2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

May Museum a charming old-school roadside tourist attraction

Published: May 4, 2014, 8:01 am, by Bill Vogrin
RJ Steer, grandson of the founder of the May Natural History Museum, holds a case of beetles among thousands of other insects Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Steer's grandfather, John May, had the opportunity to sell his family's collection of bugs to Walt Disney, but passed on the deal when Disney refused to give the family credit for collecting the insects. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

RJ Steer, grandson of the founder of the May Natural History Museum, holds a case of beetles among thousands of other insects Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Steer’s grandfather, John May, had the opportunity to sell his family’s collection of bugs to Walt Disney, but passed on the deal when Disney refused to give the family credit for collecting the insects. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

Deep in Rock Creek Canyon about eight 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.

A display case filled with stick insects and locusts from around the world is just one of about 120 cases on show at The May Natural History Museum Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

A display case filled with stick insects and locusts from around the world is just one of about 120 cases on show at The May Natural History Museum Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

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.

A display case filled with beetles from around the world is just one of about 120 cases on show at The May Natural History Museum Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

A display case filled with beetles from around the world is just one of about 120 cases on show at The May Natural History Museum Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

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

RJ Steer, grandson of the founder of the May Natural History Museum, places a case of beetles back on display Wednesday, April 30, 2014. The museum re-opens for the season May 1. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

RJ Steer, grandson of the founder of the May Natural History Museum, places a case of beetles back on display Wednesday, April 30, 2014. The museum re-opens for the season May 1. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

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, who died in 1956, and 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.

A July 17, 1949, Gazette Telegraph shows James May working on a display of insects he collected in travels around the world. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

A July 17, 1949, Gazette Telegraph shows James May working on a display of insects he collected in travels around the world. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

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, according to 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.

James May

James May

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.

The May Natural History Museum, which is home to thousands of insects, opens for the season May 1. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

The May Natural History Museum, which is home to thousands of insects, opens for the season May 1. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

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.

So head on down to the canyon and see for yourself. And, remember, you won’t need your electronics.

The giant steel Hercules beetle on Highway 115 south of Colorado Springs marks the turn to the May Museum of Natural History which displays over 7,000 invertebrates including insects, arachnids and other tropical wonders of natural history. James May began collecting insects in Brazil as a boy and amassed 100,000 specimens from around the world. He and his son, John May, took the collection on the road starting in the 1930s. They bought land and built a museum south of Colorado Springs, opening in 1951. A 2005 Gazette file photo.

The giant steel Hercules beetle on Highway 115 south of Colorado Springs marks the turn to the May Museum of Natural History which displays over 7,000 invertebrates including insects, arachnids and other tropical wonders of natural history. James May began collecting insects in Brazil as a boy and amassed 100,000 specimens from around the world. He and his son, John May, took the collection on the road starting in the 1930s. They bought land and built a museum south of Colorado Springs, opening in 1951. A 2005 Gazette file photo.

Disney wanted May Museum collection

Turns out Walt Disney kept pretty busy during his July 1956 visit to Colorado Springs.

Side Streets readers may recall my January column about Walt and his wife, Lillian, and their visit to the region a month after the opening in Cascade of Santa’s Workshop/North Pole theme park, which had been designed by Hollywood artist and ex-Disney Studios animator, Arto Monaco.

Walt Disney. Courtesy the Walt Disney Co.

Walt Disney. Courtesy the Walt Disney Co.

The Disneys were staying at The Broadmoor resort and one evening as they drove through Teller County they stopped in Florissant at the Pike Petrified Forest where Springs resident Jack Baker sold tours of the ancient fossil beds and souvenir fossils.

Before leaving, Disney agreed to pay $1,650 for a 34 million-year-old, five-ton Redwood stump that stood 7½ feet tall.

The purchase made headlines in The Gazette Telegraph, which photographed crews digging up the stump and using a crane to hoist it out so it could be trucked to Disneyland, where it remains on display in Frontierland.

Toby Wells, 12, posts on a stump after it was dug out and prepared for trucking to Disneyland in July 1956. Wells had given a tour of the Pike Petrified Forest to Walt Disney, who then bought the 34 million-year-old Redwood stump for $1,650. Today it stands in Frontierland. And Wells is a 69-year-old retired rancher. Gazette file photo.

Toby Wells, 12, posts on a stump after it was dug out and prepared for trucking to Disneyland in July 1956. Wells had given a tour of the Pike Petrified Forest to Walt Disney, who then bought the 34 million-year-old Redwood stump for $1,650. Today it stands in Frontierland. And Wells is a 69-year-old retired rancher. Gazette file photo.

Those headlines attracted entrepreneur John May, who had built, with his father, James May, the May Museum of Natural History on land about eight miles south of Colorado Springs in Rock Creek Canyon.

The museum opened in 1951 and displayed about 7,000 exotic tropical insects, spiders, scorpions and beetles that James May had collected around the world, beginning in 1903. The museum only had room for a fraction of the estimated 100,000 specimens in the May collection.

May’s daughters, Louise Steer, 77, and Carla Harris, 71, told me the rest of the story last week.

John May went to The Broadmoor to meet Disney and invite him to see the museum.

“My dad was always looking for an opportunity to advertise the museum,” Louise said, explaining how John approached Disney, told him about the museum and invited him to visit.

When Disney accepted, the Mays got busy.

“I spent a couple days really cleaning the grounds before he came,” said Carla, who was 13 at the time. “I managed to get a bad case of poison ivy and I wasn’t able to shake his hand. Not to be able to shake his hand really miffed me.”

Disney and his wife arrived and toured the museum.

“He looked it over and thought it would be really good thing to have at Disneyland,” Carla said.
But there was a problem. Disney wanted to buy the May collection and he wasn’t interested in attaching the May name to it.

“He was very impressed with the collection and he wanted to take it to Disneyland,” Carla said. “My dad preferred to lease it but he was willing to sell part of it. And he wanted the May name attached to it.

“But Disney did not put anyone else’s name in Disneyland. And Disney said everything there was proprietary. And he wouldn’t lease. He had to own it.”

In the end, May stood his ground and Disney walked away.

“They were very intense negotiations and the deal fell through,” Carla said. “I remember my grandmother was very upset he didn’t sell it. She saw the dollar signs.”

But Louise said it was all for the best.

I am glad the Mays didn’t sell everything to Disney.

But I can’t help thinking about the 90,000 or so specimens still locked up in storage.

It would be nice for much more of the family’s collection to find a home where it could be displayed so others could enjoy the great work done by James and John May collecting and preserving the exotic insects of the world.

IF YOU GO

May Museum of Natural History

Where: 710 Rock Creek Canyon Road – take Highway 115 south from Colorado Springs about eight miles and turn right at the giant beetle

Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Sept. 30

Admission: $6 adults, $5 ages 60 and older, $3 children 6-12

Contact: 576-0450, www.maymuseum-camp-rvpark.com

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