You know you're in a "museum" on the windy agricultural plains of eastern Colorado when a significant portion of the featured collection is screwed and stapled into the ceiling.
But, really, you should expect nothing less when visiting two roadside attractions fit for inclusion in the recently published Weird Colorado travel guide. The whole point to venturing 100 miles east of Colorado Springs to Arriba and Genoa for a summer daytrip is to see something that makes you say, "Holy buckets!" — or just to hear that exclamation from a tour guide at Granpa Jerry's Clown Museum.
And yes, I just said Granpa Jerry's Clown Museum. There is one. It's a coulrophobe's worst nightmare — and for the rest of us, one of those magically odd places you have to see and feel for yourself.
The same can be said of Jerry Chubbuck's Genoa Tower & Museum (or World's Wonder View Tower) just 13 miles down the road, where more than 20,000 arrowheads and other Native American artifacts are tightly displayed alongside other rare archeological finds; tens of thousands of antique bottles and homesteader tools; peculiar artworks; and top-drawer curios like the "world famous two-headed calf."
Truly, to the same extent that your typical world's largest this or world's greatest that fails to excite, these two destinations, only by coincidence so close together, deliver. Your Facebook photo album (and, possibly, your psyche) will never be the same.
Not being a farm boy, here's something I learned while at Granpa Jerry's Clown Museum: Cows, like cats, get hairballs. But theirs sit in their stomachs and are commonly removed during the butchering process.
"OK, but what does this have to do with clowns?" you might rightfully ask.
Well, Jerry "Granpa" Eder had a friend named Frank who worked at a packing plant and collected those bovine clumps. "He used to do all kinds of different things with hairballs," says my aforementioned guide, Dale Ann Amen, gifting me not only my most unique quote of the year, but insight into perhaps the single most unusual item in the collection of some 5,000 clown-centric objects.
Turns out that one of those things Frank did with a baseball-sized hairball was paint a clown's face on it, complete with a red nose and messy tufts of red hair protruding from the sides. He then mounted it on a small board depicting the ruffle-shirted clown's torso, one arm raised with a cigarette to the hairball's mouth, completing a nice 3-D effect and "Three Ring Respite," as he named the artwork.
Like Jerry's brother Larry and others who worsened the commodities trader's clown-amassing "disease," Frank donated the work to Jerry's collection. For years, Jerry stored it all on shelves in his apartment in Sterling, the northeast Colorado town where he and Dale Ann met and fell in love in 1990.
It came to Arriba, six miles from the farm where he was born and raised, when the two moved there in 2001 to be close to Jerry's mother. And there they made a museum out of a 200ish-square-foot, unheated shed detached from Dale Ann's adjacent home, which was years ago used as a television repair shop. Now, it has pink and purple trim, clown knick-knacks affixed to the front, and brightly painted plywood accents that create a giant clown's face out of the south-facing wall and two small windows (as eyes).
A brochure available next to a guest registry inside claims that Granpa Jerry's is the largest collection of its kind in such a small building.
Inside, the vibe is less Rob Zombie and John Wayne Gacy than it is P.T. Barnum and James A. Bailey. Among the memorabilia: cookie jars, a lunch box, clowns painted on black velvet and a saw blade, music boxes, porcelain figurines, plates, tea sets, games, dolls, records, DVDs, noisemakers, coffee mugs, pictures of family members and friends dressed as clowns, a beer stein, ashtrays, and onyx-based sculptures crafted by a protégé of famed performer Red Skelton.
Aside from items gifted, the girth of the mirth was purchased by Jerry and Dale Ann while "junkin'."
"That's what we called it, and we had fun," Dale Ann says, dramatically emphasizing those final syllables.
For some items they paid as little as a dollar, but the more rare pottery, for instance, commanded upward of $200 per item. In all, Dale Ann projects that she and Jerry put around $125,000 of their own money into the collection.
That's no small sum, especially considering that the former bartender is struggling to pay off her new vinyl siding on small paychecks from managing the nearby D-J Petro gas station.
And she's doing it without Jerry. He passed away in September, from heart surgery-related complications, at age 66.
Dale Ann has since stopped actively collecting, and hasn't mustered the emotion to tackle a whole van-load of donated clown items parked on her property's edge (wrapped in newspapers dated 1963). Not that there'd be room to incorporate them into the museum without expanding it — which, as she says, would compromise the novelty of "all these clowns in this little bitty space."
The collection today is just as Jerry left it; my early May tour marked only the second time Dale Ann had entered the space since September.
"He's touched every one of these and put them where they're at," she says, "which is why I don't want to move them."
Fool for a laugh
Dale Ann says they weren't formerly clown people at all. It technically started in 1978, when Jerry received the gift of a mirror emblazoned with a semi-transparent clown countenance. Then, she says, another friend drew him one, followed by yet another person giving him a dozen or so clown items. The random gifting and unintentional collecting continued until the two met and formalized it all: "This was our journey together," she says.
During my brief journey, Dale Ann shows off her single favorite clown named Gordo (Spanish for "fat") because her best friend literally constructed him, exposed butt-crack and all, out of a dried gourd. Later, we pass a 15-year-old photo of Jerry wearing a red clown's nose that inspires pause.
"He was a prankster," she says. "He was so funny. Everybody loved Jerry. He was a goofball, but a good one ... he could be slamming you so hard, and you'd think he was paying you a compliment."
Over the past decade in the town of around 200 — huddled around its grain elevator and few remaining businesses since the interstate killed the old grocery stores and the like — Jerry would toil in his garden outside the museum on most days. When curious guests would drop by, he'd stop his work to show them around, accepting tour tips in a tall cream can labeled "dough-nations." Dale Ann gave that money to her church after his passing and gave the can to Jerry's mother, who'd requested it.
It really hasn't been very long, since then. The garden hasn't yet sprung back to life, even though a surprise batch of tulips that Dale Ann didn't know Jerry planted has brightly emerged. And though smiling faces abound inside the museum's bright purple door, the shelves need to be dusted before the season opening. Soon, guests from afar — even from other countries — will swing through to marvel at the thousands of clowns.
But for now, Dale Ann is thinking of just one.
"I used to say, 'Kiss me, you fool,' and he'd say, 'I'd be a fool not to.'"
Bones and bottles
"Public sale ... at 12:00 midnight next day ... 1 gray gelding mare with false teeth, always 6 years old ... 1 Castor Oil manure spreader — works while you sleep ... 20 monkey wrenches without monkey ... 1 10-Ga. shotgun, been used in 2 weddings ...
Thus reads a gag promotional flier for the Genoa Tower & Museum, also called the World's Wonder View Tower. Eighty-year-old owner Jerry Chubbuck wrote the pamphlet himself, which comes as no surprise to me, after he's placed everything from dinosaur turds to an oosik (a fossilized walrus penis bone) in my hand for inspection.
"Now you might get this one — what is it?" he asks.
"I really have no idea," I say.
"No? [Pregnant, well-rehearsed pause indicative of the half million times he's played this game with tourists.] "They're rooster glasses. They'd put them on roosters so they wouldn't peck at each other. That's true!"
Then comes a comb-like metal contraption apparently used by Civil War soldiers to polish their buttons quickly without staining their jackets. Next, a "butt gauge" used for butt hinges on a door, but good for a joke about it not being a doctor's tool.
This whole exchange started after I paid my $1 admission and lucked out by being the only visitor at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday. Before sending me toward the tower for my climb, Chubbuck had stopped at one of his many display cases to quiz me on these odd objects. Most are so unusual that I'm not sure if he's bullshitting me or if he's just truly managed to collect every goofy invention or artifact that the average person won't recognize, including at least half a dozen objects whose design fails to let on that they're built for cracking nuts.
I finally break away and climb six stories' worth of stairs, which twist through multicolored rooms filled with old bottles, campy paintings and gewgaws of all sorts. It's as if I've found the place where everything that's not sold at a yard sale goes to die. It's like a vertical Goodwill display gone 100 percent trailer-park. It's ... awesome.
In the final landing before the stairs turn steep and narrow, almost stepladder-like, a pigeon who's flown through the open hatch above scares the hell out of me by suddenly flapping every which way but up and away. I retreat, and then make a mad climb for it into the cold afternoon wind.
And there I stand, at what was reportedly confirmed by the U.S. Geological Survey to be the highest point between New York City and Denver in the mid-1930s, from which Ripley's Believe It or Not certified the ability on a clear day to see landmarks in six states: Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, New Mexico and South Dakota.
Through this day's general haziness, I can easily make out Pikes Peak and Kansas' flat horizon, but that's about it. I'm more impressed by what's visible inside the museum below.
You can glean all the history of the Wonder Tower and museum that you care to from a neat four-page brochure Chubbuck sells for a couple bucks. The short of it is that a railroad man named Charles W. Gregory and his partner Myrtle Le Bow constructed the tower in the late '20s at the site of a former Lawrence and Pikes Peak Stagecoach line stop. It, along with a restaurant, gas station and motel (none of which are present today) attracted passersby from U.S. Highway 24.
They also built a long, rock-walled building with novel features like a petrified wood room and the Indian Room, featuring more than 1,000 paintings done by a Sioux princess. An old dance hall houses a stage that's slanted dramatically backward, supposedly to keep drunk musicians from pitching forward into the crowds.
Today, those rooms and some dozen others, including long hallways that Chubbuck added to connect everything when he bought the outfit 50 years ago, are filled with the aforementioned bottles, tools and archaeological discoveries. Chubbuck, a former rancher, was also an amateur archaeologist with two major discoveries to his name: a 75,000-year-old, seven-foot imperial mammoth tusk found in 1956 and an 8,000-year-old bison kill site found in 1957, where some 200 animals were driven into a deep arroyo. Both were uncovered near Kit Carson while Chubbuck was searching for arrowheads, and portions of both finds are in the museum, providing serious and sharp contrast to the oversized items made into Texas jokes, the two-headed calf and murky jars filled with oddities like a one-eyed pig and white rattlesnake.
Chubbuck dug all the bottles from old landfills and dumps, and he has so many that he's landscaped entire garden features outside with them and filled the interiors of two antique cars with them. Truly, there's so much to see at the Genoa Tower and Museum that at least a couple hours are needed to properly tour. And the majority of what you see is for sale, to supplement the meager admission prices.
"Just about break even is all we do," Chubbuck says.
When I ask about the future of the site, he says he has three children who may just wish to have one big sale after he passes on, unless someone else makes him a lucrative offer beforehand. But he's not holding out for that, and says he's happy to still work in the museum daily.
"I'd just finish out my life right here," he says. "I enjoy talking to people, you know, so that's that."
Sure. Except that it feels like nothing in this eclectic bizarro wonderland could really be so cut-and-dried.