Check out 14 of the oddest curios, relics, and knickknacks in America’s local museums.
America’s regional museums may not have the range of collections of their more well-known cousins in New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C. … but a quick tour of some of the country’s smaller exhibition spaces turns up one intriguing find after another.
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The Hodges Meteorite at the Alabama Museum of Natural History
WHERE: Tuscaloosa, AL
At 1:00 p.m. on November 30, 1954, Mrs. Elizabeth Ann Hodges was minding her own business dozing on the couch of her Sylacauga, Alabama home when suddenly an 8.5-pound meteorite crashed through the roof, bounced around the living room, and hit her squarely on the upper thigh and hip. Hodges escaped with just a bruise (though quite a nasty bruise it was) in the only verified instance in history when an object falling from space has hit and injured a human being. The guilty meteorite is housed at the Alabama Museum of Natural History on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa.
America’s Only Imperial Carriage at the Grand Oak Resort's Carriage Museum
WHERE: Weirsdale, FL
The impressive collection of 160 historic carriages at Grand Oak Resort’s Carriage Museum in Weirsdale, Florida includes the only royal carriage in the country, an 1850 Armbruster Dress Chariot that once belonged to Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria. His brother Maximilian took the imperial ride to Mexico, where he declared himself emperor in 1864. After Maximilian was deposed and killed three years later, the carriage made its way to Hollywood and popped up as a prop in various film productions—look for it in a street scene in 1937’s The Prisoner of Zenda.
INSIDER TIPThe Grand Oak Resort is currently in the process of selling off its carriages and transforming their museum into a car collection, so you’d best make haste to ensure a sighting.
A Victorian “Hair Wreath” at the Rokeby Museum
WHERE: Ferrisburgh, VT
In the Vermont town of Ferrisburgh, you’ll find the Rokeby Museum, a 1780 historic home and farm where the accomplished Robinson family of artists and authors lived from 1793–1961. Nearly all the artifacts in the house are original to the family—one of the most intriguing, displayed in the upstairs hallway, is a quasi-macabre, woven “hair wreath” made by Ann Stevens in the mid-19th century before she married author and artist Rowland Evans Robinson. Many of Ann and her future husband’s family and friends—nearly 100 in total— contributed locks of hair for the elaborate artwork. The names of the donors and the exact location of their head-top offerings are meticulously recorded on a handwritten guide displayed next to the woven wreath.
Little Orphan Annie’s Bed at the Riley Boyhood Home
WHERE: Greenfield, IN
James Whitcomb Riley, the “Hoosier Poet” who created the character Little Orphan Annie, hailed from Greenfield, Indiana. Turns out, “Annie” was a real person. Eleven-year-old Mary Alice “Allie” Smith moved in and tended house for the Riley family in exchange for room and board during the Civil War. During her stay, she regaled the Riley children with scary stories of goblins and witches, who’d come “gits you” if you didn’t mind your manners—stories Riley recorded in the famous 1885 poem that introduced Mary Alice to the world. (The poem apparently originally cited Mary Alice’s nickname as the correct “Allie,” but the publisher changed it to “Annie.”) The poet’s Greenfield birthplace and home are open for tours—you can see a reproduction of Allie’s humble bed, just a very thin mattress, on the floor of the upstairs room where she slept.
A Payphone Used by Buddy Holly Before His Death at the Surf Ballroom
WHERE: Clear Lake, IA
Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J. P. “Big Bopper” Richardson played their final concert on the evening of February 3, 1959, aka the “day the music died,” at the landmark Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. The Surf, still going strong after all these years, displays the public payphone that both Holly and Valens used to make calls—Holly to his wife and Valens to his manager—just before their fatal plane crash. The telephone is located near the entrance to the lobby.
The Death Certificate of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the East at the Oz Museum
WHERE: Wamego, KS
Among the more than 2,000 mementos and artifacts in the collection of the Oz Museum in Wamego, Kansas are relics from the classic film, including the original death certificate of the Wicked Witch of the East, dutifully signed by the Munchkin Coroner.
A-Bomb Fallout at the White Sands Missile Range Museum
WHERE: Trinity Site White Sands Missile Range, NM
In July 1945, at remote Trinity Site in New Mexico (within the confines of today’s massive White Sands Missile Range), the U.S. Army detonated the world’s first atomic bomb. In the bomb’s wake, observers noticed pockmarked clumps of glass—later dubbed trinitite—scattered on the desert floor. Turns out the nuclear blast had scooped up desert sand into its rising mushroom cloud, which then rained back down to Earth as molten nuggets of radioactive glass. Samples of trinitite are displayed at the main White Sands Missile Range Museum.
"Lucille" at the B.B. King Museum
WHERE: Indianola, MS
Legendary blues musician B.B. King named all his guitars “Lucille.” A visit to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in King’s hometown of Indianola, Mississippi not only offers a glimpse of a prime “Lucille” but also the story behind the name. Seems King was playing a rural juke joint in Arkansas in 1949 when a fight broke out, causing a kerosene tub to tip over and start a raging fire. Although he initially made it out of the building, King rushed back in despite the engulfing flames to save his guitar. He later named his instruments “Lucille”—for the woman over whom the fight had started—to remind himself not to do anything so reckless and foolhardy again.
Old Sunset Beach Swing Bridge & Museum
WHERE: Sunset Beach, NC
Here’s a museum that is itself the curio. From 1958 to 2011, the only way landlubbers could make it across the Intracoastal Waterway onto Sunset Beach—on one of North Carolina’s barrier Brunswick Islands—was to cross the one-lane Sunset Beach Swing Bridge. But boats needed to wait their turn as well, so every hour on the hour the wooden-planked pontoon bridge would pivot open for 15 minutes, forcing car drivers to take a good long Zen-filled breath and wait as watercraft went by. When a new, sky-high concrete span was built a few years ago, local residents relocated the beloved old swing bridge to dry land near the old crossing site. The 500-foot bridge and the bridge tender’s office are open for visitors—be sure to blow the horn that for a half-century notified residents that the rickety bridge was about to swing into action.
A Hairdo Machine at the West of the Pecos Museum
WHERE: Pecos, TX
The West of the Pecos Museum in Pecos, Texas features three stories and 50 rooms of regional memorabilia, nearly all donated from pioneer families and their descendants in West Texas’s cowboy country. A standout item in their collection is a terrifying-looking “permanent wave machine,” an antique sit-down hair curler that local women used in the 1920s and 30s for fashionable hairdos. The 24-hairclip machine makes quite the visual impression. I’m sure each and every woman looked lovely after being unclipped, but the wave machine itself bears a discomforting resemblance to Medusa.
A 1980s Time Capsule in an Idaho Bordello at the Oasis Bordello Museum
WHERE: Wallace, ID
In January of 1988, a house of ill repute in the northern Idaho mining town of Wallace got a tip that the law was coming in for a raid. The staff skedaddled in no time flat, leaving all their belongings behind. The Oasis Bordello Museum has remained a time capsule from that day in the late 1980s, with everyday items from the era—e.g. vintage bottles of Lavoris mouthwash, a Space Invaders cartridge for the madam’s Atari home gaming system, and cassette tapes of such ’80s mainstay musical artists as Lionel Richie and Tina Turner—mixed among the brothel-specific memorabilia (such as a healthy supply of red light bulbs).
Little Tad Lincoln’s Rocking Chair at the Lincoln Heritage Museum
WHERE: Lincoln, IL
The small city of Lincoln, Illinois is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s the only community in the U.S.A. named for Abraham Lincoln before he became president (Abe help established the local railroad and therefore the town while an Illinois lawyer). Secondly, it’s the location of the excellent Lincoln Heritage Museum, on the grounds of Lincoln College. One of their prized possessions is a child’s rocking chair that belonged to the Lincolns’ youngest son, Tad, who was born in 1853 and was just a young boy during Lincoln’s time as president. Tad’s name is carved on the back of the chair, which becomes especially poignant when you learn that he died young, at age 18, in 1871.
Neil Armstrong’s Hometown Newspaper at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum
WHERE: Wapakoneta, OH
Wapakoneta, the Ohio boyhood home of Neil Armstrong (of “one giant leap for mankind” fame) is home to the Armstrong Air & Space Museum, a top-quality facility with personal artifacts chronicling Armstrong’s childhood days, along with fascinating relics from the manned space program. And while the museum features plenty of high-tech gadgets, favorite items include copies of the local Wapakoneta Daily newspapers with ebullient headlines celebrating the entire Apollo 11 mission—including one edition’s post-splashdown half-page banner that touchingly reads, “WELCOME HOME NEIL…from your home town.”
A Rock and a House
WHERE: Fountain City, WI
On the Great River Road in western Wisconsin, with towering rocky bluffs on one side and the Mississippi River on the other, you’ll find Fountain City’s fantastic Rock in the House. In April, 1995, a 55-ton boulder dislodged from 550-foot Eagle Bluff and came crashing down from above into the house of Dwight and Maxine Anderson, obliterating what had been their bedroom. The Andersons, understandably startled but otherwise unharmed, decided that the thought of sharing their home with a 110,000-pound rock wasn’t overly appealing, so they soon sold the house to a local man who opened it as an attraction. You can tour the deserted home, still furnished in mid-1990s splendor, the giant boulder the obvious elephant in the room—it’s $2 well spent.