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Wind-up mechanical cats perform on demand. Unlike real cats.
Wind-up mechanical cats perform on demand. Unlike real cats.

American Museum of the House Cat

Field review by the editors.

Sylva, North Carolina

Let's shed some potential misconceptions about the American Museum of the House Cat. It is not staffed by little old ladies sipping tea and eating biscuits. And there are no mewing, purring, live cats in the museum -- none -- although there are a couple of long-dead ones on display.

Dr. Harold
Dr. Harold "Cat Man" Sims. "I've always wanted to have a museum. And I've always liked cats."

The museum, opened in 2017, is the creation of Dr. Harold Sims, known locally as "Cat Man" for his dedication to rescuing unwanted felines. Harold had about 80 cats in his custom-built no-kill shelter (which he opened next to his home in 2002), but he also had what he believed to be America's largest collection of house cat memorabilia, and he wanted to share it with the public.

"Most people think cats are pets and that's it," he said. "They don't know about cats being a part of so many different kinds of stuff."

Egyptian mummy. It's been x-rayed. There's a cat inside.
Egyptian mummy. It's been x-rayed. There's a cat inside.

That would include, but not be limited to, the items displayed in Harold's museum, such as cat-centric toys, clocks, banks, dolls, advertising illustrations, animation cells, fine art, folk art, thrift store art, beer steins, music boxes, carnival games, carousel animals, jewelry, pottery, puppets, vet supplies, automatons, and Halloween knick-knacks.

Maidens and their pussycats.
Maidens and their pussycats.

"Cats are like magnets," said Harold. "They've got big eyes, they're fuzzy, they're cute." Advertisers, said Harold, know about cats' appeal and use more images of cats than dogs. "You put a cat on a box, and people grab it."

Harold said that there are no live cats in his museum because some people are allergic to certain breeds. If visitors want to see live cats, Harold or his docents direct them to businesses in town that keep them as pets, or to Harold's shelter, which the museum helps to support with its admission fees.

We asked Harold about his nearest competitor, the Feline Historical Museum in Ohio. He said it was a decent place, but focused more on show cats, while his museum was devoted to what he called "the everyman cat." As for exhibits, "It's like night and day," he said. "They've got a few things; I've got a million things."

Harold showed us his original Andy Warhol cat watercolors; his 2,600-year-old Egyptian mummy cat ("I had it x-rayed at the vet; there's a cat in there"); a cat painted in Indonesia on teak leaves; and a well-worn wooden "cat catcher" that would grab and hold stray cats at arm's length -- covered with thousands of angry scratches.

No canvas? No problem. Lifelike feline was painted on teak leaves.
No canvas? No problem. Lifelike feline was painted on teak leaves.

"It's an addiction," said Harold of his collection. "I keep looking even though I've got stuff I don't need and don't have room for."

Spring-necked comedy cat grabs highway eyeballs.
Spring-necked comedy cat grabs highway eyeballs.

Among the museum's most popular artifacts is its "Medieval Petrified Cat," found in a 16th century English chimney. "We had a hard time getting that over here," said Harold. "We had to have it checked by customs, by the USDA, by the Centers For Disease Control. I said, 'What the hell are you thinking? This isn't a cat. It's hard as a rock. How can it carry disease?'"

Harold, who was once voted "The Ultimate Cat Lover" by Cat Fancy magazine (he has the article framed in the museum), is a bottomless food bowl of information about every item in his collection. He's also at an age where he's worried about what will happen when he's no longer around. He tried writing descriptions for some of the artifacts, but "people don't want to read more than 14 words." Now he's training his docents to give visitors bullet-point highlights of his most charismatic possessions.

The point of sharing all of his stuff, Harold said, is to show visitors the bond that's existed for centuries between people and cats. He admits to draining his personal retirement kitty to acquire some of his rarer items -- and to bankroll his cat shelter -- but shrugs at the cost.

"I was born in 1934; I could die tomorrow; what the hell," he said. "It's only money."

American Museum of the House Cat

5063 US-441 S., Sylva, NC
US-74 exit 81A in Sylva. Drive south five miles on US-23/441. The museum will be on the left.
Apr-May Th-M 12-5; June-Dec Th-M 10-5. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $10.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

The Fugitive Movie Bus and Train WreckThe Fugitive Movie Bus and Train Wreck, Dillsboro, NC - 4 mi.
License Plate BuildingLicense Plate Building, Sylva, NC - 5 mi.
Santa's Land Theme ParkSanta's Land Theme Park, Cherokee, NC - 11 mi.
In the region:
Heaviest Twins Largest Granite Tombstone, Hendersonville, NC - 41 mi.

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