silverballmuseum.com
Showcasing everything from “poor traits” and pinball machines to pizza culture and Jell-O history, the region’s quirky museums are as fascinating as they are fun. Courtesy of THE JELL-O MUSEUM
Le Roy, New York
Ever gazed into a bowl of jiggly gelatin and pondered how this fruit-flavored sugary concoction became “America’s Most Famous Dessert”? Okay, neither have we, but members of the Le Roy Historical Society certainly have wondered, and they have a museum to prove it. It was here in this small Upstate New York town where a local carpenter introduced Jell-O in 1897 when experimenting with a cough remedy and laxative tea. Two years later, he sold the rights to his brand for a mere $450 to a fellow townsman who skillfully marketed it and eventually made millions.
The rest is history—well, little-known history, but history nonetheless—that you can explore through displays of original advertising, memorabilia, recipe
books, spoons, molds and more. Answers to questions such as which US city eats the most lime-flavored Jell-O and why Jell-O was tested for brain waves are bound to have you wanting to whip up a batch of Jell-O from that box that’s been collecting dust in the back of your pantry. jellogallery.org
American Sign Museum
The American Sign Museum covers a century of sign history from the late 1800s to the 1980s by exhibiting all manner of early signs that used lightbulbs, fluorescent plastics, gold leaf on glass and so on. But the real showstopper is the cavalcade of neon signs, such as an early one from McDonald’s touting burgers with a 15-cent price tag as well as a tiki-style bowling alley sign. Novelties include an early Big Boy statue; a huge, spinning Sputnik satellite-like sign that once promoted a strip mall near Disneyland; and a twirling blue windmill advertising a bakery. Want to make your own neon sign? Sign up for an on-site workshop. americansignmuseum.org
Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum
Look, there’s Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown! And there’s Calvin and Hobbes lolling in each other’s arms—or paws as the case may be. Welcome to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, the world’s largest repository of cartoon art, with a whopping 300,000 original cartoons, 2.5 million comic strip clippings, 45,000 books and 67,000 serials and comic books. The museum’s galleries on the campus of Ohio State University show both selections from the permanent collection as well as themed special exhibitions. Want to see the funny books of your childhood? Go to the reading room, locate them online, place an order, and they’ll be brought out for your on-site perusal. cartoons.osu.edu
It’s Christmas year-round at Castle Noel. Within this eclectic collection are the world’s largest collection of Hollywood holiday movie costumes, including Will Ferrell’s Elf outfit, and props, such as the neon-pink bedroom set of Cindy Lou Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Also on exhibit are holiday window displays that once graced New York City department stores such as Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale’s. A collection of thousands of toys from the 1950s through 1980s will surely elicit a response of “I had that one!” The grand finale: you get to ride down the same sliding board that Ralphie was pushed down by the Angry Elves in A Christmas Story. castlenoel.com
Cats, carousels and neon café signs are among the collections you’ll find in the region’s quirky museums. Photos by Rich Warre
Feline Historical Museum
Cat lovers will be in seventh heaven at the Feline Historical Museum, housed in the headquarters of the Cat Fanciers’ Association. Among the thousands of artifacts on display are cat figurines, ceramics, jewelry, cookie jars, teapots and an entire room of cat dolls in fanciful costumes. The artwork adorning the walls ranges from a Chinese scroll depicting 100 cats to a painting portraying Jesse James and his gang as felines.
A highlight of the collection is a huge cat house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that resembles a red spaceship sitting on a pedestal. The museum’s restroom is even equipped with “Right Meow” hand soap. felinehistoricalfoundation.org
A visit to the Mazza Museum on the campus of the University of Findlay is a trip down memory lane. Home to the world’s largest collection of original artwork by children’s book illustrators, the Mazza hangs an ever-changing array of the often-sizable works in its six galleries. The art of nearly 700 artists is displayed, including H.A. Rey’s Curious George, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings and Dr. Seuss’ beloved The Cat in the Hat. mazzamuseum.org
The Ernest Warther Museum & Gardens
The life’s work of the late Ernest “Mooney” Warther, known as The World’s Master Carver, takes center stage at The Ernest Warther Museum & Gardens. Among the masterpieces are 64 working representations of steam locomotives fashioned from walnut, ebony and ivory. With up to 7,500 separate hand-carved pieces in each train, the level of detail is remarkable. The Lincoln Funeral Train is one of the finest examples. Not only can the coffin be seen inside the train, but there’s also a nearly microscopic key hanging outside the car that will actually lock and unlock the tiny door to the carriage. thewarthermuseum.com
A wide variety of pigeons live at the American Pigeon Museum. Photo by Benjamin Anderson
American Pigeon Museum and Library
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
The fact that you’re wondering why there’s a museum dedicated to pigeons is exactly why you need to go. There’s much more to the world’s oldest domesticated bird than most of us realize. This free museum presents pigeons in a new light through rare artifacts and photos that explore the lives of pigeons. Think such topics as the history of pigeon racing and the birds’ wartime efforts. Did you know that pigeons delivered key messages between Allies in World War I and World War II—and that these messages saved thousands of lives?
See 12 breeds of live pigeons on display in outdoor cages when weather permits (hint: they are much fancier than the pigeons you’ve seen in parks). theamericanpigeonmuseum.org
Oklahoma City boasts a creepily fascinating museum of skulls and skeletons. Courtesy of Visit OKC
Skeletons: Museum of Osteology
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Sure, you can watch flesh-eating beetles clean an animal carcass behind a glass window as you enter this museum, but the purpose of the bizarre display is to show the process of creating pristine skeletons. Inside the museum are a dizzying array of human skulls and animal bones—more than 300 skeletons, including many normally not seen in museum exhibits. They range from a tiny hummingbird to the framework of a 40-foot-long humpback whale.
The skeletons are posed in natural movements and grouped for anatomy comparisons. The museum’s founder, Jay Villemarette, had decades of experience processing natural bone and replica osteological specimens for his company, Skulls Unlimited, before fulfilling his lifelong dream in 2010 of opening this museum, which is next to the corporate offices. skeletonmuseum.com
Pizza Brain Museum of Pizza Culture
What goes well with a slice of pizza? How about a slice of pizza culture? That’s what you’ll sample at this iconic Fishtown destination that’s part pizzeria, part museum.Consider it a different kind of pizza with the works.
Opened in 2012 in a 150-year-old rowhouse as the world’s first pizza culture museum, Pizza Brain is home to the world’s largest collection of pizza-related items— totaling some 550 artifacts and constituting a Guinness World Record—from pie-themed toys, music and books to collectibles, vintage advertising and more. A roomful of items spanning from the 1940s to today—think everything from pizza-loving Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles memorabilia to pizza-wielding action figures to a giant mural of pizza-consuming patrons—chronicle the rising popularity of pizza. The artisan pizza is pretty good, too. pizzabrain.org/museum
Along with learning all about kazoos, children can take part in the Build Your Own Kazoo station where they can create their own kazoos in a kaleidoscope of colors. Photos courtesy of Kazoobie Kazoos
Kazoobie Kazoo Museum
Beaufort, South Carolina
Kazoobie Kazoos. It’s fun to say and even more fun to visit this tiny museum tucked in a nondescript storefront where the company displays one of the world’s largest collections of plastic kazoos—some 200 and counting—and related memorabilia. Museum exhibits delve into the history of the kazoo, which dates to the 1840s and an African American inventor named Alabama Vest, and showcase historic kazoos, tools and recordings as well as photos, articles and sheet music.
Guided factory tours are also available here at America’s only plastic kazoo factory, and you can try your hand at making your own kazoo at the Build Your Own Kazoo station. Who knew that kazoos could be so cool (well, besides Kazoobie Kazoos, which we just like saying)? There is one caveat when visiting, though: you may want to consider stashing the kids’ custom-made kazoos somewhere safe in the car for the ride home—that is, unless you’re partial to hearing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” all the way home. thekazoofactory.com
Mitchell, South Dakota
If you’re traveling Interstate 90, pop by Mitchell for a selfie outside the world’s only remaining corn palace, a permanent building whose external walls are intricately redecorated every year using 12 colors of corn grown specifically for use by mural artists.
Step inside the building that doubles as a sports arena for the intoxicating smell of fresh buttery popcorn sold at the concession stand. Free guided or self-guided tours include displays about corn and the history of the corn palace, corny photo ops and a short film. Past murals decorate the arena’s interior walls, and a gift shop fills the court. A five-day Corn Palace Festival brings a fair-like atmosphere to downtown Mitchell each August. cornpalace.com
International Vinegar Museum
Roslyn, South Dakota
To encourage day trips to the sparsely populated northeast corner of the state, community volunteers tapped an unexpected find among their residents: Lawrence Diggs, a global expert on vinegar. The International Vinegar Museum opened in 1999 in the former city hall, furnished with memorabilia Diggs collected as he traveled the world teaching others
View a wall display showcasing more than 300 bottled varieties, and learn how vinegar is made and how it is used, from enhancing flavors to cleaning to coloring ceramics. You can also sample pecan, raspberry, tequila lime and other surprising flavors of vinegar at the tasting bar. You might even get inspired to try vinegar on your ice cream, as locals do.
The annual Vinegar Festival on the Saturday before Father’s Day features cooking demos, a parade and other activities. internationalvinegarmuseum.com
The world’s oldest Smithfield ham is among the highlights of the Isle of Wight County Museum. Courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum
Isle of Wight County Museum
In 1902, one of local businessman P.D. Gwaltney Jr.’s cured hams hung from a rafter forgotten in a packinghouse. Two decades later, that same ham—superbly well preserved by Gwaltney’s smoking methods—became an American treasure that he kept in an iron safe, took on tour and advertised as the world’s oldest Smithfield ham. (He even called it his pet and had a brass collar made for it.) Today, you can see this famous ham—which, by the way, has its own Twitter account—in the county’s eclectic museum, celebrating its 45th anniversary in 2021.
Not interested in century-old ham? Never fear: The museum is also home to the world’s oldest peanut, picked in 1890 by P.D. Gwaltney Sr. You’ll also find a replica of a turn-of-the-century country store as well as exhibits about the Smithfield ham industry (Smithfield Foods is headquartered in town), colonial history, the American Civil War, the Cold War and more. Still thinking about that ham? Check it out on the Ham Cam, which runs live 24/7. historicisleofwight.com
The Mothman statue in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Photos by Rich Warre
Point Pleasant, West Virginia
Between November 1966 and November 1967, approximately
100 people in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, claimed to have seen a seven-foot-tall creature resembling a man with wings spanning 10 feet and hypnotic bug-like red eyes. The creature, dubbed “the Mothman,” is commemorated with a 12-foot-tall stainless-steel statue downtown, adjacent to the world’s only Mothman Museum. Here, you’ll see transcripts of eyewitness descriptions, news clippings of the era, and props from the 2002 film The Mothman Prophecies, starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney. Space alien? A supernatural manifestation? A large bird? Whatever it was, the Mothman still draws thousands each year to Point Pleasant. mothmanmuseum.com