Diamonds in the Rough

| 7/2/2009 9:19:29 AM

Looking for a little something to perk up your road trips this summer?
Find a museum.

The big ones will do nicely, but if you really want to stumble on a funky little collection that captures the pulse of one tiny dot on the map, think small.

State historical societies and other organizations operate handsome facilities with vast collections maintained by professional curators. They’re an important part of our world and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But it’s hard to beat the appeal of a small town museum run by volunteers who care passionately about the history of their area.

Small, off-the-beaten-path museums have voracious appetites for literally everything that ever transpired locally. It may have been a flash in the pan, but it’s likely to be fairly well documented by the locals. In my hometown of Holton, Kan., for instance, the historical museum includes an exhibit on the silk industry that briefly thrived there many decades ago. Silk worms in northeast Kansas? Who’d have thought?

Rural communities nearly always have a strong agricultural tradition, and that shines in small museums. The past comes to life in a heartbeat when you learn about early local families’ struggles to settle the land and build communities — and it always comes back to farming and ranching. Relics of those struggles endure in small local collections, and supporting material gives terrific context.

The small local museums are invariably manned by enthusiastic volunteers who like nothing better than to share their stories and listen to one or two of yours. The best of the bunch can elaborate on just about anything in the collection, direct you to the best local diner and give road advisories.