Poking around in Pennsylvania's small museums

Guidebook happily leads tourists to the eccentric on exhibit

Short Hop

November 02, 2003|By Marion Winik | Marion Winik,Special to the Sun

If you're driving along and see a sign hung out on a shed or in front of a house that says, 'Museum -- Open,' stop the car. Don't be afraid to go in. That's the most important thing I have to tell people."

The woman who gives this advice knows whereof she speaks. Therese Boyd is the author of The Best Places You've Never Seen: Pennsylvania's Small Museums (Penn State University Press, 2003), a guide to 42 eccentric attractions around the state, from the Zippo Case Museum in far northwestern Bradford to the Museum of Mourning Art in Drexel Hill in the southeastern corner, from the Jimmy Stewart Museum near Pittsburgh to the Houdini Tour and Museum in Scranton.

Though the book -- her first -- contains all the details and photographs necessary to be a useful guide, Boyd's amusing storyteller's approach to chronicling her visit to each site conveys much more about its subjects, and its author, than a utilitarian tour guide.

"I wanted it to be a book you could lie on the couch and read without any plans to go anywhere," she says, and she has amply succeeded.

For example, when somewhat unenthusiastically crossing the parking lot to the Bob Hoffman Weightlifting Hall of Fame and Museum in York (she's no exercise buff ), Boyd overhears two women going the other way dissecting a failed romantic relationship. More intrigued by this than by the prospect of historic barbells, she admits to considering turning around to join them.

Once inside, however, she hears part of a lecture by someone who knew old-time celebrity strongman Joseph Greenstein -- The Mighty Atom. "I was 8 or 9 years old when I first saw him bite a spike in half," says the speaker.

And Boyd is hooked. This is not a woman who can resist authentic, offbeat displays of obsessional Americana. She won't be stopped by a rundown facade or a subject she's not sure she's interested in, nor is she put off by the sometimes-prickly characters who run these places.

At the Tom Mix Birthplace and Museum in Driftwood, she's greeted by the owner, Ray Flaugh, with, "You know what we follow around here? Genesis 3:16! Do you know what that is?"

It's the Bible verse that reveals that man is master over woman -- but Boyd only offers some diplomatic comment and turns the conversation to Tom Mix. Fortunately, this is a subject of even greater interest to Flaugh than reversing the course of women's liberation. His museum of memorabilia relating to the first cowboy movie star includes comic books, games, ads and a map of Mix's body, showing the injuries he sustained over the years doing stunts.

Boyd's stories are a pleasure for the armchair traveler but many may find themselves itching to get on the road for themselves. We caught up with her for lunch near her home in Foggy Hollow, Pa., outside York, to talk about the book:

Tell us about your background. Are you a Pennsylvania native? What else have you written?

I was born in New York state but grew up in Pottstown, Pa. I've been writing since high school -- mostly journals and poetry. I never dreamed of publishing.

I went to Penn State as an undergraduate, married my college boyfriend and moved to the York area about 18 years ago. My master's degree is from Hopkins -- my focus was religion.

I became a freelance editor and computer consultant. I started teaching writing to seniors through the York Community Center, and eventually became a reporter for the York Dispatch. After two years of covering things like township meetings, I felt like tearing my hair out. I was in my 40s, but I was still asking myself, What am I going to do, what am I going to do, what I am going to do?

Then an old friend from college suggested I write a book on Pennsylvania's small museums.

And the rest is history?

Pretty much. Everything fell into place -- but I guess it was about time.

It seems like these museums are a kind of folk art or outsider art -- like installations, almost. As if you could pick each one up whole and stick it in Baltimore's American Visionary Arts Museum.

Well, you could, but what would you do with the people that run them? They're as much a part of the experience as the things they display.

For example, the Toy Robot Museum is run by a great guy, Joe Knedlhans, who used to be a New York City policeman on the hazardous-duty force. In his work, they used $95,000 robots equipped with taser, shotgun, microphone and video, which they would send into dangerous situations before the guys went in. This inspired his wife, Margo, to start giving him robots as presents, and when they retired, they moved to Adamstown and opened this museum.

Actually, it was originally the Toy Robot and Pig Museum, because he collected robots and she collected pigs, but after she died, not too long ago, he put away all the pigs. It was just too much for him to look at them.

In the book, you recommend the Toy Robot Museum as particularly great for kids.

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