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Amiable mannequins and wax dummies bring prairie history to life.
Amiable mannequins and wax dummies bring prairie history to life.

Klein Museum

Field review by the editors.

Mobridge, South Dakota

We came for the two-headed calf; we stayed for the dummies -- at a museum crowded with simulated scenes of days gone by.

We came for the two-headed calf. We stayed for the dummies.
We came for the two-headed calf. We stayed for the dummies.

Though our individual recall may slip away, collectively the Roadside America Team never forgets a face, especially not a face on a weird dummy. That's why we knew we'd seen the big-toothed Billy the Kid in the Klein Museum somewhere before -- and then remembered he'd been a featured outlaw at the long-gone Wild West Historical Wax Museum in Wall, South Dakota.

Wax celebrities are too valuable to throw away, and Billy's unique look hints he may have had an even earlier wax museum career, perhaps as Hollywood bad boy Gary Busey or Who front-man Roger Daltrey.

Animal parts constitute most of the decor of the Trapper's Shack exhibit.
Animal parts constitute most of the decor of the Trapper's Shack exhibit.

Klein Museum curator Diane Kindt confirmed Billy and a platoon of the museum's other mannequins were purchased, slightly used, by a local booster, Rick Christman, for $4,000. Many figures still retain their Wild West identities: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull. Sacajawea appears to have shrunk several feet; Pat Garrett (who shot and killed Billy) is now a barber; the little pioneer in the chuckwagon scene has become a South Dakota farm girl. One former nameless extra in Wall has received a promotion in Mobridge: he's now Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark.

Billy or Busey? We've seen this guy before.
Billy or Busey? We've seen this guy before.

Identifying all of them would take considerable time at the overstuffed, detail-crowded Klein Museum. They smile, gesture, or look stern in displays simulating a dentist's office, a train depot, a trapper's shack, and various domestic scenes, filled with relics from olden times.

Diane felt the combination of wax and memorabilia was helpful. "People really enjoy seeing items in their correct places," she said, and the dummies add human-like context to artifacts such as the museum's 1890s butter churn and 1960s hair dryer.

Mobridge parade attire.
Mobridge parade attire.

The Klein Museum has an extensive collection of Native American beadwork and tools, which, according to Diane, had been in Mobridge since before the museum opened fifty years ago. Sitting Bull (noted previously in wax) is given ample display space, since he is buried, maybe, just outside of town. A tomahawk and spoon used by him, and given to missionary Paul Shepersky, are two of the museum's prized possessions, along with the Ghost Dress worn by Rattling White Face at the Wounded Knee Massacre. The ghost clothing was said to be magically bulletproof. It wasn't, and Rattling White Face was among the minority who survived.

Outside, next to a tiny church (seats ten), stands a log cabin Calvin Anderson had built to house his considerable collection of farm toys. According to Diane, Calvin grew up deprived of childhood entertainment. His playthings were pieces of scrap metal that he pretended were tractors. When he became a successful adult farmer, Calvin began collecting every scale model of agricultural machinery that he could get his hands on: planters, harvesters, threshers, balers, sprayers, and tractors (of course). Eventually the collection outgrew his house, and in 1998 he moved it here. "He collected until he died," said Diane.

Native American items.
Native American items.

Scary child of the corn.
Scary child of the corn.

As with most regional museums, this one has its share of oddities: the well-known (at least by us) stuffed two-headed calf, a rattlesnake in a jar, a slot machine confiscated in a police raid. There's a display of rocks that glow in ultraviolet light, a buckskin outfit with porcupine quills on the pants pockets (perhaps to discourage thieves), and a bowl of homemade lye soap (next to the wax farm girl).

Visitors can view guns, several that may have been used in the unsolved Dode MacKenzie saloon murder of 1909. And there's a real human skeleton (cause of death unknown) in the replica doctor's office. According to Diane, a local physician fixed the skeleton's broken arm.

The wax dummies are also subject to breakage, and several have suffered calamitous falls and amputations as they age. "Every so often someone bumps one, and a finger falls off," said Diane. This pervades the dummies with an extra whiff of eeriness, especially since, according to Diane, a Native medicine man once stopped in at the Klein Museum and told her that the building is infested with "spirits at unrest." Diane prefers not to dwell on the possibility that the dead might be cohabiting with Billy, Annie, and their wax associates. "He suggested, 'Put a tape recorder out at night and see what happens,'" Diane said. "I've never done that because I don't want to know what would happen."

Klein Museum

1820 W. Grand Crossing, Mobridge, SD
Northwest edge of town, on the north side of US-12, just south of its intersection with 20th St. W.
M-F 9-12 1-5, Sa-Su 1-4 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $5.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Fool Soldiers MonumentFool Soldiers Monument, Mobridge, SD - 1 mi.
Cowboy Rides Giant WalleyeCowboy Rides Giant Walleye, Mobridge, SD - 2 mi.
Disputed Grave of Sitting BullDisputed Grave of Sitting Bull, Mobridge, SD - 3 mi.
In the region:
Disputed Grave of Sitting Bull, Fort Yates, ND - 38 mi.

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