Weekend Wanderlust: Three micro-museums to visit before summer’s end

A monthly guide to day trips across Ohio and beyond. This month: The Early Television Museum, The National Barber Museum and Hall of Fame, and The Ted Lewis Museum

Kevin J. Elliott
The National Barber Museum and Hall of Fame in Canal Winchester, Ohio.

As an educator, I get to take full advantage of summer vacation. It’s a blessed vibe, for sure. (I think there’s even an Aerosmith album about it.) In addition to a recent Florida excursion just before the Delta explosion, I spent the summer traversing much of Ohio, exploring everywhere from Fremont to East Liverpool, 2,000 miles in all.

As someone who is strictly beholden to the Old Farmer's Almanac, there’s still plenty of summer to experience. I realize it’s waning, the Delta is rising and trips are once again in logistical flux. But short excursions — an afternoon out of the house, vaccinated and cautious — can certainly be had. 

To that end, here are three micro-museums of very specific subjects within a 30-minute drive from central Columbus. Go visit before the autumnal routine starts to sap all of that pure summer fun.

The Early Television Museum in Hilliard, Ohio.

The Early Television Museum

5396 Franklin St., Hilliard

The Early Television Museum sits in a nondescript warehouse, directly off of Hilliard’s historic drag. Only open on Saturdays and Sundays, it’s long been an oddball destination on my list. When I finally visited last weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to find the place as educational as it is strangely nostalgic.

Steve McVoy, the museum curator, has an interesting history in television, particularly his ascendance in cable TV in and around the Columbus region. In that career, he’s been particularly keen on collecting artifacts that detail the evolution of the television set. In the first room are monolithic cabinets made in England in the 1930s; these are pre-war models, with screens about the size of a Game Boy. It’s amazing to see the inner workings — the tubes, the electrical complexities — that went into creating the primitive versions of what is now a cultural touchstone in the modern home.

McVoy has set up a cohesive, film-strip-quality audio tour to explain the process by which television was first hand-cranked, then eventually broadcast from remote locations and, in quick succession, piped in with full color. With an emphasis on “early,” this museum concludes at the end of a dark wing, in which sits the behemoth 1962 German-designed Kuba Komet — like something out of the Jetsons, a reminder that television has come a long way. In between there are innumerable models from Philco, Motorola, Teletone and Dumont, with vintage signage lining the walls and plenty of neon to advertise the invention’s golden age.

While there’s no direct reason that Columbus is home to such a museum (besides being McVoy’s place of residence), there is a room devoted to Murry Mercier Jr., a pioneer of handmade, then-experimental sets. Post-war he was credited with bringing television to Columbus and was the first to run a store and repair service. Several of his creations are here on display. 

I shared my visit with a family of three generations while touring the site. The kids were bored by it all, running carelessly around the delicate pieces, but flummoxed by the sheer size of the first mass-produced television, which was touted by RCA at the 1939 World’s Fair. It was interesting to hear the grandfather remembering how long it took for tubes to “warm up,” or having to install a “newfangled” antenna that constantly needed turning on the roof. It certainly illuminated how much we take the miracle of our personal technologies for granted.

The National Barber Museum and Hall of Fame in Canal Winchester, Ohio

The National Barber Museum and Hall of Fame

135 Franklin St., Canal Winchester

The history of the barber pole is one of the more interesting anecdotes you’ll hear on a guided tour of the National Barber Museum and Hall of Fame in the basement of an unused Canal Winchester school building. There are several theories as to the pole's origins, but a grisly piece of folk art in the museum’s hallway shows a triptych of scenes: a “barber” pulling a tooth (white), the same figure performing a bloodletting (red) and one investigating a patient's veins (blue). Not only was the barber shop a small town’s siren for community information and gossip, it also served as a one-stop service station for everything from amputations to haircuts.

After the explanation, Mike Ippoliti, former Canal Schools superintendent and current curator of the museum, flips a switch to reveal a dazzling wall filled with the lit, spinning poles, once as ubiquitous as stop signs. When traditional barber shops across our landscape disappear, as they have rapidly over past decades, what’s left is usually shipped to Ippoliti for the museum's ever-growing collection: immaculate suede, upholstered chairs; shelves of unique shaving mugs (it was common for every customer to keep their own mug at the shop); a technicolored array of various tonics and oils; and displays of clippers that now seem medieval.

The museum owes its existence to founder Ed Jeffers, a Canal Winchester native who was known as the “godfather of barbers” long before his death in 2006. Atop the Wigwam Restaurant in downtown Canal, he amassed thousands of pieces of barber history in a cramped apartment until it was gifted to the historical society. As a ward over that collection, Ippoliti has taken great strides in giving it proper due, from finding a permanent place for the museum, as well as employing experts to do the research and cataloguing, and finding ways to maximize these impressive displays with limited space. As a result, it’s been recognized as the only museum in the world devoted solely to barbering.

The final room houses the official hall of fame. Don’t be alarmed by your general lack of barber knowledge; the only member I recognized was Russell Hiatt, the North Carolina barber who served as the inspiration for Floyd on "The Andy Griffith Show." You'll also find famed Columbus folk artist Elijah Pierce, who was a barber until 1978, cutting hair for 52 years while carving on the side. Oh, and you'll see Vernon Winfrey, Oprah's father.

The Ted Lewis Museum in Circleville, Ohio.

The Ted Lewis Museum

133 W. Main St., Circleville

Any time I’m in Circleville, there’s an air of unnerving energy and mystery that hangs heavy. I’ll soon do some more in-depth research on this bucolic farming village and the mysterious origins of its plotting and pumpkin show (now in its 115th year). But for now, I made a brief sojourn to Circleville to visit the first Del Taco in the region and the Ted Lewis Museum, a landmark in the idyllic downtown since 1977. 

Born Theodore Leopold Friedman in 1890, the legend goes that a young Ted was unimpressed with the family business (a textile bazaar on Main Street) and would spend his days sneaking into minstrel shows and learning clarinet from a local Black barber, Cricket Smith. He left with one of those touring troupes and eventually landed in New York City. By 1917, he had his own cabaret on Broadway.

The museum is a shrine to the fairy tale that followed. Lewis would go on to sell millions of records, bridge the gap between vaudeville and television, star in movies about his life and put a face on the commercialization of “jazz.” What’s most intriguing is just how popular and powerful Lewis was during his time; at the height of the '20s, he was the highest-paid performer in the nation. At every show, Lewis would announce he was from Circleville, the “capital of the world.” He was a song and dance man until the day he died in 1971, when his wife of 56 years, Adah Lewis, brought his entire collection of memorabilia back to his home.

There are certainly some questions in Lewis’ storied career. He began in a duo with his brother staging a play called “The Jailbird and the Coon,” wherein Lewis wore blackface. But in moving to New York he was instrumental in integrating African-American musicians to his company — most notably Eddie Chester, who would mimic his moves onstage in a hit song called “Me and My Shadow.” (Per the museum’s curator, Lewis adopted Chester as his son.) Still, it’s hard to diminish Lewis’ benevolence and dedication to the artform when browsing his timeline. Museums like this continuously evolve so that we can learn from and competently question our past.

As always, Before heading out, we recommend you give each of these locations a call in order to get accurate hours and admission protocols.