Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Side Streets: May Museum remains a classic attraction

Bill Vogrin Updated: May 4, 2014 at 12:18 pm

Deep in Rock Creek Canyon about 8 miles south of Colorado Springs exists a pocket of pure 1950s Americana.

Travel down Colorado 115, turn west at the huge steel replica Hercules beetle, wind along the creek and toward towering granite cliffs and be transported to a time when you could buy a ranch, build your own little museum, campground and RV park, attract tourists by the thousands, meet famous people like Walt Disney, and live your life surrounded by your family who then carry on your work years after you are gone.

Welcome to the May Museum of Natural History.

It opened Thursday for its 63rd season pretty much the way it has existed all these years . . . quietly, without fanfare and waiting to be discovered by school groups, insect fans and random tourists lured in by the roadside beetle.

I visited the day earlier and was struck by its simplicity - 7,000 insects and spiders, mostly, pinned to white boards in perfect rows inside century-old wooden cases, each lit by antique lamps, and arranged in long lines inside a large room.

There's nothing to distract visitors from neon-rainbow colored butterflies whose brilliance remain decades after they were caught, killed and pinned to the boards alongside hand-printed descriptions of each with date of capture - some going back to 1903.

Same for the wicked centipedes, freakish 17-inch-long walking sticks, a scary stuffed bat, deadly scorpions, prehistoric-looking beetles like the signature roadside mascot and more.

Only a few yellowed newspapers from a half-century ago and a few plaques break up the rows of display cases, 120 or more, lining the museum.

The museum survives as one of those classic roadside attractions that once dotted Colorado but started disappearing as modern tourists started expecting, even demanding, sophisticated museums and interactive, high-tech displays.

Forget all that as you drive down Rock Creek Canyon Road. There will be no podcast explaining what you are seeing at the May Museum.

And that's the charm of the place.

I think it's great the May Museum remains almost exactly as it was envisioned and built. If James May, who died in 1956, and son John, who died in 2006, returned today, I suspect they'd have no trouble finding their way around.

And who would have thought their legacy would be one of such stability after the way their lives began.

James May was a Brit raised in Brazil, where he worked with his father, Edward, whose job was collecting exotic insects on the uncharted Upper Amazon River and sending them back to Great Britain.

James and his brother Ted took up their father's work. Ted remained in Brazil while James traveled the world.

James' adventures included fighting in the Second Boer War in Africa, being shot and left for dead only to be rescued by Zulus. Upon his recovery he resumed collecting insects, gathering some species previously unknown to science, said R.J. Steer, president of the museum and great-grandson of James May.

Eventually, James married and settled with wife, Marjorie, in Canada.

One of James' sons, John, took an interest in his father's work and began building wooden cases to display the specimens so that he could take them to public events to show them for a profit.

He went off on his first showing at age 13 and never really stopped the rest of his life.

He and his father developed a traveling museum display and they took off across North America, setting up at fairs, stock shows, sports shows and flower shows. Newspaper clips from the 1930s and '40s describe their visits to Eastern U.S. cities.

Decades of newspaper stories recount their epic journeys crisscrossing the U.S. during the Great Depression and war years, finally opting to set up a base in the arid climate of the Pikes Peak region in 1943 with their families.

John and his wife, Vicky, bought a 105-acre parcel. James and John built log homes and eventually assembled 950 acres that became Golden Eagle Ranch, where they ran cattle along Rock Creek.

John carried on after his father's death and expanded. One project, a second museum in Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida in the early 1960s, failed when humidity caused the wings of moth and butterfly specimens to droop. It was soon sold.

Also in the 1960s, John developed a campground that today is the 500-space Golden Eagle RV Park and Campground with water and electric hookups, lakes, a pavilion and more. It generates the bulk of the income that supports the third and fourth generations of the May family.

But the museum, which boasts about 35,000 visitors a year, has always been the heart of the canyon and the constant in the May family, which has grown and changed even as the insects on display have changed little over the decades since the museum opened in 1951, as heralded in a Nov. 28, 1950, Gazette story.

And beyond the charm of the museum itself, I was taken by the way the May family has remained together in the canyon all these years.

John's three daughters, twins Louise and Lynda, 77, and Carla, 71, all live within a few walking sticks of each other. Same for many of their children, including R.J. and his sister Carrie, who live nearby and work the family businesses.

I admire their devotion to the family legacy. And I like to describe myself as old school (others simply describe me as old) so I kind of like the museum just the way it is. Simple. Straightforward. No-nonsense.

Head on down to the canyon and see for yourself. And, remember, you won't need your electronics.

-

Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets

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