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Miniature replicas of petrified wood houses. Smallest photo is of petrified wood tombstones.
Miniature replicas of petrified wood houses. Smallest photo is of petrified wood tombstones.

Petrified Wood Park Museum

Field review by the editors.

Lemmon, South Dakota

The Petrified Wood Park Museum, built of fossilized logs, is a weirdly agreeable building with spires of petrified wood spaced along the outer walls. The floors of the museum are made of slabs of fossilized grass. Although it opened in 1933, it is structurally Mesozoic, and could be said to be the Oldest Museum in the World.

Albino critters in a showcase.
Albino critters in a showcase.

The museum is part of Petrified Wood Park, the pet project of rock-happy local businessman Ole S. Quammen. All of the fossils, a panorama of plant and animal paleontology, came from the land surrounding Lemmon. "On the back side, where the fireplace is, there's all kinds of stuff; bugs on rocks," said Carolyn Penfield, curator of the museum. "Mr. Quammen had it done that way, so people would go look at it."

Small wood carvings of U.S. Presidents, JFK through Reagan.
Small wood carvings of U.S. Presidents, JFK through Reagan.

Yellowed news clippings on display in the museum reveal the early history of Petrified Wood Park. Epoch Making Ceremony Was Very Impressive proclaims one headline about the Park's dedication in May 1932, accompanied by a photo of a "Road Zeppelin" present at the event. According to a report in the Helena Independent, the Park's only concession to modern times was a single electric light bulb. Sadly, when it burned out, no one thought to add it to the museum collection.

Vintage photo of the Scandinavian wedding dress on exhibit.
Vintage photo of the Scandinavian wedding dress on exhibit.

The museum is a repository of local history and pioneer life. There are old kerosene lamps, wheelchairs, buffalo heads, soda machines, and a replica bread wagon that shows where a prominent town grocer got his start. A dinner table is set with plates of plastic food sealed in Saran Wrap, a photo display chronicles Lemmon's "Boss Cowman" award winners for the past several decades, and a World War II Coast Guard dummy stands in a sentry box. Look for the lamp made of three lamb legs!

Days-of-yore displays are populated by lady mannequins with unnaturally large eyes; Carolyn believed that they came from a department store in Bismarck. Each time we returned to this museum over the years, we conduct a search for particular mutant mannequins -- and we always ask after the taxidermy cats playing musical instruments we saw in the 1990s (in storage or decomposed).

Glamor mannequin plays one of the museum's several organs.
Glamor mannequin plays one of the museum's several organs.

Wooden miniatures of several U.S. presidents (and a couple of UK Prime Minsters) are a mystery. Carolyn didn't think that they were carved by anyone from Lemmon.

A pair of "very limited production" Petrified Wood Park salt and pepper shakers on display in the museum were made and sold at Jerry's Hardware in town, according to Carolyn, and a miniataure petrified wood house was made by one of the workmen who built Petrified Wood Park. "That guy also made tombstones for people," said Carolyn -- out of petrified wood. Carolyn said that several Lemmon residents have petrified wood tombstones in the town cemetery, but not Ole Quammen, a forever resident under a tiny granite slab, flush with the ground. "I think he deserved more," Carolyn said, although the 100+ monuments in Petrified Wood Park could qualify as Ole's memorial for the Ages.

The Petrified Wood Park Museum is only open during the summer months, though its off-season shutdown is not from any lack of interest on the part of Carolyn or the town. "It's cold!" Carolyn said -- because the same hardness that enables petrified wood to endure for millennia also makes it terrible as the structure's wall insulation. "It takes a while in the spring for the inside to warm up."

Petrified Wood Park Museum

500 Main Ave., Lemmon, SD
Take US-12 into town. Turn north at the Petrified Wood Park sign onto Main Ave. Drive five blocks to the Museum, on the right.
June-Aug daily 9-5; closed off-season. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Donations welcome.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Petrified Wood ParkPetrified Wood Park, Lemmon, SD - < 1 mi.
Scrappy Art of John LopezScrappy Art of John Lopez, Lemmon, SD - < 1 mi.
Scrap Metal Bronco BusterScrap Metal Bronco Buster, Lemmon, SD - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Cowboy Rides a Dinosaur, Lemmon, SD - < 1 mi.

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