King of the Hobbyists

And a wee little place had he.

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

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