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Big cities boast of well-known museums to see world-class art by names you’ve heard of, say, Picasso or Monet. But a drive around the American heartland reveals a treasure trove of small quirky museums that are not devoted to works of art but to obscure slices of history. They display true chunks of Americana.
I was driving in central Wisconsin when I saw a small billboard advertising the Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bike Museum in Sparta. As a space buff I remembered that Slayton was an astronaut from NASA’s early days. That alone was enough to get me to take the exit, but I was also curious to find out how an astronaut’s museum shares space with exhibits devoted to bicycles. So off to Sparta to the Deke Slayton Museum I went.
Born on a nearby farm, Deke Slayton was one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. However, due to a heart murmur he didn’t fly on any of the original missions. He made up for that later by piloting the docking module on the Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975.
The museum has heaps of memorabilia from throughout Slayton’s career as an astronaut and his early flying career which included over 60 missions as a bomber pilot in World War II. You can see his Mercury Seven space suit, along with the obligatory moon rock. It’s a pretty interesting close-up of a man who led a fascinating life.
But what did it have to do with bicycles? I suppose Slayton rode a bike as a kid but that’s not the connection. As the docent pointed out quite proudly, Sparta was an early pioneer in turning abandoned railroad tracks into bike trails.
In 1966, the state of Wisconsin purchased the old train route and built the 32-mile Elroy-Sparta bike trail. It is considered the first of its kind in the country and was the inspiration for “rails to trails” projects across America.
The museum expands on this local color to present an exhibit about the history of the bicycle in America. Dozens of old bicycles are on display; if you’re lucky maybe you’ll see the Schwinn Sting Ray with a banana seat that you coveted as a child.
The ladies in the wonderfully named “Rockets & Sprockets” gift shop were delightful. They were so homespun I half expected them to be sitting in a quilting circle. They were excited to welcome a visitor and asked if I had come for the space exhibit or the bicycles. I replied, “Both,” which sent them into even more of a tizzy.
I told them that if they added a display of baked goods I’d probably move to the town and settle in. When Gladys overheard that I was interested in cookies and cakes she suggested I go to Ginny’s Cupboard a few blocks away. Trusting her recommendation I strolled over there and found an old-fashioned soda fountain and café. The baked goods were stacked up on the counter like bricks and I couldn’t resist a hunk of banana toffee cake that was big enough to serve as a wheel chock for a 747.
Astronauts, bikes and pastries, can a day get any better?
Click the link to learn more about the Deke Slayton Museum.