Northeast Ohio

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.

Canton, Ohio: Canton Classic Car Museum

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If you think I typically enjoy car museums, you’d be wrong; however, if you think the Classic Car Museum in Canton is anything like a normal car museum, you’d also be wrong.  I’ve been to a lot of museums in Canton, and they all seem to share a delightful sense of quirkiness; looking at the above photos, you can quickly see their car museum is no exception.  I was greeted at the door by Norm, who I later found out was having his 86th birthday that day.  He was just an exceptionally sweet and lovely guy who was eager to help with any questions (plus I have a total soft spot for old people because of my awesome (now deceased) grandparents).  Admission was $7.50, which I initially thought (anticipating the museum would be quite small) was a bit spendy, however, after actually experiencing all the museum had to offer, I think it was a fair price.

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Now, I’ve been to a lot of museums in my time that were essentially just random collections of crap, but right from the start, this was one of the most extensive and eclectic (and in a nicer building than most).  On their website, they essentially promise something for everyone, and they weren’t lying.  The first room was large and open, but the walls were covered in old signs, and there were cases everywhere filled with old toys, hood ornaments, and pretty much every other kind of old, random junk you could think of (in fact, they had a case of “mystery items,”of which you were supposed to guess their use).  There’s even a scavenger hunt that you can do, which was surprisingly hard given the number of objects to be found.

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Since it is close to Christmas, they’d put up a few trees, and draped boas and Santa hats over their collection of cardboard cutouts of old movie stars.  I jumped a little when a mini-Bruce the Talking Spruce who was evidently motion activated starting suddenly singing at me (is Bruce the Talking Spruce just a Cleveland thing, or do other cities have similar anthropomorphic trees?  I’m not counting that creepy-ass talking oak tree In London’s Winter Wonderland because Bruce was adorable but that oak tree freaks me out).  Speaking of creepy things, there was a clown who looked like his face was melting stood in one corner, amongst other, slightly less frightening clowns.  Coulrophobes beware!

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The next room was the “Canton History Room,” with the usual sorts of things about local businesses and local history, but of course, William McKinley lived in Canton, and you must all know by now how much I adore presidential history.  (Also, everyone please take note of the McKinley and Hanna political cartoon above, apparently drawn by a William Jennings Bryan supporter.)  Thus, the McKinley display case was an absorbing find.

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It was only one small case, but there was a lot crammed into it.  You can see his top hat above, but I’m including a few more highlights below…

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The picture on the left is of Katie McKinley’s baby bracelet.  Both the McKinley daughters died in childhood; little Ida as an infant, and Katie at the age of 4, from typhoid fever, thus the bracelet was probably a poignant reminder for Ida (Sr.) and William.  In the back of the photo on the right, you can see a sort of assemble-it-yourself paper doll of President McKinley.  That’s the kind of paper doll I would have loved as a child (though those historical American Girl ones weren’t too bad either!).

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Above you’ll see some kind of odd attempt to make the largest flag in the world, which appears to have taken place outside the McKinley memorial, and finally, a memorial plaque made for McKinley.  I was already super excited about all of this, but the next room had a hat rack full of old fashioned hats that you could put on for a photo op.  I’d just watched the film Laura, with Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb, and so my choice was inspired by one of the chapeaux Laura donned in the film, though I am sadly nowhere near as attractive as Gene Tierney, especially with my chin wodged on a wooden cutout and making a stupid face.

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Like the rooms that preceded it, this one was also full of curiosities.  Judging solely by the plaid “invalid style” blanket next to him, I believe there was a life sized cartoonish FDR mannequin, but he could have equally been George Bush the younger.  You’ll probably already have spotted the Frankenstein racer and the mummy at the start of the post, and there were a lot of hatters’ head mannequins modelling the styles of yesteryear congregated in one corner.

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Being a fan of the grim and morbid, I was pleasantly surprised to see a small mock-up of a funeral home set up, I suppose, because there was an antique hearse next to it (I should mention that there were cars throughout this whole gallery, but there was so much other stuff I could effectively just ignore them.  But if like a normal person, you have come to a car museum expecting cars, then don’t fear, you will see plenty of them!).

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I kind of love the picture on the right, a dark reminder to “Drive Carefully.” I almost hate to tell you, for fear of putting you off visiting, but there were more clowns in here, in the form of a puppet show that jangled around when you pressed a button.  I don’t like clowns myself, but I promise that except for the melting face one I described earlier, most of the ones here were really not that scary, and none of them are real, so please don’t let them deter you!

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I was amazed to find that there were still more rooms after this; like the TARDIS, the museum was bigger on the inside.  The next room was mostly cars, but I didn’t care because they had Neil Zurcher’s car.  For those of you who aren’t from Northeast Ohio (or over the age of 50, probably), Neil Zurcher was this old guy on a local news channel who drove around in a snazzy car on “One Tank Trips;” basically a segment on slightly offbeat places in the local area that you could get to and back from on one tank of gas.  I think largely because I spent a tonne of time over my grandparents’ house, and often watched TV with them or read whatever books they had laying around, I am very familiar with his work (and in fact, have discovered quite a lot of places around Ohio myself through his books), so it was kind of neat to see his car.

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(That picture on the right is of Bobby Kennedy, before and after airbrushing.  Just thought it was kind of interesting).

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I apologise for the even crappier than normal quality of the above photos, but seriously, aren’t those the ugliest Beatles dolls you’ve ever seen?  Paul is straight-up scary, not to mention Ringo, who wasn’t attractive under the best of circumstances!  And I have an FDR doll that I dearly love, but I think I’d also love to have the one on the right.  Still no wheelchair, but he is wearing a hat, and that is a splendid suit!

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(And yes, that is a guitar made out of a toilet seat behind Elvis’s antler-bedecked head).  As you can see, I had at last wandered into a gallery that was mostly cars, but still with touches of whimsy throughout.  A close-up of the balcony (and part of my finger) is below , and you might spot some familiar faces…

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I found a children’s mechanical reindeer ride, with dimes already laid out for my convenience, so I had to try it, but it felt unfortunately like riding some weird vibrating machine (if you get my drift), and left me with very itchy thighs.   It may have been part of the memorabilia from a long defunct local amusement park called Meyers Lake, along with some awesome-looking arcade machines and games that were sadly no longer working (or maybe they were, but they were blocked off by a rope).

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There was a small shop at the end of all this, from which I purchased a few postcards from lovely Norm (and “all this” meant wandering through about six huge rooms, plus lots of little nooks), but I capped off my visit with a stroll down a side hallway, where I finally espied a typed portrait of FDR made by an inmate that was mentioned on their website.

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I really, really enjoyed my time at this most unusual “car museum.” Sure, a lot of it probably was junk, but there were some gems hidden amongst the collections, particularly all the wonderful presidential artefacts, and I think most people would probably have a good reminisce over all the nostalgic old toys.  And of course, there are the cars too, I mustn’t forget those. Apparently, the collection was curated by both the late Marshall Belden Sr, and his wife, which explains why there is a mix of cars and well, everything else (so a big thanks to Florence Belden!).  I promised Norm I’d spread the word, so that’s what I’m doing here.  Please pay them a visit if you get the chance and you like old stuff arranged with an “old general store” aesthetic, as it really is more than just a car museum!  4/5

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