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The Prairie Village Museum has over two dozen buildings on 30 acres of land.
The Prairie Village Museum has over two dozen buildings on 30 acres of land.

Prairie Village Museum: World's Tallest Salesman

Field review by the editors.

Rugby, North Dakota

"That's a heckuva story there," said Shane Engeland, the executive director of the Prairie Village Museum. He was talking about museum's display on Clifford Thompson, "the world's tallest salesman," but he could easily have been just as enthusiastic -- in fact, he was -- about the museum's boxing alligators, and its geographical center souvenirs, and its (one-time) world's largest belt buckle.

Adjusting the suit on the Clifford Thompson dummy.
Adjusting the suit on the Clifford Thompson dummy.

"We don't want people who come here saying, 'Oh, that was interesting but I can't remember anything that I saw,'" said Shane. "We want things that will stick in people's minds."

Achieving stickiness is a tough assignment at the Prairie Village Museum, as it displays over 50,000 artifacts in its six exhibition halls and dozens of old buildings, which were hauled onto its property in the 1960s. The collection is focused on Pierce County and the surrounding region, whose glacial soil and arctic winters -- which close the museum from October through April -- were judged by Shane to be "a bit of a challenge" for farmers. Most of the small communities around Rugby have depopulated, and many of their tools, cars, tableware -- and buildings -- ended up here.

Queen Victoria's dress was sent to Rugby as a wedding present.
Queen Victoria's dress was sent to Rugby as a wedding present.

As have a few odd relics.

For example, the hat, belt, eyeglasses, and other personal items of Clifford Thompson, who spent the first years of his life in Rugby and -- perhaps triggered by the invigorating climate -- grew to be eight feet, seven inches tall. After the death of rival giant Robert Wadlow in 1940, Clifford became the world's tallest man, as well as the world's tallest salesman, lawyer, and Hollywood actor (His professional name was "Count Olaf"). "The family of Robert Wadlow destroyed his belongings because they didn't want him remembered as just a really tall guy," said Shane. "But we received Clifford's items specifically from his family members."

Boxing alligators are not native to North Dakota.
Boxing alligators are not native to North Dakota.

A towering life-size dummy of Clifford, built during Rugby's 1986 centennial, models a suit sewn for it by a museum volunteer. "When kids see Clifford Thompson," said Shane of the dummy, "they're either thrilled or absolutely horrified," but by all accounts he was a gentle giant.

Another unexpected exhibit in the museum is a 19th century ceremonial dress worn by Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Shane explained that a maid who worked at the royal palace, Marie Downing, fell in love with another palace employee who then emigrated to Rugby. Marie dutifully followed. "When they got married it was 40 below," said Shane. The Queen shipped nine crates full of gifts to the newlyweds, including the dress, which ended up being worn more times in North Dakota than it had been in England. According to Shane, Marie and her husband ran a local boarding house whose guests ate breakfast on plates once used by the Queen.

Gallery of 100-year-old automobiles.
Gallery of 100-year-old automobiles.

The giant belt buckle was the largest on earth when it was forged by a group of metalworkers in nearby Brinsmade. Celebrating the town's "Gopher Days" centennial in 1989, the buckle is four feet high and 5.5 feet wide, and was probably the most significant thing ever made in Brinsmade, which has since dwindled to a population of 30. "They decided to build a giant belt buckle and then they didn't have any place to put it," said Shane, who was unaware that it was even in Rugby until he found it in the back of a Prairie Village Museum storage building in 2021. Now it's on exhibit in the back of a building full of tractors.

The former World's Largest Belt Buckle was made in Brinsmade.
The former World's Largest Belt Buckle was made in Brinsmade.

The boxing alligators -- currently viewable on a high shelf in the main building hallway -- harken back to an early exhibit at the museum: an entire glassed-in room of taxidermy. According to Shane, most of the animals had to be removed because they'd been preserved with arsenic and were outgassing poisonous fumes. The alligators, balanced upright on their tails, are crumbly with age and non-native to North Dakota, but they're fume-free and too popular to ever be purged.

More oddities caught our attention -- and in a collection of this size others must have been missed -- including a display of North Dakota buttons that would be the envy of Chicago's Button Museum; a Rugby cigar-making machine which, Shane noted, is unusual because no one grows tobacco in North Dakota; and a rock hauled in a trunk all the way to Rugby by German immigrants who feared that North Dakota would have no rocks of its own (Note: it does).

Museum director Shane Engeland points to another tiny North Dakota town on the regional history map.
Museum director Shane Engeland points to another tiny North Dakota town on the regional history map.

"They brought rocks with them because you have to put a rock on top of the pot lid to make sauerkraut correctly," said Shane. "To keep the pressure on." He told us that he plans to sell laser-etched sauerkraut rocks in the museum gift shop.

The most meta of the museum's exhibits is a showcase of the town's history as the Geographical Center of North America -- a claim so fundamental to Rugby that the Pierce County Historical Society, which founded the museum, changed its name to the Geographical Center Historical Society. Artifacts on display include vintage souvenir tributes to the town's Geographical Center monument -- built in 1932 -- and a coronation program from the 1964 Miss Geographical Center Pageant.

In much the same way that everything gets drawn toward the center of North America -- including tourists -- the Prairie Village Museum acts as a gravitational force that has sucked in the region's history. Victoria's dress may have been made in London, and those alligators were born somewhere far warmer than North Dakota, but they have now joined thousands of other relics as permanent residents of Rugby.

Prairie Village Museum: World's Tallest Salesman

Prairie Village Museum

102 US-2 SE, Rugby, ND
South edge of town, on US-2/65th St. NW just east of its intersection with ND-3/3rd Ave. SW.
Open May-Oct. Tu-Sa (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $8.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Geographical Center of North AmericaGeographical Center of North America, Rugby, ND - < 1 mi.
Niewoehner Bell TowerNiewoehner Bell Tower, Rugby, ND - 1 mi.
Lone Bank VaultLone Bank Vault, Silva, ND - 13 mi.
In the region:
North American Game Warden Museum, Dunseith, ND - 44 mi.

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