Those of us who have grown up in America often find ourselves returning to the same vacation destinations every summer, revisiting old haunts with stretched legs and freshly tanned skin. Our feet learn the worn paths of our favorite boardwalks, and our eyes scan the horizon for familiar sights every summer. We return to the same attractions—beachside stands, theme parks, museums, and, for many of us, the local Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium.
With locations in such Southern vacation meccas as Myrtle Beach, Gatlinburg, and Panama City Beach, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! has become deeply entrenched in the holiday traditions of Southern families. And it’s not just us Southerners who enjoy a stroll through the hallowed and haunting halls of Ripley’s: with locations across the country, from New York to San Francisco, and even across the globe, from Thailand to Denmark, people around the world enjoy the captivating, often macabre, sights at Ripley’s. Children giggle at the sight of malformed animals, shy away from shrunken heads, and emerge into the bright sunshine of vacationland, excited to tell their friends back home of their adventures at Ripley’s. And all that began over fifty years ago in St. Augustine, Florida.
Robert S. Ripley earned his fortune and fame through his world-renowned comic strip Believe It or Not, which depicted his ventures and discoveries. Believe It or Not made the strange wonders of the world, uniquities of cultures and nature, viewable to all and implanted the unbelievable in reality. Ripley began publishing his comics in New York in 1918 and the strip quickly gained traction around the world, at the height of its popularity reaching nearly eight million readers.
Ripley spent his adult years traveling the world and hunting for miracles and mishaps of nature for his comic, amassing a massive collection of oddities through his travels. As the aged Ripley began to settle down, he also began searching for a home to showcase his collection of curiosities. His top choice? Castle Warden Hotel in St. Augustine.
Castle Warden was originally built in 1887 as the winter getaway of William G. Warden, a business partner in Standard Oil along with John D. Rockefeller and Henry Flagler, who had begun the development of St. Augustine that decade. Warden’s descendants retained the Castle as a private abode through the 1930’s but sold the residence in 1941, at which time it was transformed into a hotel. In its years as a hotel, Castle Warden welcomed a variety of prestigious and famous guests, including Robert Ripley. Ripley began a love affair with the castle, envisioning his oddities lining its walls and fascinated guests tramping the halls, but his dreams were quickly squelched. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Florida author of The Yearling, owned and operated the hotel with her husband and refused to sell to her passionate guest. Ripley died in 1949, his dreams of a museum unrealized.
But his dream did not die with him. Ripley’s persistent heirs pestered Rawlings for the following year, finally convincing her to sell. The very first Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium opened in December of 1950. The museum attracted visitors from across the country, all craning to get a look at two-headed goats and three-legged hens. The popularity of the Odditorium inspired investors to begin a whole line of the museums that came to span the globe.
Today, the original Ripley’s Believe It or Not! houses much of Ripley’s original collection. The museum also plays off the curiosity of its visitors, holding city-wide ghost tours that conclude at the supposedly-haunted Castle Warden. Though the castle does draw in a selection of ghost hunters, the majority of visitors are local vacationers, children sticky with the stains of melted popsicles, their skin perpetually gritted with sand. They wander the halls with gape-mouthed wonder, goose pimples puckering their suntanned flesh. They’ll leave for the sunshine of summer, but they’ll never forget the wonders of Ripley’s—which is exactly what Ripley himself intended.
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