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Jerry's Hat Museum.

Jerry's Hat Museum

Field review by the editors.

Forrest, Illinois

According to Jerry Roth, until 2006 he was a normal guy. He was 68 years old, a retired computer programmer and data processing supervisor for the city of Phoenix, Arizona, and he'd moved back to his hometown of Forrest, Illinois.

Jerry's Hat Museum.

"And then," Jerry said, "that's when I lost control."

Jerry began collecting hats; specifically baseball-style caps -- which was odd, he said, since he does not like wearing hats. But their uniform shape appealed to his sense of order, and their endless variety of designs and logos he found fascinating. And they were cheap. In fact, Jerry soon learned that people were perfectly willing to give him hats, lots of hats, sometime hundreds at a time.

By 2016 Jerry had about 4,000 different hats sitting in boxes in his garage and basement. He wanted to share his newfound passion with the public (though he didn't want them in his house). Searching for an affordable building, he found the town's empty Church of God, built in 1905. Jerry spent a year restoring it -- which pleased its former parishioners -- and reopened it in 2017 as Jerry's Hat Museum.

Jerry's Hat Museum.

The name is misleading. Jerry's museum not only has hats, but also key rings, coin purses, penknives, ice scrapers, calendars, matchbooks, thermometers, ice cream scoops, fly swatters, bottle openers, rulers and yardsticks -- anything that can be mass-produced and branded with a business name. "When I opened in 2017 I had 100 pens," he told us. Four years later, he had nearly 24,000.

Jerry's Hat Museum.

This explosion of museum-worthy material was as welcome as it was unexpected. Jerry couldn't explain it any more than he could explain why he started collecting in the first place. "Everybody brings me everything," he said. "Just this morning I went to get coffee and a guy threw me a big bag full of hats." According to the museum's well-used chalkboard, 13,578 hats and 23,947 pens were on display during our visit -- totals that Jerry no doubt erased and increased the following day.

Jerry enjoys walking visitors through his museum. For context, it has a some token examples of novelty headgear: a fez, a fire helmet, some Easter bonnets, a cowboy stetson, a Hersey's Kiss hat, and an underpants hat labeled "Butthead" that Jerry said is the most popular in the museum.

Jerry's Hat Museum.

The rest are all caps. "There are 12,538 upstairs, and only one that doesn't have a logo on it," he told us. "I know it's there somewhere because I put it there on purpose. But now even I can't find it."

Jerry's Hat Museum.

Jerry's initial idea, to display the hats by category and color, was quickly abandoned as impractical. "All you end up doing is moving hats," he said. "Now I just hang 'em as I get 'em."

The pens are secured onto plywood panels at Jerry's home, counted, then attached to the downstairs walls of the museum. Accurate tabulation is important to Jerry. "I had to recount a couple times," he said. "When you got 15,000 pens, that ain't fun."

Visitors who've donated a hat or pen to Jerry's museum will occasionally ask to see their contribution. "Some I remember where they are and some I don't," said Jerry. "I just can't keep track any more." We gave Jerry a Roadside America hat, satisfied that it will be hung somewhere in the building, even if we never see it again.

Jerry said that every artifact in his museum was personally placed by him, and admitted that if other people were hanging his hats and pens, he probably wouldn't be satisfied. "I want everything lined up right," he said. "I've always been neat. I don't like a mess. I've got a little OCD in me, probably."

Jerry's Hat Museum.

A hand-made sign near the church's former pulpit gives a brief history of baseball-style hats, explains how they're made, and concludes: "In the USA more than 40 million hats are sold each year." In other words, Jerry knows that he'll never run out of exhibits. But what happens when he runs out of room? "Well, at this rate we're gonna find that out pretty soon," he said. However, Jerry also owns the vacant lot next door, and he said that additional museum space could be built on the property. "I'll face that when it comes," he said. "I think I'm on Plan F now anyway."

Jerry's Hat Museum

201 N. Beech St., Forrest, IL
East side of town. From US-24 turn north onto N. Beech St. Drive two blocks. The museum will be on the right, in the old white church building.
By appt only. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Donations welcome.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Wabash TurntableWabash Turntable, Forrest, IL - < 1 mi.
Bouncy Horse GallopBouncy Horse Gallop, Chenoa, IL - 9 mi.
Farm Town Jet FighterFarm Town Jet Fighter, Cullom, IL - 11 mi.
In the region:
Animal Hospital Line-Up, Bloomington, IL - 38 mi.

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