Unfolding the Map
As people across the United States settle down today to tuck into turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce on this unique American holiday of Thanksgiving, I will reflect on some other unique relics of America: it's small town museums and monuments. If you're traveling back from the holidays, consider stopping in to some of these places if you run across them on the way (and if they're open!). If you want to see where you can find the Great Pyramid of Crisfield, locate it right here on the map!
"'...There's the sight of sights in Crisfield.'
"'Right there. The pyramid. An exact scale model of the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Cairo, Egypt. Orientated exactly the same. On the twenty-first of December, the tip of the shadow falls at the same compass point just like in Egypt - except for a small difference caused by latitude.'
"The Great Pyramid of Crisfield was six feet three inches high - not as tall as an NBA guard. Goldsmith and his sons had designed and built the poured concrete monument to commemorate the national bicentennial; inside they had placed photographs, Nanticoke arrowheads, phonograph records, and other items."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 13
Some of the most interesting places that I've visited, in my years of traveling in the United States, have been the monuments and museums that are found in small towns. Unlike other places that you might travel to when you're making your vacation trips, these are purely local and often might seem to be only of interest to the local residents. But you are missing out on a lot if you miss these sights.
The small-town museum, for example, is a vanishing piece of Americana that can range from informative to just weird. Many of them look like someone just started collecting stuff, and put the stuff in the building. The better ones are usually organized around a theme. For instance, if a town made its name as a mining town then the ongoing theme throughout the museum would be one where mining is the common thread that links all the exhibits.
However, that is not always the case in the small-town museums. Some of them look like someone just collected knick-knacks and other junk and called it a museum. The theme may be lost or nonexistent. There may seem like there is no rhyme nor reason to exhibits. Examples of local minerals might sit in a display case next to a 1920s radio that sat in someone's house before it was donated to the museum, next to which is displayed a tire that was replaced on a celebrity's car as he passed through in the 1950s. I know that some people get a little put off or even annoyed by such disorganization, but I don't.
The reason I don't get annoyed is because my life is often organized in that kind of haphazard manner. In that kind of disorganization, I feel at home. Also, when things aren't organized according to any kind of discernible system, you can find incredibly interesting and sometimes very strange things just by taking your time and poking around. Perhaps, poking around in the dusty corners, you might come across a stuffed two-headed calf or sheep that was born on a ranch 50 years prior and which was taken to the taxidermist after its death, displayed at the rancher's home until he died, and then given to the museum. Or, you might find something gross and disgusting sitting in a 70 year old bottle of formaldehyde. Perhaps you'll find letters written from a town society girl at the turn of the 20th century, in language that was racy for the time, to the mayor with whom she was having an affair right under the nose of her physician husband and the mayor's respected wife.
Often these types of museums are presided over by one of two kinds of people. Either they are extremely garrulous, willing to tell you about every little thing that happened in the town in the past 150 years, or they might be extremely introverted, and annoyed if you ask them even the smallest question. The latter type of person seems to want nothing more than for you to leave so that they can go back to passing time with the ghosts and relics of their town's past. Both types of persons seem to be relics themselves. They seem to be an indelible part of these little museums, and they are as much on display for anyone who cares to visit as any of the other items scattered around the rooms.
In other words, you'll find the scrapbook of life in these small town museums. As you walk through the dusty corridors, you'll turn pages of memories of little moments and what seemed at the time to be momentous events, frozen in time in a dusty, forgotten corner of a small town museum in an out of the way corner of a small town in a corner of a rural state.
Similarly, the small monuments to this or that in little towns are also filled with meaning, sometimes just not the meaning we can immediately understand. There are always the monuments to the wars, which one can find in various little places. Obviously, these memorialize townspeople lost in world conflicts.
But then, one can find things like the replica of the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Crisfield. If you wonder why the monument and time capsule was turned into a replica of the pyramid, so do I. The answer is only in the mind of the creator. When my wife and I were traveling across Florida, a state full of weird and strange things and creations whose full purpose were only known to their creators, we found a "Monument of States" in Kissimmee, where each state of the union contributed a rock to build a 50 foot or so high column. It sits there, sort of forgotten.
The true treasures are the little exhibits, monuments and museums truly off the beaten path. Near Cedar Crest, New Mexico, you can find the Tinkertown Museum, which was the brainchild of an artist who created whole little worlds made up of carved wooden figures and found objects. It has a cousin in the UCM (Get it? You-See-Em?) Museum in Abita Springs, Louisiana which was modeled on the same idea. Sometimes, people just put up their own little museums in their yard, like the Bone Lady near Cerillos, New Mexico (though I'm not sure that she is still there). There are weird little places everywhere, like the National Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin or the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California. I still remember stopping in Virginia City, Nevada, a major tourist trap made out of a picturesque former mining town, and just off the main strip where t-shirt and trinket shops reign, there was a Museum of Radio History that was small, unpretentious and fascinating. My wife, just beginning to get into radio journalism, loved it.
I would encourage you, if you're ever traveling, to seek out these strange places and exhibits and marvel at the care and creativity that goes into preserving the past and creating for the future. You can find a great guide to unique attractions at Roadside America's website. I check it out whenever I head someplace just to see if there's a sight that is unique or interesting. Get out there and see some of this stuff, all of you Littourati out there, if only because it's uniquely, fantastically and weirdly American.
What a find for this post! Strange Museum by Paul Weller. Go see a few of them, people!
If you want to know more about Crisfield
Next up: Ewell, Maryland