Van Lear —
Eli Harrington believes the historic coal-mining community of Van Lear has more to offer than just a visit to Loretta Lynn’s cabin on the hill in Butcher Holler.
Harrington, 28, recently opened the East Kentucky Museum of the Macabre as a way to share his personal pursuit of things related to the darker side of life, and to share the often unusual history behind his artifacts.
“It has been kind of a lifetime pursuit collecting strange and unusual things ... and one day I just decided ‘Why not open a museum and share my collection?’ Van Lear used to be a bustling city. People from Prestonsburg and Paintsville used to come here. I’d love to build it up like that again,” he said, citing the quiet community’s history as a thriving coal mine town with its own movie theater among other amenities.
“I’m trying to tell a side of history that’s not always heard,” he said, pointing out items including amputation knives and autopsy tools. “Sometimes, people don’t want to remember that side of history.”
The museum curator took advantage of the fact his grandmother, Lerlie Harrington, has for many years lived in a house which originally served as an emergency hospital and doctor’s office, and assembled his museum in the front room. “Grandma was kind of skeptical at first, but now she sees it growing. It started off slowly, but now it’s snowballing,” he said, crediting word-of-mouth reviews as well as social media outlets for spreading the word about the museum. Girlfriend and secretary Kyrie Fowkes handles the online promotion and communication for the museum, with Harrington explaining he is not a fan of technology.
“I don’t even own a cellphone,” he said.
Harrington said he was initially uncertain about the community’s reaction to a museum dedicated to the grim and ghastly directly across the road from a Baptist church.
“I’m waiting for the torch and pitchforks to come down the road,” he said with a laugh, explaining his place has been embraced by Van Lear’s children, who make repeat visits to take the tour and buy candy at the end their visit.
“It is a museum, but it is more like a roadside tourist attraction. It’s a little creepy ... a little twisted, but in a fun, campy way,” Harrington noted, after explaining he has been collecting “things like swords, flails and daggers,” since he was 15 years old.
“Like a lot of teenagers, I went through my goth period,” he said, noting his bedroom walls and floor were once painted black. Without skipping a beat, he said his diverse interests have also drawn him into the world of Civil War re-enactments, where he sometimes portrays Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan. The red coat he often wears while giving tours is a replica of an English fox hunter’s jacket he created. If he knows there are groups coming to take the tour, Harrington said he often wears a top hat and tuxedo coat to add to his presentation.
“I try to educate and entertain. I do use a little showmanship as part of it,” he said.
The tour begins at the front door as Harrington points out examples of “spirit photography” including suspected images of paranormal activity at the nearby Van Lear Coal Miner’s Museum. Each visitor’s attention is then drawn to a series of items ranging from vampire and monster-hunting supplies (complete with a set of silver bullets), to tools of war, including a vintage Russian sniper rifle and a can of “survival biscuits” recovered from a Floyd County fallout shelter, as well as a vicious-looking fighting knife with steel pitted by spilled blood. Sprinkling a series of one-liners and puns into his narrative, Harrington guides guests’ attention to surgical tools from the Civil War era, including an amputation knife and bone saw that resembles a modern hacksaw, as well as ar of mercury used to treat venereal disease and an antique glass syringe used in the old Paintsville Hospital.
“I don’t think I could exist without knowing a lot of antique dealers,” Harrington said, noting many shop owners know he is the guy to call when the find something that might work well in his collection.
The one-room museum tour moves through what Harrington refers to as “the death section,” often using humor to temper the ghastly nature of the artifacts on display.
“This is an original Jack the Ripper knife,” he says. “I bought it from a man named Jack and he ripped me off.”
The exhibit also chronicles the history of the house itself, with an old photo of the front door of the former mining-town’s emergency room next to the same door that now seals the museum away from the Harrington living room. “The master bedroom was the emergency room and operating room historically,” he said, adding the home was originally the office of Dr. John Lyon. “The examining rooms are now a bedroom and a bathroom.”
With oddities including a “Fiji Mermaid,”vintage advertising for a cocaine-based baldness cure, sketches of a monster catfish alleged to still survive in nearby Dewey Lake and customized toe tags among many other attractions, Harrington said he is pleased with the exhibit, but hopes to continue adding to the macabre museum’s collection. “Anytime somebody has something to donate, or possibly sell me, I’m interested,” he said.
The museum of the Macabre is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The museum is at 2618 Ky. 302 in the Johnson County community of Van Lear. For more information, visit the museum’s Facebook page or call (606) 789-8723.
TIM PRESTON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2651.