Paul Broste Rock Museum.

Paul Broste Rock Museum

Field review by the editors.

Parshall, North Dakota

North Dakota marks most of its important sites with piles of its most abundant natural resource, rocks. The enigmatic "Sermon in Stone" graces Fairmount, the historic Rare Rock Cairn steals thunder from the battle monument at Merricourt, and the majestic Geographical Center of North America pile, certainly North Dakota's best-known, juts out of a Conoco parking lot in Rugby. But North Dakota's most heartfelt shrine to Earth's knobby spawn stands alone on a treeless hilltop overlooking the small town of Parshall. It is the Paul Broste Rock Museum. It is built out of rocks.

The Infinity Room.
The Infinity Room.

Paul was born in a one-room log cabin with a sod roof in 1887, which perhaps explains his desire for a museum made of something more substantial. He didn't complete it until the 1960s. By then he was an old man, and when he died he asked that the town of Parshall preserve what he had so painstakingly created. A Roadside fan who grew up near Parshall remembers: "He was somewhat of a recluse, but allowed school children to visit his rocks."

A Pile For The Ages

The Paul Broste Rock Museum is a beetling hulk of roughhewn black boulders, pleasing in its bulkiness, and a vivid example of not knowing when to stop. Its roof is spiky with ornamental crenellations not found in any design textbook, made of uncut granite fieldstone held together with cement. Architecturally akin to a 19th century prison, the structure must weigh hundreds of tons. Its windows are narrow and tall, topped by pointed arches, with iron bars crisscrossing the openings to ensure that no one can enter (or escape?) without permission. A wide, overdramatic staircase sweeps out from its front door like a spreading oil slick, incorporating entirely too many steps to ascend a very negligible height. With walls over a foot thick, Mr. Broste made sure that his collection would be well protected.

Who Was Paul Broste?

The collection within the Paul Broste Rock Museum encompasses much more than the museum's name implies. Mr. Broste apparently saw himself an artist as well as a North Dakota farmer, and saw his museum as a way of displaying his paintings, conceptual sculptures, pen-and-ink illustrations, and poems and philosophies, as well as his rocks.

Unfortunately, artistic Paul Broste never understood the art of labeling. Thousands of agate slices -- almost all identical and almost all unidentified -- fill the glass cases that fill the main room of the museum. Is this art, or did Mr. Broste just like slicing rocks? Above the cases, covering the interior walls, are hung dozens of well-executed oil portraits; FDR and Lincoln are easy to spot, but who are all the other people? The haunting children with the middle-aged, puffy faces and porcelain skin, the stern old men with the muttonchop sideburns? Interspersed with the portraits are canvasses of art deco geometric patterns that look like conceptual wallpaper, and delicate pen-and-ink drawings, beautifully detailed, that appear to be book illustrations. But for what books? No clues are offered.

Squatting in the center of the main room are several of Mr. Broste's "sphere trees," six-foot high constructions of iron rods gracefully bent back over long, thin bases. On the tip of each "branch" is balanced a perfect sphere of rock, ground to glassy perfection in the lapidary works of Mr. Broste. The museum displays 680 of his rock spheres, but why did he make them? Mr. Broste doesn't say. Several badly faded, handwritten signs speak of "psychic inspiration," but that's the only clue, and it's not much.

The Infinity Room

The highlight of the museum is the "infinity" room, or, as Mr. Broste named it, "Astronomical Cavalcade." "An astronomical cavalcade in cosmic space is indeed infinity," explains a sheet of loose-leaf paper taped to the wall -- in ink faded almost to invisibility.

The room is shaped like a hexagon and each wall is mirrored from floor to ceiling. In the center stands one of Mr. Broste's sphere trees, mounted on a pedestal, unlike all the others in that it's a mad mess of double-track tubing gracefully swirling around and into itself. Perched at uniform intervals along the double tracks are dozens of rock spheres in every color of the rainbow, varying from golf- to bowling-ball size, awash in swirly patterns. The wall mirrors reflect these spheres hundreds of times, creating a kind of walk-in, giant-size kaleidoscope -- or at least it did while Mr. Broste was alive. Now the sculpture is enclosed behind sagging chicken wire.

Much of the museum is a riddle without any clues, a magnificent pile displaying stuff that begs for interpretation but is given none. Mr. Broste donated the collection to the town, but left no instructions and apparently no progeny who can explain anything. His museum is mute stone. Its displays need dusting.

Poor Paul; this wasn't what he wanted at all. He was smart enough to build his monument to himself out of rock, but he didn't realize that a monument to a forgotten man only magnifies his obscurity.

Update: Weathering its difficulties, the Paul Broste Rock Museum is now owned by the town of Parshall. Current curator Doris Jacobson has added some Indian artifacts from her late husband's personal collection to generate greater interest in the museum. But the rock collection and sculptures are still the main draw; as their website says, "You will not find anything like this in the entire world."

Paul Broste Rock Museum

Address:
Main St., Parshall, ND
Directions:
North side of town, west side of Hwy 37 (Main St.), across from Parshall High School.
Hours:
May-Sep. W-Sa 12-4, or by appt. (Call to verify)
Phone:
701-862-3264
Admission:
Adults $5.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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