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Jayne Primrose and the skulls of murderers.
Curator Jayne Primrose and murderer skulls.

Human Skulls, Freak Calves - Grant County Historical Museum

Field review by the editors.

Canyon City, Oregon

County museums often look alike, a somnolent sameness of vintage clothing, old lamps, and butter churns. Rarely do you find one that exhibits something extraordinary, like a stuffed animal freak or the skull of a murderer.

But when a county museum displays three stuffed animal freaks -- and the skulls of two murderers? That's a place that you want to visit.

"I've been told that human skulls aren't politically correct," said Jayne Primrose, curator of the Grant County Historical Museum. "But Grant County isn't politically correct.'"

Prominent citizens immortalized as mannequins.

The skulls belonged to Barry Way and William Cain, and the museum has helpfully labeled them as the first and second men to be hanged Canyon City. Way was executed for killing a man while robbing a pack train; Cain was hanged for killing an employer who paid him in paper money instead of gold. "He was very irate," Jayne explained.

Way and Cain were not the only men to die on the Canyon City gallows, but their skulls were the only ones that became museum exhibits. "I don't know the details of who went out and dug 'em up," Jayne said, "but I imagine that's what happened."

Grant County, as you might guess, was once part of the Wild West, and it has only gradually accepted the constraints of civilization. Jayne asked us if we'd seen the two-cell jail next to the museum. It belonged to another town, she explained, but in the early 1960s "several more prominent men of our community" got drunk one night, drove to the jail, and stole it. The next morning it was sitting next to the museum, and it's been there ever since.

Chinese Funeral Cart.

In addition to the skulls, and despite Jayne's assurances to the contrary, we wondered if there might be more human remains in the museum, encased within its unique collection of mannequins. They were made by Cecille Lewis, the town florist, and they resemble the half-melted flesh of the cannibal family from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Are those real teeth in their mouths? we asked Jayne. "Some of them have old dentures," she answered. "I think Cecille just kind of scrounged the people in the community. 'Hey, whaddaya have that I can use?'"

Trapped in pastry.

The eyes appear to be glass, realistic and providing a creepy, person-trapped-in-pastry effect.

Most of the wonky-eyed dummies depict colorful characters from Canyon City's past, such as Granny Zeph the midwife, Sing Lee the laundry man (who's sitting in his funeral cart), and Polly Wilson the prostitute. Polly, according to the tag pinned to her dress, also killed a man in Canyon City -- but she didn't go to the gallows. Instead, she spent just two nights in jail, and then apparently went back to work.

Jayne took us on a tour of the museum, showing us a coat made of buffalo hide, a confiscated moonshine still, a shotgun taken from a highway bandit, and the pockmarked bones of horses that were shot and killed during various local White vs. Indian wars.

We ended up back the museum's Tool Room, with displays of branding irons, barbed wire -- and three stuffed two-headed calves. According to Jayne, all three were born on nearby ranches, and had been stuffed and part of the museum since it opened in 1954. "The hump on the back is a partially developed set of ribs," noted a sign at the full-body calf.

Two-headed calves -- three sets.

"Children love them," added Jayne. "I put them down near the floor where the kids can pet them on the nose."

Human Skulls, Freak Calves - Grant County Historical Museum

101 S. Canyon City Blvd., Canyon City, OR
From John Day drive south two miles on Canyon City Blvd/US 395. On left, just past Main St..
M-Sa 9-4:30 May-Sept., or by reservation off-season (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Chinese Healing ManChinese Healing Man, John Day, OR - 2 mi.
Mini Wild West Town in a Parking LotMini Wild West Town in a Parking Lot, Dayville, OR - 30 mi.
Shoe TreeShoe Tree, Mitchell, OR - 44 mi.
In the region:
Turtle Rock or Frog Rock, Burns, OR - 50 mi.

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