We tend to take museums for granted. Since we as visitors have the luxury of striding in once they are artfully-displayed buttoned-up collections, we seem to operate under the assumption that they sprang from the ground fully-composed, manicured and sparkling in all of their glass-cased, velvet-roped glory. It’s easy to forget that more often than not, what we know as museums often began as quiet collections of keepsakes tucked aside—carefully stacked in the corners of dusty basements, gently cradled in paper-thin tissue on closet shelves—and that it’s only thanks to history’s dutiful servants, squirreling away museums piece by piece, that they rise to the well-articulated assemblages that we take for granted today. Such is certainly the case with the Ralph Foster Museum, a three-story compendium of thousands of Ozark keepsakes, a century of accumulated personal ephemera—from tree stumps to Gatling guns—all sewn up in the tightly-knit campus of the College of the Ozarks near Branson, Missouri.
As with many museums, the Ralph Foster Museum began simply, with the vision and determination of a single man. In the 1920’s, Robert M. Good, the president of the College of the Ozarks, felt that his school was missing something, and—inspired by his own growing ornithological collection at home—decided that it was a museum. A quick search of campus buildings revealed that the basement of a boys’ dormitory, Abernathy Hall, was vacant and ripe for the stuffing; in moved Good’s birds, and, eventually, out moved the boys.
Over time, something amazing began to happen. What began as a small reflection of one man’s hobby evolved into a grassroots movement to immortalize a region’s passions—a multi-faceted, slightly eccentric, utterly unique ode to the Ozarks. Over the next century, contributions in the form of funds and features came trickling in from residents and fans alike.
Ozark vacationers FR Brownwell II and his wife Louis established a trust that allowed for a 6,000-volume strong research center, and the museum’s namesake, Ralph Foster—a local tire salesman turned radio personality—donated his own impressive collection of Native American and Western artifacts. The producer of The Beverly Hillbillies television series, a fellow Missourian, donated the show’s original Oldsmobile Model 46 Roadster, and Missouri transplant Rose O’Neill—inventor of the Kewpie Doll—contributed a portion of her own personal stock of the diminutive dolls.
The result of this relatively haphazard accumulation of pieces is a museum that is unified in its discordance, a reflection of the vast and varied population that occupies the Ozarks themselves. Today’s visitor will find everything from fishing boats to polar bears, barbed wire and gold coins, stamps, clocks, butterflies, dolls, and one of the largest collections of firearms in the country. Much like the people it represents, The Ralph Foster Museum operates with a complete lack of pretension, honoring the humblest quirks and passions with the same reverence as the most extraordinary, memorializing the region’s past, celebrating its present, and eagerly holding a space open for what is sure to come in its future.
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