Posts

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.

Deke Slayton Museum

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.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the death of blues rock guitar great Stevie Ray Vaughan. On August 26th, 1990, he had just finished a monster show at the Alpine Valley ski resort in Wisconsin. Other players on the bill included his brother Jimmie, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray. The concert ended with all the performers on stage for a rousing rendition of Sweet Home Chicago. That would be Stevie Ray’s last song.

After the show the performers boarded helicopters to fly back to Chicago. They were going to meet up and play a gig at Buddy Guy’s club. Stevie, his pilot and two others never made it. Flying through unfamiliar terrain on a foggy night, the pilot crashed into the ski slope. Stevie Ray Vaughan was 35.

stevie ray vaughan crash site alpine valley

The ski slope that wasn’t seen in the fog.

In a strange turn of events, his death is what got me into taking up the guitar. As so often happens after the death of a musician, radio stations play their music more frequently. I guess hearing them somehow softens the blow. Listening to his music I became attracted to his Texas attitude to blues and rock. No one before or since sounds quite like him.

On August 27th, 1995, the 5th anniversary of Stevie’s death, I saw his older brother Jimmie perform in concert. The prior year he had released his first album since the accident. It contained a tribute song called Six Strings Down, the story of a guitar slinger called up to heaven too early, and meeting other blues icons such as Jimi Hendrix and Albert Collins. As Jimmie sang that song on a sweltering summer night on the Camden waterfront, the emotions were still raw. Tears and sweat merged to form a river of pain. It was the most emotional performance I’ve ever seen at a concert.

On a recent road trip I stopped in at Alpine Valley to see the place where Stevie Ray last performed. The concert stage looked like dozens of others that welcome summer touring shows. But this one felt different. It hosted the last live performance of a music legend. The gloomy sky, laden with gray storm clouds, mirrored how I felt as I stood in the empty arena.

alpine valley srv final concert

The concert stage at Alpine Valley.

As I got into my car and drove away, the sky finally opened up and the rains came pouring down. I flipped on the wipers and slid in a CD I had brought along for the trip; the opening notes of The Sky Is Crying filled the car as Stevie once again wailed away on his battered old Fender Stratocaster.

Last year  I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. It surprised me that Stevie Ray Vaughan is still not enshrined there. Rolling Stone magazine has already selected him as the 7th greatest guitarist of all time. Not bad for a scruffy kid from Oak Cliff, Texas. Maybe the anniversary of his early death will shine a new light on Stevie Ray’s brilliant career.

UPDATE 2015:

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.

SRV Stevie Ray Vaughan statue Austin texas

The Stevie Ray Vaughan statue in Austin, Texas.

Related Post: Bruce Springsteen – A holy relic in denim and sweat

What are some of your memories of Stevie Ray?

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

As a hot dog lover I made a pilgrimage to the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin. Curator Barry Levinson shows up for work every day proudly wearing his Boston Red Sox hat. It’s fitting that Barry wears a Red Sox cap to work since it was one of the team’s historic collapses that inspired the idea for the mustard museum.

After they lost to the Mets in a monumental collapse in the 1986 World Series, he took a long walk in the chill of an autumn night. As he tells it, “I was walking around a supermarket while pondering the meaning of life when I came across the mustard aisle.” In a scene right out of the movie Field of Dreams he heard a voice saying, “If you collect us, they will come.” And so the National Mustard Museum was born, which appropriately enough has mustard colored walls.

National Mustard Museum barry

Barry in the tasting room

Barry didn’t seem so eager to relive that night but loved talking about mustard. He has on display more than 5,000 mustards from all 50 states and more than 60 countries. Mustard really is a universal condiment. Many of these mustards are for sale and there is even a tasting area to try them out first. The mustard bar reminded me of a wine tasting room at a Napa Valley vineyard. Each mustard was slathered on a cracker as I compared the nuances of each one. Up until now mustard for me was divided into two categories: yellow and brown.

National Mustard Museum

Just one of the walls of mustard

But Levinson’s collection goes way beyond those two simple blends. I tried some flavored with lime, blueberries and wasabi and had a few shipped out as gifts. In the end, the National Mustard Museum should more appropriately be called the National Mustard Gift Shop since there are so many types to purchase, but I don’t think that would attract the crowds as much. I know if the place didn’t have “Museum” added to the name I wouldn’t have made the detour to visit it.

mustard vending machine

Mustard vending machine

It got me thinking though. Barry was clever enough to take his obsession and turn it into a museum. Even though admission is free, he is making a good living on the sale of mustard and mustard related products. Which of your hobbies could you turn into a shop, add “museum” to the name and sit back as the carloads of fans started eagerly arriving? A relative of mine has a collection of over 500 cookie jars. I keep trying to convince her to create a museum, bake some cookies for sale and ride into retirement on the coattails of her collection. Who knew that being a pack rat could be so lucrative?

Go if you’re interested in: Condiments, food history, Boston Red Sox

What makes it special? You’ll never see more mustards in a jar than here.

If you like this you’ll also like: SPAM Museum, Austin, Minnesota

Tips: Bring an appetite for the free tastings and plan on eating some local weiners for dinner.

Website: National Mustard Museum