Dale and Martha Hawk Museum
Wolford, North Dakota
There's no way to hide your approach to the Hawk Museum. It sprawls across several acres on the crest of a hill dotted with cottonwood and fir trees, hours away from anything, surrounded by flatness. The last four miles of road leading to it are gravel, which means that your car will kick up a cloud of dust visible for miles, telegraphing your approach.
The people at the Hawk Museum will be waiting.
The conditions necessary to spawn the Hawk Museum could only exist in North Dakota. First, you need a lot of empty space so that no one feels pressured to throw anything away. Second, you need farmers -- particularly Scandinavian farmers -- people who are thrifty by inclination. Third, you need a state that's relatively young so that everything that's old is preserved as a piece of "history." Lastly, you need a catalyst. Along comes a human pack rat like Dale Hawk and presto!, stuff that's been stashed away for a hundred years pops out of root cellars and haylofts and half-collapsed outbuildings. "They claim he had x-ray eyes," one of the museum's caretakers told us solemnly, trying to impress us with Dale's ability to ferret out old stuff. Hell, anyone could pull that trick in North Dakota.
Dale Hawk collected junk all his life. Toward the end he began collecting buildings, too. He had Wolford's one-room school jacked out of the ground, trucked to his farmstead, and added to his museum. He did the same with Nanson's school and general store. Along the way he picked up a church and a post office. Dale claimed that these buildings were necessary for his museum's "realistic farm setting," but really, when you visit, it's obvious that all that he wanted was more room to store his stuff.
The peculiar thing about the Hawk Museum is that while you will almost certainly be the only visitor you will just as certainly not be alone. This is because the place is overrun by retired farmers -- dozens of them -- wearing overalls and tractor caps, puttering around on golf carts, restoring old steam tractors at the Hawk Museum.
The steam tractors, over a dozen of them, line both sides of the road as you approach the farmstead. Weeds grow up and around their rusting steel wheels. The tractor nearest the museum has a big smiley face painted on it, a clear warning to turn and run. But by then it's too late. The farmers have already locked you in their sites and are shuffling toward your car. They want to talk.
We are greeted by "Earl," who pumps our hands with the energy of a man eager for company. He hands us a fistful of brochures. "We're kind of out of the way," he explains. "We could use all the publicity we can get."
Four Quonset huts the size of airplane hangers dominate the clearing. Just inside the first is an impressive display of tiny steam engines, tractors, threshers, and antique cars. Colorfully painted, they are arrayed on a miniature farm landscape, the whole thing protected behind glass. Hey, this looks interesting. Does it move? Earl shakes his head woefully. The miniatures used to move by compressed air, but then something broke and the family of the dead man who donated the display won't give the Hawk Museum permission to fix it. It just sits here. Earl added, "It's heated and sealed so in the winter the glass don't freeze up."
We hadn't thought of that. With its steel walls, concrete floors, and bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling, the Hawk Museum must be a jolly place to visit in February.
What's on exhibit? Just what you'd expect in a museum stocked with North Dakota detritus: potato graters, old milking machines, jugs, tongs, wrenches, a hand-made snowmobile, a tire shrinker, a 10 pound ball of string, tractor seats, ballpoint pens, a '60 Nash, a '54 Dodge pickup, a '51 Kaiser. And that's just in the first building.
We exit, and so does Earl, keeping watch. Another farmer approaches, fixing us with his eyes. "You know back behind those trees?" he says, indicating a stand of cottonwood with a nod of his tractor cap. "There's twice as much stuff out there!"
Exploring the deserted Hawk Museum should be relaxing. But it isn't: not with multiple pairs of eyes -- farmer eyes -- watching your every move, making sure that you go into every building and that you spend enough time in each to properly admire all of the exhibits. The only sound comes from crickets and your footsteps. When you do enter a building, you are overwhelmed by the musty smell of rooms that are opened very infrequently.
The general store is packed with empty cans and boxes; modern castaways in a dusty tomb. ("Please save your used food containers for the Hawk Museum," reads one sign.) Somehow a turn-of-the-century general store loses its charm when its shelves are stocked with neon-pink boxes of Captain Crunchberries. The Wolford school is filled with old typewriters, clocks, and Sears catalogs. The school swiped from Nanson houses a complete library of several thousand hard-cover volumes (sample titles: Cellulose and The Act Of Love), still neatly Dewey-decimaled on their original shelves. Doomed books; no one will ever read them.
Next to the church, a round wooden hut has been built by the farmers to house the law library -- all one hundred volumes -- of "Wild" Bill Jacobson. Bill was an attorney in Watford City, which is nowhere near the Hawk Museum. The only thing beside books in the building is Bill's 19-inch console color TV; on top is perched a framed photo of Bill being interviewed by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.
That was enough. We had to escape. Out of the corner of our eyes we could see that a new farmer, "Bud" (his name was sewn onto his tractor cap), had parked his golf cart across the narrow lane between the farm implements building and the big house -- between us and our car. This wasn't going to be easy.
"Well," we said, approaching jauntily, "this has been very interesting. But we've got to be going."
"Oh?" Bud replied, savoring the moment. "I didn't see you go into the old tractor building."
Bud wore an impish smile. He was toying with us; anticipating the hour's worth of old tractor trivia that he had been waiting days to tell someone -- anyone. Now he was primed and ready to unload.
"Sure we did," we replied without hesitation. "We saw that 1912 Metz. And that dog-powered treadmill. And that Hackney Auto Plow -- that's a one-of-a-kind, isn't it?"
Bud's face fell. "Oh. I didn't see you go in there." We sauntered past, hopped into our car, and were kicking up prairie dust before Bud's friends knew what had happened.
Sometimes it pays to read the brochure.