King of the Hobbyists
And a wee little place had he.
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David David Smalley liked smallish things. When he found one, he kept it, and eventually he had a million or two. If you’d like to see them, drop by his museum some Saturday or Sunday afternoon and visit Mr. Smalley. Even though he died in 1963, you’ll like him. The Hyde Park Miniature Museum in Houston is the perfect illustration of the dictum that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Almost nothing in the attic room in the white frame house at 1406 Welch is remarkable in itself, but as a unit, the museum is a memorable portrait of the eccentric, compulsive artist, craftsman, and genius that was D. D. Smalley.
To enter the museum, which is marked by a small sign in the yard, one walks down a driveway to the rear of the house, up the back stairs past the rock display and into the neat bright attic. In the center of the long narrow room are two tables. One contains three roller organs, four stereopticons, and boxes full of songs and pictures to fit them; the other is covered with an elaborate electric train layout. Hundreds of displays line the walls of the room and the shelves under the train table. After a minute or two of trying to find the order of the place, one discovers there is none and begins to suspect it is all either a huge put-on or, more likely (and correctly), that the real exhibit is not the artifacts themselves but the spirit of the man who gathered them. There is little point in looking at the museum without hearing about Mr. Smalley, so stop right here by the petrified dinosaur turd and let me tell you about him.
Considering the intensity with which he attacked everything he did, the range of D. D. Smalley’s interests and activities causes one to suspect he had discovered an alchemist’s secret for stretching time. Though he worked fulltime for the Southern Pacific Railroad, he apparently took all of the courses offered by the International Correspondence School. He studied astronomy and constructed two large telescopes, grinding the six- and twelve-inch lenses himself. He taught himself electronics and built a robot that would turn its head, wiggle its ears, sing, dance, and move its mouth while Smalley ventriloquized for it. He played a one-man band device called the Little Jo and, for a time, had a radio program on which he challenged listeners to name a song he could not play from memory. He was an expert draftsman, an accomplished oil painter and chalk-talk artist, a ham radio operator, a natural historian, a juggler, a jokester, and a daring laboratory experimenter who ran thousands of volts of electricity through his body without harm. But perhaps preeminently, he was what he came to be called for much of his later life: The King of Hobbyists.
Just when Smalley first began to take an interest in hobbies is uncertain, but the crucial year of his rise to kingship was 1924 when, after suffering a severe injury to his spine in a fall, he spent the first of several extended periods confined in a body cast that left only his head and arms free. Rather than grow depressed at his fate, Smalley ordered a large bottle, some matchsticks, and thread, and constructed his first major miniature, a bottled rural scene he called My Old Kentucky Home. Pleased with the outcome, he produced numerous other models, then began to make and sell fancy beaded bags. To bolster spirits on the ward, he established a radio fund and rigged up headphones that enabled his bedridden fellows to “let the radio be your legs.” Smalley’s hospital confinement, and very nearly his life, ended when he contracted tuberculosis. Against the recommendation of his doctors, he decided not to die and cured himself by sitting in the sun all day and adhering to a strict vegetarian diet. Still, the long period of hospitalization had left its mark. He conquered TB, but never again would he be without a consuming hobby.
According to his granddaughter Vikki Carlberg, D. D. Smalley thought “just about everything was wonderful” and when something pricked his interest, whether it was optics or electronics, semi-precious stones, arrowheads, stamps, matchbooks, electric trains, model airplanes, clocks, or lucite paperweights, he immersed himself in it until he had, like the composers of classical music and the builders of Notre Dame and Chartres, exhausted the form. Eventually, Smalley’s collections took all the available space in his home and began to fall on people in the night. Rather than throw anything away, he moved it all to the attic and, in January 1941, opened his attic to the public. It drew only 500 visitors in two decades, but he kept it open and used it for a workshop as well. Ms. Carlberg recalls that, “It was never as clean as it is now. Ever. In fact, it’s kind of disappointing to see it without the gray patina and the wonderful smell of dust. But it’s coming back slowly.”
When Smalley died in 1963 the museum shut down and remained closed until 1973, when the family decided something had to be done with the house. To sell it meant cleaning out the attic, and cleaning out the attic meant destroying the museum. They were reluctant to do that. Ms. Carlberg’s brother, Frank Davis, explains: “I often run into people interested in all sorts of things who claim they were started out by my grandfather. He used this place to get people interested in things. Very little of the stuff in here has any value by itself. It only has value as a collection, as a record of the life and mind of a very interesting man. To give the pieces away to different members of the family, or to museums, or just to throw it away, would destroy that record. We hated to see that happen.” To avoid such a step the family decided to rent the house with the understanding that the upstairs room might be reopened as a museum. Davis and Helen Winkler, a friend who fell in love with the place at first exposure and raised about $800 to finance the project, spent weeks cleaning, repairing, rearranging, and re-labeling exhibits, and opened up for a brief period in early 1973. Hardly anyone paid attention and the museum dosed again until Davis, Ms. Carlberg, their sister Laura Jo Davis, and their mother, Laura Smalley Mayfield, got together and devised a workable plan for operating the place. Since February the museum has opened on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from noon to 6 p.m.
The principle of order followed in the displays is the same as that which guided the selection: chance coupled with neatness. The dark side of Smalley’s omnivorous interests was a thoroughgoing lack of discrimination. An early light bulb stands next to several pre-Columbian artifacts. A ring that once belonged to 8’6″ giant Jack Earle is mounted on the same board with a seed from a cucumber tree on the capitol grounds in Washington, D.C.—“No matter where he went, he would always bring back some souvenir—a seed, a dirt sample, a rock, a piece of wood, or something like that.”
Most of the exhibit labels are lettered in Smalley’s own hand—another of his hobbies was calligraphy. Some labels enhance appreciation of the exhibit, such as the one that directs attention to the obsidian arrowpoint lodged in a human kneecap. Others tell no more than that one is looking at an Old Dish, Old Toothbrush, or Old Picture Frame. Apparently because Smalley did not want to overwork the word “old,” he occasionally described something as an Antiquated Vase or Antiquated Spoon.
As we move around the room, we find a splinter from Old Ironsides, a Bible the size of a postage stamp, a badge worn by D. D. Smalley in 1917 when in the War Service, a box that once held Egyptian cigarettes, pennies made into souvenirs at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1934, three California Sauterne bottles, several pesos, an Old Standby Hohner’s harmonica, a pencil from Czechoslovakia, a dressed flea, an 1879 book of Braille, a brick scorched during the London Blitz, a placemat from the Texas Centennial, a gas mask from World War Number One, and a picture of Jesus (unauthenticated). Moving right along, we discover an early X-ray tube and a display illustrating the progression of vacuum tubes through the years (“He was fascinated by progress in technology—with how things work, how they used to work, and how we have improved on them.”); a pocket edition of Edison’s Handy Encyclopedia of General Information and Universal Atlas; a circular wheel showing how to identify enemy war planes; a bottle of Dr. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters, donated by Otto Stasny; a book of tickets from the Southern Pacific Railroad, 1899; a paperweight filled with varicolored sand from the Painted Desert; an old bottle of hair destroyer from Paris, France; a root that had grown through a hinge, “found in a victory garden in Houston, Texas, 1943”; a collection of old typewriters that includes a 1901 Bennett with a single typing element that rotated on much the same principle as the IBM Selectric; a folding safety getter, “used to get things”; a long panoramic picture of the crowd present at the Seventh Annual Southern Pacific Track and Field Meet, 1930; a silverish metal instrument about eighteen inches long and an inch in diameter bearing the legend, “If you know what it is please inform the curator, Hyde Park Miniature Museum”; and a Sunday School certificate indicating that Lillie Bushnell had, at the First Methodist Church on January 1, 1884, pledged herself, “by the help of God to abstain from the use of all intoxicating liquors, including wine, beer, and cider, as a beverage. At last it biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder.” (I signed a similar pledge during Vacation Bible School at the Methodist Church in Devine, Texas, when I was eight years old. Later, however, I was baptized by total immersion and thus freed from the consequences of previous doctrinal error.)
An adequate tour of the museum requires some poking around into the dozens of cigar boxes stacked under the electric train table. Some of the boxes contain assorted items, such as the one with a wire puzzle, a glass scraper, two separated rubber goggles, a bicycle reflector, a yo-yo, a cigarette lighter, a partial set of metal stencils, and a glasses case. Another contains several metal puzzles constructed from Prince Albert cans, two balls, a rubber tire from a toy tractor, a spoon, and a lock. In others, items are grouped according to kind. There are several boxes of clock parts, a box of travel postcards from faraway Europe, a box of used envelopes, a box of German money, a box of small numbered rocks, a box of spools neatly arranged according to color, two boxes of buttons, and a box of patent medicine containers.
At the bottom of a bookshelf that holds a set of ICS handbooks and scrapbooks containing Smalley’s choices of the best cartoons of the years 1946-1948 and 1957, are a stack of cigar boxes with several numbers stenciled on the sides and filled with dozens of small objects wrapped in white paper, numbered, and tied with thread. Smalley felt that children who visited the museum would appreciate it more if they got to take part of it home with them, so he asked them to choose a number between 1-100 and gave them an item that corresponded to their number—a small rock, a watch wheel, a square nail, or whatever.
Still other boxes contain Smalley’s stamp and matchbook collections. Smalley became a stamp collector because his work at Southern Pacific gave him access to large quantities of mail, but he was not a run-of-the-mill philatelist. He seems to have had little interest in rare or unusual stamps. Instead, he and his grandchildren soaked off hundreds of thousands of ordinary one-, two-, three-, and five-cent stamps, sorted them according to color and denomination, tied them with linen thread in neat bundles of a hundred, and stacked them five layers deep in cigar boxes. He processed a quarter of a million stamps this way, and 26 boxes of loose stamps still wait to be bundled.
At some point—“We don’t know exactly why or when. He probably just saw an article in a magazine and decided, ‘I think I’ll do that.’”—Smalley started collecting matchbooks and again amassed approximately a quarter of a million examples. These he mounted on stiff paper and arranged in file boxes according to state, major cities, and such key categories as Hotels and Tourist Courts, Tools and Hardware, Foods and Restaurants, and Smokes. In Box I-L, for example, one can find 34 matchbooks, arranged alphabetically, from hotels and tourist courts in Chicago, Illinois. A sheet from the “Houston Only” box displays twelve slightly different samples of matchbooks distributed by the Old Mexico Tavern—“Dinner 35¢, Enchilada, Taco, Tamal, Chili Gravy, Choice of Beans or Rice. Family trade cordially invited. Eat Here.” Alongside the matchbook containers is a certificate indicating that David D. Smalley was the 714th member of the United Matchonians—“Our Aim; To help one another in every way possible, to get better acquainted and to add to and improve our collection. The person with a hobby never grows old.”
The only one of Smalley’s collections not really represented in the museum is his clocks. For the last few years of his life, he tinkered endlessly with clocks. “It didn’t matter what kind of clock,” Ms. Carlberg says, “just so it was a clock. He had two or three really fine clocks, but he was just as fascinated by a kitchen clock or a clock shaped like an owl whose eyes moved from side to side.” Most of Smalley’s clocks have been sold or given away, but at one point he had collected, repaired, and rebuilt over 900 clocks, all of which he kept ticking. Rather than attempt the legendary task of getting them all to tick at precisely the same time, Smalley carefully set them a few seconds apart so that the bells and chimes and gongs and other sounds they emitted on the hour would not be deafening. Though their eardrums were spared, Frank Davis recalls that all conversation ceased for five to ten minutes around the hours until each of the clocks had gone through its performance. One of the subsets of this collection was a group of two to three hundred kitchen clocks which, externally, appeared virtually identical; internally, each was different from the others.
The periodical section of the museum is on the underside of the train table opposite the matchbooks. Here one finds a complete set of Life magazine from 1936-1947, a set of Modem Mechanics and Invention from 1929-1936, and a reasonably complete set of Popular Mechanics from 1908 to 1936. Alongside these are single copies of several types of detective magazines, a humor magazine called Hooey, and a Hooey Annual. To facilitate access to the best parts of the magazines, Smalley compiled a book titled “Interesting Subjects in Magazines,” which contains references, arranged alphabetically, to April Fool Tricks (the first of 93 entries under A), Astrology—The Truth About, Dodging Lightning, Emergency Solder from Tinfoil, Laboratory Stunts, Walking on Water, and Zinc Plating.
As the magazine index illustrates, Smalley had a passion for keeping track of things. A great deal of what he did and was is reflected not only in the items in the museum, but in the notebooks and ledgers he made throughout his life. During his years in the hospital he kept precise records of the bottled models and beaded purses he made and sold, of the medicines he took and the dates new casts were put on, of donations to the radio fund, and of the 593 people who came to visit him. His log books for the several years he was interested in ham radio reveal that, on morning after morning, he arose and “Called W20JE, 4:32 A.M., No Response. Called W8DYV, 4:45 A.M., No Response. Called W5DJL, 4:55 A.M., No Response.” After five or ten such fruitless attempts to arouse a sleeping world, Smalley would give up and go to work, but shortly after arriving home in the afternoon he would go back to the set for several hours of the mind-numbing exchanges about weather and equipment that radio hamsters misperceive as communication.
When he ground the lenses for the telescopes he made in the early Thirties, Smalley kept exact account in four ledgers of the degree and number of strokes he made on the lenses each day. A book labeled “Our Astronomical Observers” contains the signatures of 365 persons who used the large telescope, including 50 who viewed the total eclipse of the moon on Monday, October 15, 1935, between 9:15 and 11:50 p.m. Finally, after his retirement, he traced the genealogy of his and his wife’s families and. published the findings in two volumes he printed and bound himself. When D. D. Smalley responded to an inquiry, as he often did, with, “It’s in the book,” it was more than just an expression.
When the museum first reopened, members of the family took turns guiding people through. A regular attendant has been hired but, if you are lucky, you may get there on a day when Frank Davis drops in. Davis is an unlikely docent with his beer, his worn Levis, sockless desert boots, T-shirt, and a grin that breaks into a giggle as he shares in the mild sense of absurdity that permeates the place. Davis obviously inherited some of his grandfather’s engaging sense of humor. He will take a cigar box containing 42,000 three-cent stamps and remark: “When he collected these stamps they weren’t worth anything. They still aren’t.” When a father cautioned his children to be careful with the electric train exhibit, Davis agreed. “Yep, if it breaks, it’s broken forever. Of course, we can fix it.” Davis also contributed the only new exhibit in the museum, and it is one his grandfather would have enjoyed: a small bottle of dust cleaned from the wings of the model airplanes during the 1973 restoration.
The new edition of the museum has enjoyed comfortable, if not astounding, success. More people have visited it since February than in the entire 22 years Smalley ran it. Success, of course, has its price. The money Helen Winkler raised has been used up on refurbishing, utilities, and salary for an attendant. The family has absorbed additional expenses but finances could become a problem. Though admission is free, a donation box sporting a monkey who tips his hat when a coin is dropped in, explains that visitors are invited to share in the cost of keeping the place open. Unfortunately, most visitors seem to assume that anyone this eccentric must also have been rich, and contribute only infrequently. “We have had very wealthy people who just love the museum come back several times without ever putting a penny in the box,” Davis noted, but he doesn’t seem unduly worried. “My sister would like for this to be a big thing. To me that is not really important. If we had a lot of publicity, we might get so many people in here that it would destroy the museum. As it is, we just get the cream of the crop. It’s fine with me if only six or seven people come on a weekend, because they are the ones who will really appreciate it. We have seldom had anyone come to see the museum who didn’t come back and bring some other people with them. I think people will find out about it eventually, inevitably.”
Makes sense. That’s how I found out about it. And then I told you. And you’ll tell somebody. I bet Frank’s right.