By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Linda Endersby had a ready answer when asked for the strangest item in the collection of the Missouri State Museum. “Ella Ewing’s shoes,” she said. “They’re size 24s.”
Endersby is the director of the museum, which is in the State Capitol building in Jefferson City, and she knows all the surprises found in its 30,000-piece collection.
Ella Ewing was known as the “Missouri Giantess.” Born in 1872 in La Grange in northeast Missouri, she reportedly grew to be 8 feet, 4 inches tall by age 22. The museum has a pair of shiny black high-button shoes, donated by the company that made them for Ewing.
“Her parents tried to keep her out of the limelight, but did realize they could make money from her size,” Endersby said. “She went out on tour with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.”
The Missouri State Museum, which is part of the state park system, houses it treasures at the Riverside Collections Facility, a secured warehouse a mile east of the capitol building. The museum has exhibit space in two wings on the first floor of the capitol.
“Civil War Missouri: A House Dividing” currently is on display at the capitol and runs through May 2015. However, the museum also offers behind-the-scenes tours of the Riverside building. From June through October, the tours start at 2 p.m. on the last Friday of every month.
Legislation created the museum in 1919, when it received military artifacts that had been collected by the state adjutant general. The museum has memorabilia from the Civil War, as well as German guns, daggers and helmets from later conflicts.
“We have unique Native American artifacts from Missouri,” Endersby said. “We also have over 600 flags, everything from the Seminole War in the 1830s through current conflicts in the Middle East.”
Visitors touring Riverside will see the usual collection of vintage tools, clothing and furniture. Asked for the 10 most unusual items, Endersby began with Ella Ewing’s shoes, and easily came up with nine other oddities.
Sweet gum mortars: “We have two, and we have yet to find any other sweet gum mortars anywhere else in the country,” Endersby said of the short, stout Civil War weapons. “Troops would carry metal rings with them. When they came into battle, they’d cut down trees and hollow them out. After being used for 24 to 36 hours, most of them would blow apart. With the possible exception of some of the flags, they’re the rarest things in our collection.”
Mary Alicia Owens Native-American beadwork: “Owens collected beadwork from the Sac and Fox in Missouri in the 1890s,” Endersby said. “The collection has about 240 pieces.” The beadwork includes colorful loom-beaded sashes and garters from the Sac and Fox, as well as beaded moccasins from several tribes.
Gatling gun: “It’s one of the earliest Gatling guns, which was a rapid-fire gun from the 19th century,” Endersby said. “This actually wasn’t used in the Civil War; it came directly from the company.”
Nazi daggers: “We have several German pieces. The United States got war booty after World War II and divided it up among the states,” Endersby said. The weapons include two German Minenwerfers, which are mortars from World War I, as well as daggers bearing the Nazi insignia from World War II.
Bomb shelter kit: “We got it from the State Emergency Management Agency,” Endersby said. “It has everything from packets to purify water, to women’s sanitary napkins to medical tools. There also are chemicals used to set up portable toilets.”
Moon rocks: The museum has two small framed displays of black pebbles from the moon, along with miniature Missouri flags that were among state flags on the Apollo flights. “The second set was given to then-Gov. Kit Bond, and it had been missing for years,” Endersby said. “Sen. Bond gave it to Gov. Nixon in December 2010.”
Mastodon tusk: “We have a tusk and a tooth; it’s a molar about 4 inches by 4 inches,” Endersby said. “The tusk is not quite 3 feet long. They came to us early on as a donation in the 1930s.”
A piece of President William McKinley’s curtain: “It’s not that exciting to look at, but it’s a bizarre story,” Endersby said. “The curtain hung in the Blue Room of the White House. After McKinley was assassinated in 1901, his wife gave a piece to each of his cabinet members. It came to us from a family in St. Louis.”
No. 10 is easily the nastiest looking artifact on Riverside’s shelves. Brown, rounded mounds in an apothecary jar.
“It looks disgusting,” Endersby said. “People on behind-the-scenes tours come in and say, ‘Yew! What’s that?’ They usually assume it’s a body part, like animal intestines.”
What is it?
Tobacco twists: “In the 19th century, that’s how tobacco would be sold,” Endersby said. “You’d have seen a jar like this in a general store.”
The Missouri State Museum will hold free “Museum After Hours” events throughout 2012. Staff will conduct special programs in the museum galleries from 5-9 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month. Evening entry will be through the carriage entrance on the south side of the building underneath the grand staircase. For more information, call (573) 751-2854, or visit missouristatemuseum.com.