Massillon, Ohio: The Massillon Museum

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Massillon is a town just south of Canton which is probably most famous for being both the childhood home of the film star Lillian Gish, and the home of the Massillon Tigers, which the entire town seems to be obsessed with, though they’re only a high school team (apparently they have the second best track record of any high school team in the country).   I’ve got nothing against Lillian Gish, but I haven’t gotten around to watching any of her films yet,  and I couldn’t care less about football, so I mainly am familiar with Massillon through trips to their local pizza parlour, Smiley’s (mostly on the way home from Amish country, since the Amish aren’t really known for excelling at vegetarian cuisine.  Seriously, I tried to order plain noodles one time, and they still threw some chicken chunks in them), and and their rather adorable Victorian/Edwardian style downtown.  On this trip however, in addition to enjoying a pizza pie, I also took the time to visit the Massillon Museum.  Founded in 1933, and housed in an old department store, the museum is free of charge and, in the way of small local museums, tries to combine art and history so as to appeal to as many local residents as possible.  Admission is free, and the galleries are spread out amongst three floors, easily accessible by elevator.

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The museum’s “mascots” are Oscar the skeleton, and to a lesser extent, Harvey the dog, the “longest enlisted soldier in the 104th.” Oscar is the museum’s literal skeleton in the closet, being hidden away in the basement gallery inside an old armoire with a sign reading “Open me if You Dare!”or something to that effect.  He was donated to the museum shortly after it opened by a local doctor, and is the skeleton of an approximately 40 year old man.  Harvey the dog served in the Civil War from 1862, when he was adopted by soldiers after wandering into camp, until the war ended in 1865, and was wounded at least three times.  He bears a close resemblance to Pete from The Little Rascals, so was probably at least part Staffie.   In keeping with the military theme, the basement galleries also currently hold an exhibition of art done by veterans; some of the pieces are quite impressive.

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The ground floor only has one gallery, and it is presently devoted to a temporary exhibition featuring local artists.  Though some of them are representative of everything I hate about modern art (random piles of crap, paintings of poorly drawn multi-coloured squares, etc), others were pretty cool.  I loved the painting of ravens and lilies, and there were some funny cat pictures too, especially the one of the cat with bat wings.  The jewellery made with real butterfly wings was skillfully done, but you all know of my lepidopterophobia, so I had to quickly look away so I didn’t get icked out.

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Upstairs is home to the museum’s best loved attraction, the Immel Circus, hand-carved over a period of years by a local dentist, Robert Immel.  He apparently had such fond memories of childhood trips to the circus with his uncle that he wished to recreate it (in miniature, obviously) and would exhibit it to children after their dentist appointments (remember, this was the 1940s we’re talking about here).  It consists of 2,620 tiny pieces, and takes up most of the room.  I read that Immel was allergic to the mahogany he carved the miniature horses from, and had to actually receive allergy shots so he could finish working on his project!  Now that’s dedication!  I’m not a big circus fan myself, both because of their clowns, and their shameful reputation where animal welfare is concerned, but this model circus is pretty awesome.  My favourite part was probably the sideshow, and I kind of loved the straightforward names he gave to the attractions (the “fat man” was simply known as “Mr. Obese.” Delightfully to the point).

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Although the circus is enough of an attraction in its own right, they’ve filled out the gallery with other circus related objects, including a collection of acrobats’ costumes, a large tiger painting, some hand-carved clowns, and a few pictures of circus employees.  The clowns in the old-timey pictures are notably creepy (I’ve been writing about a lot of clowns lately, for which I am terribly sorry.)

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I’m really interested in the story of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, so I was excited to see the small case on them and PT Barnum at the back of the room.  The artefacts on show included a photo album belonging to Tom Thumb (which we could only see two pages of, maybe make copies of the other pages for people to leaf through?), a dwarf-sized knife and fork, and, most thrillingly of all, a box containing a piece of their wedding cake!  Again, the box was closed, so I just had to hope it was in there; I would imagine it’s probably in a sorry state these days anyway, but still might have been interesting to at least see a picture of the cake from the wedding, if such a thing exists?

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There were a few other rooms on this floor; being Massillon, there was naturally one on football, devoted largely to Paul Brown, who was evidently a famous football coach from Massillon, and Paul David, another famous coach who was following in Brown’s footsteps; you could have your picture taken with a cutout of one of them, but I cannot for the life of me remember which one, he’s pictured just above if anyone else knows.  Also thrown in here was a temporary exhibit about a local nursing school, with a few medical bits and bobs, a small photographic exhibit of photos from the 1940s, which I enjoyed, and some triptychs and other 15th and 16th century religious art that is part of the collections to pay homage to the man Massillon is named for: Catholic missionary Jean Baptiste Massillon  (who never visited the town; it was named by city founder James Duncan). The section I was keenest on was the small Civil War display against the back wall, where I learned about the regiments of Camp Massillon. Tragically, many of the local soldiers who survived the war were killed during the explosion of the Sultana, which was a Mississippi River steamboat overloaded with soldiers who had just been released from Confederate prison camps, and were on their way home when the explosion happened.  1,800 people died, 83 of them from the division that included Massillon (I’ve always known sultanas (as in raisins) will result in nothing good).

And on that rather depressing note, I’ll end my tour of the museum.  Well, I should mention that the compact gift shop downstairs had Oscar and Harvey magnets, which I found kind of exciting, and there’s a coffee shop right in the lobby, which is probably quite handy in these winter months.  The museum isn’t all that big; you can easily see everything within an hour, though you might want to spend extra time examining the intricacies of the Immel Circus.  3/5.

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4 comments

  1. Jessica,
    Very informative and interesting blog! I came across your site after reading a nice article you wrote about German Christmas villages in London on a separate website. I look forward to reading more, so keep writing.

    1. Thank you! I do some guest blogging here and there, but my own blog is really where I can let all my opinions out! (I’m assuming you’re my cousin Mike, since there’s not too many of us Sajovies out there.)

      1. Yep. I figured you might recognize the last name. I’m going to forward your site to Aunt Pat and Uncle Norm so more Sajovies can learn more about all these neat places you are seeing and writing about.

  2. What a cool little museum! These town museums are my favourite bits of Americana. I also happen to be a descendent of General Tom Thumb, so it was a treat to see him mentioned here! I must stop by Massillon next time I’m in Ohio.

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