Touch the Past  

Museums are made for musing. I never know how many of their offerings I’ll want to ponder, so I don’t visit museums if a parking meter is ticking, others are waiting for me, or I’m wearing uncomfortable shoes.

I’ve strolled the endless corridors of famous museums and enjoyed them, but I prefer those in small towns: they house fewer items, so I don’t feel the need to set a brisk pace to avoid dying of old age as I contemplate a diorama. Also, unlike wealthier museums, where every display is must-see and note-worthy with a capital N, local museums reflect the lives of folks like me who first populated the area, managed to survive, and eventually created and developed a town. I can imagine living their day-to-day lives.

Museum

Little Snake River Museum in Savery, Wyoming

Several fine, small-town museums dot the Wyoming-Colorado border area where I live. I like their names — the Tread of Pioneers Museum, the Little Snake River Museum — and their exhibits intrigue me: the cowboy and gunfighter collection at the Museum of Northwest Colorado, the elk that resides at Wyman’s Living History Museum, and the pioneer town that surrounds the Encampment Museum.

While exploring local museums, I think about the exhausting work families did to survive and the innovations from tin cans to miners lamps to apple peelers to tractors that eased their burdens. I admire the items they created to add beauty, comfort, and enjoyment to their lives: homemade quilts, rag rugs, cross-stitched wall hangings, stick horses, sock dolls, hand carved tops, and checker boards.

museum front - Version 2

Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig

As I walk away from small, local museums — usually free of charge and manned by friendly, informative folks — I wonder what people of the future will think when they visit displays from my era. What will they make of early TV’s with tiny screens mounted in large cabinets, hand-pushed lawnmowers, striped bellbottoms, Mr. Potato Head, bomb shelters, rotary phones, and typewriters?

Actually, I already see bits of my life on display in small museums. I recently visited the Little Snake River Museum in Savery, Wyoming, where I enjoyed exploring refinished schools and simple homes that allowed me to me glimpse the everyday lives mountain men and early town fathers lived along the river.

In one small home, the kitchen wallpaper featured bright red cherries hanging from joined stems, a pattern I knew well from a childhood filled with visits to the snug kitchens of older relatives. Inside a school I saw a bulletin board covered with valentines of the day, the same sort my friends and I used to exchange: “If you carrot all for me, peas be mine.”

Thanks to small, local museums, I am aware of my place in a long line of human hopes, struggles, triumphs, hard-won advances, and difficult setbacks that paved the way for me to live well and age well.

Small town museums capture our stories and deserve our attention.

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54 thoughts on “Touch the Past  

  1. I especially like the preserved or restored homes I’ve toured. Not the mansions, but the everyday houses with dishes and appliances I knew in my childhood. Pyrex bowls. Potato mashers. Mixmasters. How could they be anitque already? Did you ever visit the Laws Railroad Museum outside Bishop, California? It’s a whole town of old buildings. Worth a stop.

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    • I feel the same way about the more humble homes, Lorie, probably because I can relate to them rather than marveling at them. Many. many years ago I went to the Bishop site; it had great potential but needed lots of restoring. I should return; it sounds like I’d enjoy it.

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  2. I agree. Sometimes I’m blown away by the caliber of small museums, the thought and care put into displays. Several restored Great Lakes lighthouses are like that – small but very authentic and really interesting. This made me want to head West.

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    • I toured restored lighthouses in Oregon, even stayed in the keeper’s house which is now a B&B; They fascinated me and I’m sure the Great Lakes lighthouses would. Please do head West. Distances are long, but there are prizes to be found.

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  3. I just commented on someone’s blog how I always visit these places and think about the people who lived in these days and how it must have been a struggle (certainly by comparison to our lives today) just to survive. This was great to read.

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  4. Great Post. I think technology puts the distance between generations. When I think that my mother sat on her grandfather’s knee and listened to his stories about being a Civil War soldier, it doesn’t seem so distant. But when I think that the last Civil War veteran died after I was born, I feel old. Well done once again.

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  5. Janet, I look up to you so much as a blogger and every post you write seems to explain why I really think of you as a mentor in many ways. This is definitely my favorite you’ve written so far. Probably because of the “museums are meant for musing”. It’s so true! One cannot muse properly and have to leave in two hours. It’s just not enough time. I love going to museums especially in small towns because they focus on the life and culture of the people in a very personal way. It’s as though we’re standing in their house and living with them for a brief moment in time. Wonderful post, dear!

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    • So another interest we have in common, Tamara, musing in small, local museums and relating in a personal way. Thanks for your always kind words. I’m still thinking about possible names as we discussed earlier today.

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      • A few times. It’s in my mom’s (and her sisters’) home town. It’s really great. It’s in an area where there have been (are) HUGE wheat farms and they took the old out buildings from one of the biggest farms in the 20s/30s/40s and set them up — bunk house, dining hall, with photos of the crews on the walls (a couple of my uncles are in some of the photos). There’s a German church moved and set up there with the hymnals in German and old script on the walls. Frontier farm house, old farm equipment that ran on steam and a whole lot more. I’m like you; I generally like museums but I really like museums like that. We have a lot in the San Luis Valley but I haven’t seen any yet. I will.

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      • It sounds so interesting because it reflects real people living real lives, the worker bees that built our nation, states, cities, and small towns. I like visiting their lives and honoring them.

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  6. I love these small towns too. People seem friendlier and life seems to be still going along in a simple way. I laughed when I remembered that I hung the wallpaper in our first home–red cherries–even on the ceiling. Can you imagine? I remember all those old fashioned tools, etc. people post on Facebook.

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  7. I love small town museums! Zombie and I stopped at every open one we saw on our Wet Coast roadtrip earlier in the year. So much history! We also stopped at an abandoned gold mine and a few information centres that had displays of how that town came to be. I too find these smaller ones much more fascinating than large scale museums. There’s a more personal feel to them!

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    • I to, love small town museums, we have good Maritime History one here, they are great when traveling for rainy days. I cannot abide old dolls, and peoples personal jewelery, clothing, or any wax figures or implements of torture, give me “The Grue” I did enjoy a Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” Oddatorium…indeed odd. Love to see your wee western towns someday. Lovely post thanks Janet- makes my tuesday.

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      • I’m glad to be of help to you with your Tuesdays, Sheila. I, too, have exhibits I skip, torture instruments and jewelry being two of them. I also don’t care for stuffed dead animals, prehistoric dental tools, and old cameras. I’ve never visited Mr. Ripleys displays, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do so. A person who likes oddities, a tour of western towns would be appropriate indeed.

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      • Thanks Janet, thought it was just me…remember The Egyptian Museum? Lovingly described in “Fodors” as- A morass of mouldering sarcophogai and headless statues” Bit like the house I grew up in…

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  8. I always enjoy museums, large and small, and yet I’ve never visited the small local one in my very own town. I wonder why? I must just take it for granted that someday I’ll go. Because of your encouragement, and the experiences of commenters, I’ll check it out in the next week. The close-by Donner Party Memorial Museum has recently been expanded and that’s second on my list.

    Your last paragraph is wonderful.

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    • Thank you for noting the last paragraph, Mary. I like it when things I spend time on are noticed. I went to the Donner museum many years ago and remember thinking they could do more with it. I’ve never been to one in Reno; I don’t even know where it is or its focus. But, truly, I didn’t adopt small museums until I moved to Craig, and, there being little else to do in town, paid a visit to its museum. Now I seek them out. Let me know what you think of the two you plan to visit.

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  9. So very true!
    This is an activity I hope to enjoy with my little one soon. She is perhaps a bit too young now as the “don’t touch” request usually goes ignored!
    But I do see her eyes light up as we explore the great outdoors. Although I feel bad for the poor flowers she tries to pick but crush instead 😦

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    • Oh, little ones, what treasures. My grandson once helped me deadhead my flowers, then the next morning did it himself to surprise me. Unfortunately, he confused the issue and picked off living blossoms instead of dead ones.To this day the little boy who wanted to surprise me makes me laugh and my heart feel happy.

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  10. If I create an Uncle Bardie Museum, would you visit it? It could have shavings from my beard. I could display my broken front headlight. Maybe a few strands of the hair left on my head. Some toenail clippings I saved from 1996. My unwashed Y2K mug that I drank the Millennium in on. Mr fifty-seven drafts of an unpublished, unfinished novel I have been meaning to finish. The only recording in existence of Uncle Bardie singing all the verses of 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. Stuff like that. What do you think?

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  11. I’m not a “museum person” by nature. The Princess is the “big museum person” in our family, but when I do wonder through the smaller ones, I have an appreciation for not just their few exhibits, but the fact that these “smaller museums” are usually “manned” by volunteers who give us great stories and insight into some of the more interesting pieces that we’re viewing.

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  12. The small museums are a joy! I can remember when I would visit Lander in the summer my cousins and I would head to The Pioneer Museum with great anticipation to see the skull of John Henry with the sledge hammer in it. It was truly the highlight of the museum for us! Now, when I visit the museum in Lander I get to see my grandfather’s barber shop and JL gets to see the equipment from Lander Mills. He always said that he would be the last one who knew how to run the machinery and that after he left it would probably end up in the museum and it did. I really didn’t think about my personal connection to this museum until I read this article. It really hits home that we are a part of history too.

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    • This is a great comment, Janice, with the detailed examples it gives of what small museums offer. The next time I’m in the Lander area, I’ll have to revisit the museum. I know Mom always took out-of-town guests there because she liked its local flavor. The story about JL and the Lander Mills machinery is a great one.

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  13. I was thrilled to see the sign for The Little Snake River Museum. I have the very same photo in my collection.
    One day while Tim was busy in surgery I decided to drive up to Savery to tour the museum. Great decision! I agree with you, it’s everything a small town museum should be.
    I’ve also been the the Museum of Northwest Colorado and Wyman’s. But I haven’t heard of the Tread of Pioneers or the Encampment museums. You’ve given me ideas for more places to explore on those surgery days.
    As usual, Janet, your writing made me feel as though I was touring the museum with you. Thanks!

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