Investigate clocks, toys, fine photography, and more at these little-known collections in America’s heartland.
By Mildred Jailer-Chamberlain
Many travelers delight in attractions that aren’t well-trod by the general populace. And when you’re on the road, finding objects you may once have collected and doted on, or are continuing to collect and prize, is like meeting old friends. Museums are often your handiest source for such discoveries, especially if you know beforehand that your favorites are on display.
A spot check of Midwestern museums reveals a few locations that may strike your fancy “” or simply appeal to your inner child. State travel offices can usually provide brief listings of additional sites. For now, here are four worth mentioning.
Say, for example, that you enjoy children’s toys. At the Eugene Field House and St. Louis Toy Museum, a treasure trove of playthings awaits, ranging from charming antique dolls and an 1890s child-size steam train to a wooden rocking horse dating back to the 1850s.
Indeed, this is a wonderful place to study old toys. They are casually arranged throughout the handsome brick townhouse that was the boyhood home of Eugene Field, of children’s poetry fame. He wrote such poems as “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,” “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” “The Sugar-Plum Tree,” and “Little Boy Blue.”
Every room in the house is furnished in the 19th-century Victorian style as it might have been when the Field family was in residence. The home includes artifacts from Eugene Field as well as items from Sabine Farm, his home in Chicago. The toys, scattered through the rooms, give a realistic impression of active children about to enter and pick up a plaything or two.
The Field family made lasting marks on American society. In addition to children’s poetry, Eugene Field was the first to write a “personal” newspaper column. He also penned several books, including Culture’s Garland and With Trumpet And Drum. Eugene’s father, Roswell Martin Field, earned prominence while serving as the attorney for Dred Scott and his family in the landmark Supreme Court case that preceded the Civil War.
A special exhibit of teddy bears is on display at the museum until October 20, 2003. From November 5 through December 31, “Toys Brought to Life From the Printed Page,” a collection of dolls, games, stuffed animals, and more that were inspired by everything from children’s stories to comic books, will be featured.
The Eugene Field House and St. Louis Toy Museum is at 634 S. Broadway in St. Louis. Between March and December, it is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4:00 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults and 50 cents for children under age 12. For more information, call (314) 421-4689 or visit www.eugenefieldhouse.org.
What time is it? That question is easy to answer at the Bily Clock Museum in tiny Spillville, Iowa (population 500), where an array of clocks are displayed in elaborately carved wooden cases. They depict historic figures, places, and events and, in some instances, are fitted with music-making mechanisms and moving figures. Even one of these marvels can be intriguing, so imagine a museum full of them! In all, more than 40 timepieces can be studied at this impressive museum.
The carved, black walnut Westminster Abbey and Chimes of Normandy Clock has two sets of working chimes; each plays a tune appropriate to its related site. The Apostles Parade Clock is almost nine feet tall. In it, the 12 Apostles move as the clock chimes the hour. This intricately carved Gothic wooden church includes arches, a belfry, a lamp, and exterior features such as gargoyles. Inside is a pulpit bearing a diminutive Bible “” in fact, few details are overlooked.
Both the surface and open interior are a mass of figures on The Statuary Clock. Carvings of day and night decorate each side of the pediment. Carvings of Iowa’s old capitol, the Fort Atkinson barracks, and San Miguel chapel at Santa Fe (the oldest church in the United States) are on its base. And the interior of the nine-foot six-inch clock is a sight to behold, as it includes busts and statues of Shakespeare, Wagner, Dvorak, Lincoln, Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Ibsen, Masaryk, local notables, and a pioneer woman. Four figures positioned on the clock floor represent an orchestra and are moved by a mechanism while a large musical bell instrument plays a tune.
The clocks were the creation of brothers Joseph and Frank Bily (pronounced bee-lee), bachelors of Czechoslovakian ancestry who devoted the summer months to farming and carpentry and the long winter months to clock-making. Joseph designed the clocks and chose the wood that would be used for the cases. Younger brother Frank was responsible for the carving, using tools the brothers formed themselves “” as well as some dental picks. For the most part, the clocks were built with local timber, such as black or American walnut, butternut, hard maple, and oak. Other woods, including mahogany, boxwood, white holly, and European cherry, were imported for the Bily’s earlier clocks.
After making the cases, the brothers filled them with factory-made clockworks and chimes. The only exception was the 1913 Hall Clock, built with wooden wheels, shafts, dial hands, and figures. It’s a tribute to their hometown, with Swiss chimes that play as little doors open to reveal the old Spillville village band.
It is said that Henry Ford offered the Bily brothers $1 million for their American Pioneer Clock, which is more than 8 feet tall and took four years to build. It contains 57 panels that depict events in U.S. history. As the story goes, the brothers refused the offer. In 1947 they arranged to donate their clocks to Spillville in a will that stipulated the clocks would never be sold and always remain on town property.
Spillville is a predominantly Czech village that has retained much of its heritage. Czech is still spoken there, and warm hospitality is practiced. In addition, neatly kept lawns, old-fashioned gardens, and the picturesque town square in the business district give Spillville a small-town feel. On the east side of the village, bordered by the Turkey River, is serene Spillville Park, centered by a pavilion surrounded by picnic grounds.
One of Spillville’s chief points of pride is that noted Czech composer Antonin Dvorak spent the summer of 1893 in the house now occupied by the Bily Clock Museum. Dvorak composed several pieces there. His “American Quartet,” which debuted in Spillville, has since become a favorite with music lovers around the world. In recognition of Dvorak’s stay in Spillville, the Bily brothers made a clock in the form of a violin that includes Dvorak’s carved portrait. The museum also includes a display that describes Dvorak’s brief yet productive stay in the little town.
The Bily Clock Museum is in northeastern Iowa, approximately 60 miles north of Cedar Falls. It is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. between May and October; daily in April from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; and on weekends in November and March from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. For more information, phone (563) 562-3569 or visit www.ubr.com/clocks/museum/bily/bily.html.
Antique American-made duck decoys are some of the most sought-after items on the collectibles market, and with good reason. Fine craftsmanship, designs, and colors have earned them recognition as forms of folk art. A wonderful opportunity to see and study a generous collection of these, as well as handmade bed covers, is available at The Lakeview Museum of Art and Science in Peoria, Illinois.
As the museum’s name suggests, it offers a diverse permanent collection that includes paintings, prints, and sculptures, as well as area artifacts from the pre-Columbian period. Natural science is not neglected, either, as minerals, fossils, and insect specimens are included.
Textiles, carvings, pottery, and folk paintings can be perused in the folk art gallery. Elsewhere in the museum, visitors can see period furniture, silver, and porcelains on display. The museum also boasts a planetarium where special effects whisk visitors away via interactive optical laser disc technology. The universe can be toured with a map of the Community Solar System, which is reputed to be the world’s largest planetary model.
As for the decoys and bed coverlets, they are part of the museum’s folk art collection. Decoys produced by more than 200 carvers in the Illinois River Valley are among the permanent collection. Carvers tended to develop regional styles, and Illinois River Valley decoys are distinctive for their round bodies, V-shaped bottoms with lead strip weights, finely carved heads, and colorfully painted designs.
In the 1820s coverlets (bedcovers) were produced on hand looms with special mechanized attachments invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard of France. With these looms, weavers were capable of creating complex designs that embodied floral, patriotic, and architectural motifs, as well as flowers, birds, stars, and buildings. Most of the designs were taken from European traditions.
When the eastern part of the United States was saturated with these goods “” and industrialization began to threaten their livelihoods “” the weavers loaded the bulky looms on wagons and moved westward. They traveled from town to town, giving customers a choice of designs and colors. Eighteen weavers, mostly German emigrants, produced at least 140 fancy coverlets in Illinois between 1841 and the 1880s. Of the 120 coverlets known to exist today, 22 are in the museum’s folk art gallery.
The Lakeview Museum of Art and Science is at 1125 W. Lake Ave. in Peoria, Illinois. It is open from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Wednesday; from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Saturday; and from noon to 5:00 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors, and $3 for children ages 4 to 17. Planetarium shows cost $1 extra. Phone (309) 686-7000 or visit www.lakeview-museum.org for more information.
The Massillon Museum in Massillon, Ohio, has a permanent collection with approximately 100,000 objects in 94 categories. A Massillon-made automobile; musical instruments; period costumes; military artifacts; quilts; books; medical equipment “” the list seems almost endless. The museum is renowned for its exhibit called the Immel Circus, a 100-square-foot miniature replica of a circus, carved by Massillon dentist Dr. Robert Immel. The exhibit is accompanied by hundreds of circus-related photos and books.
Another of the museum’s strong points is its photography collection, which numbers in the thousands. It includes some of the earliest photos taken in Ohio during the 1850s, plus works by early female photographers such as Belle Johnson and Nell Dorr. You may recognize several of these photos, because they have been used in a variety of media over the years.
The work of nationally known photographers is also housed there. It is not unusual for images from the museum’s permanent collection to be reproduced in national publications, such as American Heritage, Time-Life books, and Fotofolio, as well as pictorial-edition books and posters. The same image of a local 1880s barn raising, for example, has been featured as the cover of the national United Way annual report; as a poster by the U.S. Postal Service to promote a volunteerism stamp; as a mural in U.S. embassies; at the Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C.; as a pattern for a Tournament of Roses Parade float in Pasadena, California; and to illustrate economics, history, and art texts around the world.
The art deco building in which the museum is housed is itself a work of art. It was built in 1931 and originally served as a dry goods store. The museum opened there in 1996 after the building underwent a $1.9 million renovation.
The Massillon Museum is at 121 Lincoln Way E. (State Route 172) in downtown Massillon. Admission is free, and parking is available on adjacent streets and in city lots at no charge. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sundays from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. For more information, phone (330) 833-4061 or visit www.massillonmuseum.org.