A collection of approximately 1,000 toothpick holders is just one of the exhibits at the Golden Pioneer Museum.
GOLDEN – Seeing 1,300 butter dishes at one time may not be on most people’s bucket lists, but according to its visitors, touring the Golden Pioneer Museum probably should be. “My head is swimming,” gushes Ruthann Oldsan, a visitor to the museum from Indiana. “We have never been in a museum that has amazed us as much as this one.”
Oldsan’s comment is based on more than the butter dish collection. The museum is stuffed with a little bit of a lot: Native American artifacts, such as pottery, peace pipes, grinding stones and 10,000 arrowheads and spear points, fill much of the space. Other cases, lit to set their contents sparkling, are filled with minerals and semi-precious stones — including a 1,250 pound, double-terminated quartz crystal.
The museum also devotes a large portion of its space to America’s cultural history; one of its featured collections is of Rose O’Neill’s Kewpie dolls.
But the museum features more than just early history. 20th-century finds include dozens of tin lunch boxes, classic cowboy collectibles, and even a wall of candy-spitting Pez dispensers. Elvis lives through memorabilia representing his reign as King; just a few feet away, there’s a display of Rose O’Neill’s famous Kewpie dolls. And besides those things, other exhibits of hand juicers, butter churns, firearms, toothpick holders, car vases, pocket watches and local historical artifacts (think Dogpatch USA) flank several full-size tractors.
Then, of course, there is case after case of glassware: More than 12,000 pieces comprise the collective display, which features categories such as Carnival, Vaseline, Cranberry and Custard.
And every bit of it is free for visitors to see.
From collectible to collection
Carinval glass, created by pressing glass with an iridescent coating, fills some of the museum’s cases. It was first produced in the early 1900s.
“I had no idea that it would get as big as it has,” says Lee Ona Prier, a smile in her voice as she speaks from her home via phone. She owns the museum with her husband, Winfred, but he’s too busy to talk: He’s out in the garage evaluating a collection of Native American drums that he may buy for the museum.
The duo began the museum in the mid-’90s, but their interest in collecting began after their marriage in 1961. Somewhere along the way, Prier acquired a glass basket, seemingly of the Carnival type, and wondered what its monetary value might be. She got her answer after visiting several local sales and found a glassware expert who helped make the determination. The piece was worth around $40, but the interaction provided more than a simple number: It launched a lifestyle.
“We started buying it right then, and we’ve been buying it ever since,” says Prier, noting that the couple has traveled to destinations such as New York and Louisiana to find their finds. “We had so much stuff in our house, and most of it was in our attic, (that) our ceiling was kind of beginning to sink in our living room.”
Opening the museum
The museum displays what the Priers believe is the world’s largest turquoise carving.
Prier notes that the couple had always thought about opening a museum,”but we thought we would wait until we retired from our business,” she says, which was (and is) a tire-based business in Golden. While on vacation with friends years ago, however, that timeline sped up: After some discussion, it was decided that one of their travel companions would build the museum, and the Priers would supply its contents.
But before the museum was complete, its plans were altered when the Priers acquired the contents of the Trail of Tears museum in Huntsville, Ark. after its owner passed away. “So (that collection) belonged to our museum before we ever got it really built,” says Prier, noting that the purchase caused the couple to double the size of the facility.
Acquiring exhibits that way, Prier says, has been a big part of how the couple has grown the museum. She mentions instances where families have inherited collections from hard-core collecting relatives, and ultimately sell such things to the Priers. “They want to sell it and let it come to the museum so they can be kept all together that way,” she says. “And then a lot of times we’ll put their name on it, you know, and they like that.”
One of the museum’s displays of Vaseline glass — which is defined as such by the presence of uranium oxide — can be illuminated for guests with a black light. Another room (below) shows off fluorescent colors of minerals and ores when exposed to ultra violet rays. “That’s a lot of people’s favorite things right there,” says Prier. “They like those things that glow.”
To house that growing inventory, the museum has expanded time and again. Its most recent expansion wrapped up last year — adding enough room for that aforementioned butter dish collection — but Prier says enough is enough.
“I told one lady the other day that it’s almost like a wedding vow that we wasn’t going to build on any more,” she says. “We don’t need anything else. We’ve got it full and we don’t need anything else.”
She pauses for a moment, her attention caught by husband Winfred who has come in from looking at those drums. “Did you buy them?” she queries.
She turns back to the phone. “He bought the Indian drums,” she says with a laugh. “About 46 Indian drums, so I don’t know what we’ll do with them. We may have to hang them from the ceiling or something.”
Want to visit?
Baseball cards, glassware, pocket watches and vintage lunch boxes are only a few of the times on display at the museum.
The Golden Pioneer Museum (35930 State Highway 86, Golden; 417-271-3300) is open approximately six months each year; in 2016, that’s from April 12 to October 31. Hours are 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Bus tours are welcome, and visits can be arranged outside of normal hours — and admission is free!