For me, it’s record albums. My fascination with them started as soon as I was old enough to figure out how to put them on the gigantic wooden console stereo we had in our living room. My childhood record collection started with the Beatles and the Supremes and lasted through disco, new wave, and early alt-rock before the shiny CD eventually took over as my format of choice. However, to this day I cannot pass a thrift store or yard sale without stopping to file through any dusty stacks of vinyl that might be lurking within.
Almost everybody is a collector of something, but few ever took the idea to the extreme level of the late great Walt Almquist, whose jaw-dropping collections of nearly everything you can think of are displayed in the dusty glass cases that make up the Sprag Pole Museum in Murray, Idaho. For Mr. Almquist, it all started in the 1930’s after a pal gave him a decorative whiskey bottle to adorn behind the bar of his newly established Sprag Pole Inn, which was housed in an already historic building where legendary local madam Molly B’Dam once performed her, ahem, business. With the help of his brother Harry and many friends, Walt spent the rest of his long life adding miscellany to his self-proclaimed Museum, eventually expanding to fill three buildings.
Curiosity recently led Q. and I to make the venture east to Murray one cloudy afternoon to check out this legendary tourist trap . In Wallace, I took the wrong road north and we ended up travelling through the narrow Gem-Burke valley filled with mining ruins and mobile homes occupied by folks who look like they don’t especially take kindly to strangers in them there parts. We backtracked and found the proper road to Murray, which was approximately wide enough to fit 1 and ¼ automobiles and snaked over the mountain like a cheap rollercoaster. I gleefully zoomed around the curves, causing Q. to go into a full-on anxiety attack as he pictured us flying off the ledge to our death in the remote wilderness.
Fortunately we made it in one piece, and pulling into Murray it became clear why it’s listed as a living ghost town. At the height of the mining boom, it was a city of several thousand folks, complete with a thriving red light district. Today, around six original buildings remain standing, including a tiny post office, a fire station which looks more like a fire trap, and two bars, including the bright yellow Sprag Pole Inn building itself.
I actually didn’t realize they served food and drinks until I walked in. I was famished but Q. was still a little queasy from our mountain adventure. The room was empty but the noise of several televisions and the staggering amount of wall clutter made it seem lively. We were greeted by current Sprag Pole owner Lloyd, who told us to grab a seat anywhere.
Looking around the place two things became immediately clear: Lloyd really, really likes both the Seahawks and Mariners, so much so that he has continued old Walt’s collecting obsession, except he chose to focus solely on memorabilia of the two Seattle teams. Secondly, I never knew that antlers could be used to make such a wide array of lighting fixtures.
The Sprag Pole dining room takes the notion of “down home charm” to the extreme, with it’s mismatched variety of plastic church chairs and tables of random height, size and shape. Crudely handwritten signs hang everywhere, touting everything from the wine list and the daily specials to snarky company policies “No credit – don’t even ask!” Looking at the menu, we were a bit surprised at the fanciness and cost of some of the offerings. For example, the going special was a full pound of Dungeness crab, a half pound of steamed clams, five jumbo prawns, a potato and soup or salad for $25.99. Racks of Lloyd’s “famous” BBQ ribs, Porterhouse steak, Prime rib dinner, Pan-seared oysters and Alaskan cod, all floating near or above the $20 mark. We realized perhaps this wasn’t the backwoods dive we thought it was, and that they must have quite a cult following to be able to serve such relatively haute cuisine.
Fortunately for us poor folks, they also serve a variety of burgers, sandwiches, and fried items. Basically, if you can fry it they serve it, including zucchini, cheese sticks, gizzards and that rare and so wonderful artery-clogging delicacy known as Chester Fried Chicken. Tempting, but I chose to opt for the relative safety of a Bacon Cheeseburger and Q. decided his tummy had settled enough to tackle a bowl of chili and a pint of Moose Drool. Yes, not even wee Murray is safe from the microbrew craze.
Our food came hot and fast. My burger and onion rings looked like they’d arrived via a time machine from 1955, an old-fashioned monster meat patty on a behemoth bun, served with a pile of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles . It was fully luscious, exploding with the rich flavor of the crisp bacon and sharp cheddar. The beer-battered onion rings were laughably huge, light and crispy and not at all overly greasy. Q. tasted his chili and declared that it “didn’t need a thing”, an impressive compliment coming from someone who usually massively abuses his food with condiments and salt. He proudly pointed out the huge chunks of jalapeno swimming within, and when the waitress came to clear the table, he told her it was the best chili he’d ever had in his life. From the quiver in his voice, I knew he meant it.
Full, we sat stunned for a few moments, absorbing the unexpected shock of such incredible food. We paid the bill, a bargain at under fifteen dollars for both of us, and turned our attention to the ugly metal door in the far back corner that serves as the humble entry to Walt Almquist’s Museum.
The first fluorescently lit room houses Walt’s original collection of dust covered bric-a-brac and curios, displayed in huge glass cases. One case is nothing but hundreds of small wooden animals, carved by Walt himself. A half-dozen cases are filled with a half-decades worth of collectable booze bottles representing all forty-eight states in the union. Another is filled with nothing but cigarette packages. Rock and mineral buffs will want to visit just to check out the thousands of colorful specimen the Almquists somehow amassed from around the globe. Other displays are more random, showcasing long outmoded household devices, brass vases, old money, war and mining memorabilia and even old Avon cologne bottles. One of the more humorously morbid items we noticed was a small ceramic urn with the red dymo-tape label “Grandma Shroyer”. In addition to the items, each display case is filled with tags describing the items written in old-man handwriting.
Cleary, the time and effort that our dear Walt must have invested in this collection is staggering, and he did all this while cooking food and serving drinks at the Inn. After running out room for all his stuff, he built on an expansion and set up some scenario-oriented historic displays, including an old one-room classroom, a mining scene, and a replication of Molly B’Dam’s den of iniquity. Even some antiques of more recent vintage make appearances here, like pinball machines and primitive video games, clunky old telephone answering devices, BetaMax video machines and other quaint obsolete electronics.
Eventually, it all became too much for the aging collector to maintain, and in 1982 the operation of the museum was handed over to a private, non-profit company who carry the Almquist torch proudly by continuing to collect items and expand the displays. They regularly receive large donations from private collectors, so it’s worth returning here every few years or so to see what’s new. Q. and I weren’t really sure what to expect when we arrived, but we left as devoted members of the Sprag Pole cult and plan on returning as soon as we can afford that incredible $25.99 seafood special.