The strangest stuff in Nevada’s museums
Several years ago, an editor asked me to write something about Nevada’s museums. I wanted to come up with a fresh approach to the topic besides compiling a typical list of museums and their major features, but drew a blank on how to make my story different.
So I mentioned my writer’s block to a friend and he said he has always wondered what kind of bizarre stuff do museums keep in their backrooms? In fact, he suggested I call up museums and ask the question: what’s the weirdest thing you have in your museum collection?
So I did and the results were pretty fascinating. It turns out that if you explore the state’s museums you’ll find some strange things.
Take the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko. There, you’ll find a rather unusual pair of shoes—cow hooves nailed to wooden soles that strap to your feet. These bovine heels were the work of an ingenious cattle rustler named Crazy Tex, who wore them to cover his tracks. It worked for a time, until he was spotted by a lawman while wearing the hoof shoes and leading a herd of stolen cattle.
The Nevada Historical Society in Reno also has some fairly odd artifacts. For example, buried in its archives is a “Merman” skeleton, which is actually a monkey skull that is mounted on the bones of a large fish. Apparently, this alleged sea monster was once displayed in a Reno Curiosities shop and later found its way into the society’s collection.
The archives also contain a two-headed calf with six legs and three tails. Born near Wadsworth in the early 1900s, the stuffed calf was a gift to the society and was publicly displayed for many years.
Another of the society’s more unique historical keepsakes is a soup-stained cloth napkin. According to the society’s staff, President Theodore Roosevelt wiped his famous mustache with the napkin after eating tomato soup during a 1911 visit to Carson City. Rather than wash the linen, someone decided to save it for posterity and gave it to the society.
The Nevada State Museum in Carson City also has its share of weird stuff. If you wander the museum’s history room, you’ll find the dried-out remains of a cat. This dehydrated feline, commonly known as the “mummified cat,” was found in a tree in Genoa in the 1920s. The cat is displayed by the museum as part of an exhibit describing how quickly the desert can dry things out.
In Southern Nevada, the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society has something in its collection that is an only-in-Las Vegas type of thing. Tucked into the museum’s archives is a pair of panties once worn by famed 1940s and 50s stripper Lily St. Cyr. According to the museum, St. Cyr, who performed regularly in Las Vegas, often threw her undergarments into the audience during her act. Some lucky soul who caught the flying underwear donated them to the museum.
Nevada’s rural museums contain their fair share of unconventional relics. For instance, if you look on one of the walls of the Lyon County Museum in Yerington you’ll see a picture made of human hair.
This antique “hair-loom,” which depicts flowers, was made in 1860 by Margaret Nichols, a Smith Valley pioneer. Apparently, creating artwork from combed-out hair was a popular pastime in the 19th century. Thank goodness we now have television.
At the Churchill County Museum in Fallon, you’ll have to ask to see its most risqué display. The item is an elaborate, hand-made saddle with a secret. If you lift up one of the saddle’s front flaps, you’ll find the image of a naked woman engraved in the leather. This bit of saddle porn is, however, historic. A reputable local saddle shop made it in 1911.
Over in Ely’s White Pine Museum, visitors can see one of Nevada’s most macabre artifacts: a human foot bone in an old leather boot. No one is quite sure how the foot ended up in the torn boot. The museum staff speculates that the owner may have severed it in a mining accident,
To date, however, no one has stepped forward with the whole story.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.