Marsh's Free Museum
Long Beach, Washington
Jake the Alligator Man is still the star at Marsh's Free Museum, an enduring attraction scant yards from the beach on the town's main thoroughfare. It's a "free museum" in the successful tradition of tourist stops that mix the free part with plenty of purchasing opportunities. Marsh's is a large souvenir and gift shop, jammed-to-the-rafters with displays of priceless oddities, antiques and sideshow remnants.
If you're wondering, Jake the Alligator Man isn't alive, though some swear they remember seeing him perform in a traveling carnival, or believe the tale that he was a valet in a New Orleans brothel. Photos of Jake have appeared in tabloids, with shrieking headlines about swamp mutations and Florida monster attacks.
Jake's home is a glass case near a row of vintage arcade machines. He has the head and torso of a human and the lower body and tail of an alligator. His skin and scales are blackened and dried out, like a steak left on the barbecue too long; his teeth sharpened points, his eyes sockets are slits, and his hands are withered and claw-like. He looks great on postcards.
Wellington Marsh, Sr. started seriously collecting curiosities when he moved to Long Beach in 1935 and opened a tavern (the owners trace the free museum's roots back to 1921, when the family started a candy shop and ice cream stand).
On a family vacation in Florida in 1944, Wellington saw how souvenir shell shops flourished. He decided his establishment on the Pacific Ocean could do the same, even though local shells were reduced to broken bits by the surf. He imported shells for sale and rare shells to display as part of the museum. Wellington died in 1977, but today the family-owned business continues to give customers a free, tiny shell glued to a card. They hand out more than one million a year.
Replica Jakes look down on the parking lot like lazy gargoyles from the roof of the building Marsh's Free Museum moved to in 1972, across the street from its original location next to the World's Largest Frying Pan.
Inside, you will gawk at a variety of delights:
- An authentic shrunken head from Jivaro Indians in South America.
- "Mary Lou," a complete human skeleton discovered in someone's closet in Aberdeen.
- A cast iron sausage stuffer.
- Wyoming Werewolf - a cleverly modified deer butt. "Captured Dec 12 1976, Afton Wy."
- "This baby lamb has eight legs and one head," advises a sign, saving you the effort of counting yourself. Purchased by Wellington Sr. in the 1940s, it rounds out a barnyard of horror that includes a cyclops lamb and a two-headed calf.
- A variety of mechanical peep shows and Test-Your-Love-Power coin op machines.
- Rare music players, such as the Seaburg H Model Solo Orchestrion, an automated contraption of instruments in a wall-sized cabinet.
- "Morris the Cat" - Named after the TV pet food commercial feline, the beloved Morris was the store pet until he died. Then he became the store's stuffed pet.
There are many other items to distract, including the World's Largest Collection of Glass Fishing Balls. Visitors should stay focused, and find Jake the Alligator Man first. He was against the back wall to the right of the cash registers, when we last visited, next to a display of news clippings.
Jake was originally part of a collection at Whitney's Museum in San Francisco. An antiques dealer sold Jake to Marsh's in 1965 for $750.