Rod Hildebrand (sitting) and Clay Emery (standing) work on their War in the Pacific diorama.
Rod Hildebrand (sitting) and Clay Emery (standing) work on their War in the Pacific diorama.

Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff

Field review by the editors.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Take two retired men, give them plenty of energy and time, and you could have the makings of a disaster.

Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff.
Social media? No. Phone? No. Flag? Yes!

Instead, Clay Emery and Rod Hildebrand made the Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff.

It began when Clay hung a "Work Shop Open" flag outside the street entrance of his basement man cave. His hobby is "conversions" -- taking action figures and customizing them into new characters and creatures -- and he wanted to share it with the public.

"His wife said, 'What are you, crazy? You want people coming into our basement?'" Rod recalled. "Clay said, 'Well, it'll keep me out of your hair.' And she thought about it for a moment and said, 'I support that.'"

Despite Clay's inviting flag, only one other person really seemed interested. That was Rod, and he never saw the flag -- he met Clay at the local dog park. Rod built a model train layout in Clay's basement and was adept at "kitbashing," taking model kits and turning them into customized structures. "They give you materials and say, 'Here's what we recommend,'" said Rod. "But I never do what they recommend."

Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff.
Street life in "Rodville," a tiny 1950s New England town.

Lana Lang: Insect Queen, and Bold Jane Downey of Robin Hood's Merry Men.
Lana Lang: Insect Queen, and Bold Jane Downey of Robin Hood's Merry Men.

The two men quickly became friends. They began collaborating on projects in the basement, creating dioramas that gave context to their kitbashed models and converted figures. But still nobody stopped in -- even though Clay's basement is in Portsmouth's historic district, on a popular pedestrian street.

Clay and Rod decided that what they needed was a new flag. "We kicked around some ideas," said Rod. "Clay said, 'I dunno. Let's call it what it is. A museum of dumb guy stuff.'" Rod added the name to the basement's flag in late 2017. Tourists began stopping by, wondering what "dumb guy stuff" meant. Clay and Rod deliberately kept the name ambiguous so that people could decide for themselves if it was a museum of dumb-guy stuff (stuff typical of dumb guys) or a museum of dumb guy-stuff (dumb stuff typical of all guys).

Center display: American GIs ready to storm a French farmhouse of Nazis.
Center display: American GIs ready to storm a French farmhouse of Nazis.

Portsmouth, known for mainstream cultural attractions, welcomed and promoted its quirky newcomer. The Museum, which has no social media channels, no website, not even a working phone number, was soon attracting visitors from as far away as Europe and Hawaii.

What they see is impressive in density if not in square footage. There's a lot to take in. The train set, which Clay calls "Rodville" and which Rod calls "very zen," is a 1950s New England town jammed with everything from a 1/87th scale cannery and train yard to a cop eating a doughnut and a town drunk sleeping on a park bench. Nearly all of it is hand-made by Rod, including the rocks.

Rod is particular about the little details. "Clay tells me, 'Rod, this is The Granite State. You can get rocks everywhere,'" said Rod. "But to be honest, it's more fun to say I made the rocks."

Ropes of Christmas lights slung from overhead beams give the basement a cheery glow even on dark New Hampshire days, and illuminate the dioramas populated by Clay's conversions. He's a real Dr. Frankenstein of action figure reassembly. The storekeeper in his Wild West town started out as General Omar Bradley; the saloon girls are Barbies who, Clay said, "fell on hard times." Another diorama showcases women dolls that Clay reworked into World War II resistance fighters, with their own customized pistols, knives, submachine guns, and hand grenades.

The concept of Infinity, as visualized in the Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff.
The concept of Infinity, as visualized in the Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff.

But where Clay really shines is in his encyclopedic knowledge of lesser-known comic book and graphic novel characters, freeing him to cannibalize standard Legos and G.I. Joes into everything from Robot 13: Monster Killer to Lana Lang: Insect Queen. Many of these superhuman creatures are displayed around a Hall of Justice from the Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon series.


"Quite honestly, there's not a lot of space, and more and more stuff all the time."

The paradox of the Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff is that compared to other activities that men can get into -- some of them quite weird -- Clay and Rod's basement projects aren't that dumb. "Some people will be here for hours. 'What is this? How did you do this?'" said Rod. "They're just floored." And despite Clay and Rod's openness to new recruits, it's unlikely that any other guys will join them. The two buddies work too well together, and the basement, already packed with displays, can't handle too many more bodies, not with Clay and Rod giving personal tours to everyone who sees the Open flag and pokes their heads in the door.

"The bottom line is: we like to have things to keep working on," said Rod. "We're two guys reliving our childhoods. We don't want it to end."

Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff

Address:
114 Mechanic St., Portsmouth, NH
Directions:
In the riverfront historic district. The basement entrance to the dark red house on the west side of Mechanic St., midway between Gates and Gardner St. Only open when the "Open" flag is out.
Hours:
Daily, usually 10-3, if the Open flag is out.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

African Burying Ground MemorialAfrican Burying Ground Memorial, Portsmouth, NH - < 1 mi.
Big Easy ChairBig Easy Chair, Kittery, ME - < 1 mi.
USS Albacore, Submarine in a DitchUSS Albacore, Submarine in a Ditch, Portsmouth, NH - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Glow-in-the-Dark Swings, Boston, MA - 53 mi.

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August 18, 2019

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