Mountain State museums: The passions of hunters and gatherers are found in rare collections
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In every corner of the state, visitors can find a museum that showcases a remarkable and rare object.
Often the entire collection is incomparable. One of the joys of West Virginia museums is their personal scale.
At its core, the universal theme for collectors is captured in a quote from Michael Lipton, founder of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, which grew from his own lifetime of collecting the world of music:
“If I had a $20 bill and saw a $20 guitar, I’d buy the guitar and know I’d have it longer than I would have had the 20.”
The motivation for collecting in West Virginia seems to be buried in childhood memories or devotion to the history, industry or particular aspect of life here in the Mountain State.
Huntington ranks as my personal choice for “city of museums.”
Leader of the pack is the venerable Huntington Museum of Art and its diversity outside of art.
It hosts the state’s only plant conservatory which does not forget it is located in an art museum.
Setting off the 200 varieties of orchids and fragrant plants is the Art Tower, a specially created Dale Chihuly glass sculpture.
The Herman Dean Firearms Collection also has its own room. Hundreds of items range from early pistols and powder horns incised with maps to a breech-loading rifle made by John Hall, of Harpers Ferry.
There are outstanding examples of decorated weapons including both pistols and a Kentucky flintlock rifle.
Huntington physician Joseph Touma is a star example of a passion-driven collector. Many of the more than 400 works of Middle Eastern art housed in a special wing of the Huntington Museum of Art comes from his personal collection. Touma has assembled, in another location, a personal museum that includes what may be the world’s largest collection of ear trumpets. More than 300 of the primitive hearing devices are featured along with a meticulously restored 1926 Model T Doctor’s Coupe, several Civil War amputation sets, leech jars, a tonsil guillotine and other medical arcana.
Also, more than 1,000 books include rare 14th- and 15th-century copies of ancient texts.
There’s even a Quackery Department and a collection of bedpans.
Marshall University lays claim to the world’s largest collection of cataloged specimens of animals native to West Virginia in its Biological Survey Museum.
The real treasure of museums, based on personal passions, is on display at the Museum of Radio and Technology in Huntington. Radio geeks hang out at the museum, delighted to chat with visitors and point out hundreds of radios from the 1920s to the 1950s as well as the only 1939 RCA TV camera in existence. Home of the West Virginia Broadcasters Hall of Fame, it is the largest radio museum in the United States.
Mike Perry’s personal passion is captured in his Heritage Farm Museum and Village just outside of Huntington. More than 500 acres hold 17 restored buildings filled with everything from steam tractors and a 1908 electric truck to blacksmith tools and home implements. The state’s largest private collection of historic items is open year-round for guided tours.
Perry’s place was the site for re-enactments of the Hatfield-McCoy feud filmed for the History Channel’s companion documentary to the hit miniseries.
Moving up the Ohio River from Huntington, a stop must be made in Parkersburg to admire the 19th-century collection of American Indian artifacts from nearby Blennerhassett Island discovered and displayed by Thomas Stahle.
Seventy display units — hand-built wooden and glass cabinets more than 6 feet tall — line more than 60 feet of wall in the Blennerhassett Museum. The cases were built for Stahle, who hand-lettered the explanation of each of the artifacts.
There are extensive samples of musical flutes, toys, whistles, hematite cosmetics and “paints,” drills, cutting tools, pipes, ornaments and more. A pair of 5- by 3-inch shell masks with etched facial features stand out among the thousands of rare artifacts.
Farther up the Ohio, the Wheeling area is another treasure trove of odd and unusual museums.
Castle Halloween has an impressively comprehensive collection of more than 35,000 items spanning 250 years of Halloween history, as well as exhibits ranging from the Salem Witch Trials to Harry Potter.
The World War II-vintage Stifel Field Terminal at Wheeling Airport is a museum piece itself, plus it houses a spectacular collection of aviation-related artifacts collected by Tom Tominack, airport czar.
The original wood doors lead into the terminal, and the restrooms are as 1940s as the rest of the building, with period urinals and a ladies room boasting a dress form.
Exhibits include mementos of Jimmy Doolittle’s rumored flight under the Wheeling Suspension Bridge in 1927 and Charles Lindbergh’s visit to nearby Glendale field the same year.
Of local interest is the display honoring Joan Stifel, one of fewer than 500 female pilots in 1938, as well as the exhibit on Fokker aircraft.
A dramatic mural of the city of Wheeling, a Capital Airlines plane flying over the Wheeling skyline as it did on Nov. 1, 1946, when the airport opened, dominates one wall of the terminal.
“We weren’t able to find an artist we could afford to do the mural, so I built a model, then had some photographic experts superimpose it on a postcard of Wheeling from that period,” Tominack said.
They used a hair dryer on the propellers to make them seem as if they were moving.
The crown jewel of Wheeling’s museums is the Oglebay Institute’s Glass Museum, home of the world’s largest punchbowl and more than 3,000 other pieces of Wheeling glass.
The prized item of the collection is not glass but a “hologram” of glass chemist William Layton Jr. Stand in front of the display and the seated Layton will explain how his father, working in Wheeling, revolutionized the glass industry in 1864 when he added bicarbonate of soda to the mix of sand. Layton’s change in formula resulted in a substance that was cheaper, easier to work and resulted in better, clearer glass.
There is more glass on display at the West Virginia Museum of American Glass in Weston.
Its impressive collection has more than 11,000 pieces on public display and even more in open storage.
It houses the National Marble Museum, a research library and more than 125 scholarly monographs for sale produced by museum members and bearing titles from “Kings Crown Pattern Glass” to “Rich Cut from WV Glass Houses.”
There is no such creature as a native West Virginia dinosaur because rocks in the state are simply too ancient to have dinosaur skeletons in them. To admire one of these world-class native rocks, visit the 800-pound Oriskany sandstone crystal in the Museum of the Berkeley Springs.
Another rock in the museum purports to be a survey marker bearing George Washington’s signature, not completely improbable since Washington surveyed much of the surrounding area.
While in Berkeley Springs, don’t miss the eccentric Marian Museum at Maria’s Garden.
Along with spaghetti and comfortable guest rooms named for archangels, Peg Perry serves up hundreds of icons, statues and paintings of the Blessed Mother.
Ask, or even look mildly interested, and Peg will relate private stories of wondrous meetings, roses growing in winter, and whirling statues in her garden grotto visible from the dining room.
The restored Pearl Buck Birthplace in Hillsboro showcases the novelist’s 85 books including signed and first editions.
Buck was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Built in 1858, the white frame Stulting House was always known to Buck as her mother’s house.
Buck’s tiny brocade slippers from her girlhood in China rate as my favorite artifact in the house.
The John Henry Collection displayed on a long table dressed up as a stretch of railroad dominates the Railroad Museum in the Summers County Visitors Center.
The 120 hand-carved wooden figures radiate primitive artistic power. Charlie Permelia was an injured coal miner from Lester. Completely self-taught, Permelia spent eight hours a day for 7½ years creating detailed foot-tall versions of West Virginia’s legendary steel-drivin’ man and his mates.
The figures and train cars are carved from 56 kinds of wood — black and white walnut, ash, cherry, chinquapin, buckeye, sassafras, basswood, magnolia, pawpaw, bamigallian, spice wood, cucumber, sourwood, tamarack, red brush, arbor vitae and more — all depicting John Henry and his friends “workin’ on the railroad.”
Military collections are always popular. The state’s sole remaining privately owned military collection is housed in several buildings and a large vehicle yard in Petersburg.
Gereald Bland’s Top Kick Museum started with a World War II jeep and grew from there to a collection of U.S. military equipment including a landing craft and nearly 50 other vehicles.
Top Kick has an impressive collection of unusual small items from head gear and motor pool cans to MREs, tagged by retired combat engineer Bland as “meals rejected by Ethiopians.”
The Mountaineer Military Museum in Weston recently opened a new addition. Thousands of artifacts are showcased in theme cubicles including Civil War and a MASH unit.
Highlights of the museum are its structure — the former Colored School, made of local brick — and an impressive photographic hall of local veterans past and present.
Rowlesburg’s World War II Museum is dominated by dozens of realistically sculpted mannequins in authentic and detailed uniforms.
No tour of collections in the state would be complete without a stop at the West Virginia State Museum. Its recent makeover turned the museum from a dusty collection in the basement of the Culture Center to a well-scripted tour through West Virginia history supported by more than 60,000 authentic artifacts in appealing exhibits.
Train tracks are followed into darkly lit coal mines and walls are filled with banjos, fiddles and West Virginia glass bottles.
A surveying telescope of George Washington’s, a long rifle used by Daniel Boone and John Brown’s noose are now featured and interpreted.
Fortunately to older fans of the museum, one of the most eccentric and popular treasures was kept. Professor Hechler’s Flea Circus now greets visitors in the entrance hall. The well-dressed Emmiline and Alexander, stars of the circus, remain on display in a colorful circus car.
When alive and in their prime, the quarter-inch-long creatures could pull nearly 700 times their weight. Their stunts included hauling carts and wagons, jumping through hoops, dancing, juggling and leaping nearly a foot in the air. The famed New York performers came to West Virginia in 1906.
There are dozens more collections of all sorts tucked away in odd places and local museums.
If you are a cultural tourist of the curious variety, be certain to ask when you visit a locale if there are any remarkable collections to be seen.
For more information including contact information on hundreds of wonders and oddities throughout West Virginia, check out Jeanne Mozier’s fourth edition of the award-winning “Way Out in West Virginia” available from Quarrier Press at wvbookco.com.