When Jack and Belva Lawson began their Emu-Z-Um in a remote part of Idaho almost no one gave it a chance of amounting to...

Share story

GRAND VIEW, Idaho — When Jack and Belva Lawson began their Emu-Z-Um in a remote part of Idaho almost no one gave it a chance of amounting to much.

Almost everyone was wrong about that.

Since the offbeat museum opened in 1998, the Lawsons have been conducting up to four tours a day and have exponentially expanded their offerings. Literally thousands of items are exhibited, from toys to sheep wagons to the former contents of the Silver City museum. A typical tour takes two hours. To see and appreciate everything properly would take days.

“When we started, it was just a hobby,” Belva Lawson said. “We like to collect things. We never thought people would come all the way out here in the middle of nowhere to see them.”

They come at the rate of several thousand visitors a year to see the out-of-the-way museum’s collection of Idaho oddments, Old West artifacts and other bits of Americana. The emus the Lawsons once raised commercially, and for which the museum was named, are down to just a few pets now. They’re about the only things that haven’t multiplied.

If you go

Where

The Emu-Z-Um is at 22142 River Road in Owyhee County, about a mile off Idaho 78 between Oreana and Grand View. A sign marks the turnoff.

Hours

The museum is open on weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on weekdays by appointment. (In winter, it’s by appointment only.)

Cost

Admission is $5 for adults, $2.50 for children 6-12.

More information

For general information on Idaho, contact the state tourism office: www.visitidaho.org or 800-847-4843.

Tom Hall, a longtime Owyhee County Historical Society member and himself the owner of a ranching museum, calls the Emu-Z-Um “a masterpiece.”

“They have about everything you could think of — a whole raft of Silver City artifacts, Bruneau and Grand View artifacts, almost a whole town set up with a blacksmith shop, a barbershop,” he said. “I don’t know where to start.”

The collection started when Jack Lawson was a boy growing up in Owyhee County, where cows still outnumber people.

“We didn’t have theaters or bowling alleys then,” he said. “Collecting was my entertainment. I’d go out in the desert and pick up bottles and arrowheads.”

Both are collectors

Belva liked to collect bowls and picture frames. The two became high-school sweethearts; they’ve been married 48 years. It was inevitable that their collections would merge.

“It’s hard to believe that all this stuff is the work of just two crazy people,” Belva said, laughing.

The amount of “stuff” has grown so much that they built a new home overlooking the Snake River and use the old one for displays. They’ve built or brought in other buildings to display the rest.

“We never throw anything away,” Belva said. “We just hang it on a wall.”

Refined from its early days, when parts of it resembled an overgrown junk pile, much of the collection is meticulously displayed according to themes. Many themes have their own room or building. The museum has a beauty shop, boutique, hunting lodge, dentist’s office, church, saloon, sheriff’s office, bank, post office, schoolhouse, laundry, tool room, radio room, children’s room, model railroad and a soda fountain.

It has an old house brimming with antiques, a 1950s kitchen, an Indian room with arrowheads, paintings, cradleboards and regalia. A Western room decorated with bits, bridles, spurs, saddles and chaps; a drive-in restaurant staffed by a mannequin on roller skates; a service station with a vintage gas pump and a Model A car and truck.

The sports room now has a Boise State University theme — and contemporary stuff. Former BSU and NFL player Rolly Woolsey donated some autographed photos. “The place is fabulous,” Woolsey said. “To tell you the truth, I was shocked when I went out there. I expected to spend 15 minutes and ended up looking around for two hours.”

The actual number of items the Lawsons have collected is unknown but enormous — and eclectic.

They have an ore wagon from Sun Valley and, from elsewhere in Idaho, sheep wagons from Grasmere, a buckboard from Nampa, an organ from a church in Weiser. They have a farm-machinery collection, toy-truck collection, whistle collection, pocketknife collection, beer-can collection, salt-and-pepper-shaker collection and 7,000 fruit, milk, liquor, soda and medicine bottles — many of them antiques.

Unusual displays

A very partial listing of the collection’s more unusual items would include alfalfa-seed screeners, an egg-vending machine, moonshine still, scales for weighing eggs, insulators from power poles, chicken brooders and de-beakers, antique milkshake makers, corn shellers, a pink pay phone and a 1952 fire truck.

The collection grew significantly in 2000, when the Lawsons purchased the contents of the structurally threatened museum in Idaho’s Silver City. Housed in two buildings on their ranch, it includes Old West artifacts ranging from a 1908 wedding dress to a stove for heating irons used in a Chinese laundry.

“It’s the history of Silver City from 1862 on,” Jack Lawson said. “It took our life savings to buy it, but we wanted to keep it here in Owyhee County. If we hadn’t, it would have been auctioned and scattered all over the country.”

Ranchers most of their lives, the Lawsons are down to raising 20 acres of hay now. He’s 68; she’s 66. Proceeds from museum admissions supplement their Social Security and help add to their collection.

“We have another couple of rooms and another building we still want to do,” Belva said.