550 clocks, 1,500 salt and pepper shakers, and various telephones, surveying instruments, measuring tools, computers, maps, and more.
Years in the making
An item the collector would risk his life for
A ten-foot-tall grandfather clock, acquired from a seventh-generation Jefferson family.
A newfound obsession
Vernon Dalhart, a Jefferson native and the first musician to sell one million copies of a country song. Alongside a collection of music instruments, the museum owns five hundred of Dalhart’s records and your hosts will play them on request.
It might be said that Johnny Ingram, owner and curator of Jefferson’s Museum of Measurement and Time, collects collections.
Ingram’s roughly 550 American-made clocks would have sufficed to launch him into an elite tier of capital-c Collectors. But the clock collection is just the main attraction. His museum space in Jefferson, a historic town near the Louisiana border, also houses an outsized assemblage of land surveying equipment, measuring tools, maps, and more recent artifacts such as telephones, musical instruments, and computer hardware. Perhaps incongruously, the museum also features a collection of roughly 1,500 salt and pepper shakers. Prized sets include a pair of cowboy boots, Sylvester and Tweety Bird, a bifurcated Mount Rushmore, and one very long wiener dog who salts from one end and peppers from the other.
The clocks are made of intricately carved wood that imbues the museum with an old-timey warmth. The surveying tools, which look like tiny, detailed telescopes, appear otherworldly. Elsewhere, the telephone collection contains rotary phones and hand-crank wall phones from the 1900s as well as more modern interventions, like the early flip phone Pantech Breeze III. Combined, the exhibits are a material inventory of civilization. One gets the sense that when aliens arrive to understand humans’ use of tools, they’ll land at the Museum of Measurement and Time.
In truth, there is a certain randomness to the exhibitions, though the displayed items largely fall under the loose themes of measurement and time. To tie it all together, Ingram might expound—as he does on the museum’s detailed website—on the evolution of various technologies, the American dream, childhood memories, or the history of property ownership. Some displayed items have explanatory notecards, some do not. Part of the whimsy of the collection is that it invites you to connect the disparate dots.
“I like to tell people that visit the museum that this is not like an ordinary museum where you have artifacts of the old,” he says. “So if you look at and you ponder over them, [you can] come to your own conclusions and your own aspirations of how they were used and what they meant.”
Ingram became a collector almost by accident. His job as a civil engineer and land surveyor required him to acquire various land surveying equipment from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries so that he could work better with maps of that era. In 1958, he married Edith, who had a growing collection of her own: an assortment of salt and pepper shakers passed down from family. The couple’s hobbies might have ended there, with a weird amalgamation of antique items, if not for the felicitous gift of a used mantel clock on Christmas Day 1960. Johnny refers to that clock, which he purchased for Edith, as “the culprit.” The Ingrams had the bug.
As the decades passed, more clocks—and surveying equipment and salt and pepper shakers and measurement tools—joined that first one. The Ingrams, originally from Odessa, enjoyed traveling together, always taking the backroads, never with a specific destination in mind. Through their eventual visits to all 48 continental states, they acquired more and more items at antiques stores and small-town shops and from other collectors, learning what they could about the history of each. In the eighties, the couple moved to Jefferson. Soon, their new house was full.
“We have a two-story house and we had clocks in every room and even in the bathrooms,” says Johnny Ingram.
The collection might have stayed private if not for a 2004 stroke that forced Johnny to retire. The couple started thinking about sharing their treasures with the public, and eventually acquired the museum space, in 2010. In some ways, Jefferson is the perfect place for such a museum. The town, which also boasts the Gone With the Wind Museum, Civil War reenactments, and antebellum architecture, is known as the bed-and-breakfast capital of Texas. It’s a slow-moving, step-back-in-time tourist destination where it’s not unusual to pop into a strange museum while on a stroll along Main Street.
Johnny says these visitors often offer up their own memories, remembering a specific clock or salt and pepper set a grandparent may have cherished. “It all goes into my brain cells,” Ingram says of the shared stories, another collection he keeps adding to.
In my own collection of memories is my first visit to the Museum of Measurement and Time, in the fall of 2017. The name attracted me: it sounded fantastical or like an art student’s graduate project, some sort of meta commentary on the immeasurability of time. When I arrived, curious about the treasures inside, Edith greeted me and walked me through the exhibits, acting as a personal docent.
In the five years since, Edith’s dementia, diagnosed in 2016, has progressed and Johnny now operates the museum on his own. He finally broke down and installed internet in the space, an anachronism he had long fought against. More recently, he bought an iPhone, a handheld clock/computer/measuring device he uses to look up information relevant to his collection. The museum has changed too. To make more space for new acquisitions, Ingram tore down a wall between the main hall and a meeting venue. The new area contains the telephone, computer, and music instruments wing and a research library with maps and documents related to the items on display.
Now in his 80s, Ingram is thinking about the measurement of time in a different, less tangible way lately. He’s been thinking about what will happen to the museum when he’s gone, hoping that his collection will still be available to visitors. Right now, the plan is for friends and family to take over operational duties so that the museum, along with time, can continue on.