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MUSEUMS: WHERE THE PAST LIVES

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They are so uniquely Western, these museums. They are all about rivers and railroads, and birds and rifles and about wresting a life from the dry Great Basin. These are the local museums, the places you've always told yourself you'd visit, when you see the signs on the freeway.

Maybe you are busy. Maybe you've forgotten to plan an hour or two of free time into your trip. But you will feel a sense of loss, if you drive past the exit to yet another Utah museum. What are summer vacations for, after all, if not to explore the history and geography of your own state?Inside the door of each museum, you can find enough stories to fill a book. There are stories of places so wild and diverse that you'll be awed by the power of Utah's natural world. You'll find the stories of people, too, people with a passion for inventing or exploring or just for living.

Arrowheads, trilobites and dinosaur bones are probably the most common items on display in museums across the state. But in general, each local museum, whether it's small or large, is quite different from the others. Each has a sense of place.

We visited four museums recently. We enjoyed poking around and learned something at each, and came away charmed by the people we met.

Many of the museum guides are volunteers. Initially, they may have been farming women or mining men, but their knowledge extends far beyond their occupations. They have an amazing array of facts stuffed into their heads. They love to tell stories, especially to schoolchildren.

In Lehi, we met a man who makes a ritual out of having youngsters hold the fossilized dinosaur scat, before he tells them what "scat" is. In Delta, we met two women who were raising a tiny motherless puppy in the office of the museum and who said they spent so many hours at the museum they'd had to give up making beds and cooking.

Like all the museum people we met, the collection is their passion. They are thrilled to show you something you've never seen before.

HUTCHINGS MUSEUM, 685 N. Center Street, Lehi. Hours: Daily except Sundays and holidays, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Groups may make reservations for evening visits.

H.C. Hutchings was just a lad, back in 1914 or so, when his parents taught him how to learn. There weren't any schools in the narrow canyon of Scranton where his father was a miner. But he didn't need school because his parents, he says, were naturally curious.

He was invited to bring home rocks and birds' eggs and arrowheads, and if he could give a good description of where he found an item and what it was, he was allowed to stand up and give a presentation to the grownups. In this way, he too was encouraged to be curious and to collect.

While Hutchings was still young, his parents, John and Eunice Hutchings, moved to Lehi. There, John was the first mailman. The route wasn't too big, and Hutchings helped his dad so that every afternoon they'd have time to hop in the old Chevy and go collecting.

Eventually, John and Eunice had three more children, three more little collectors. From the first, the Hutchings collection was overflowing. It filled the large back shed and spilled over into the house. Hutchings can't remember a dinner hour that wasn't filled with excited conversation about the latest mineral, fossil or bird's egg someone just discovered. Almost every night dinner was interrupted when a visitor - a Boy Scout, maybe, or a neighbor - stopped by to see the new find.

It wasn't until the 1968 that the townspeople found a building and helped form a nonprofit organization so the John Hutchings' natural history collection could have a public home. Up until then, the public was always welcome in the Hutchings' home.

H.C. Hutchings talks about his childhood as if it were the most abundant of times. You still feel that same sense of abundance, 80 years later, as Hutchings gives a guided tour of the collection. He and his younger brother, John, are there most days to show visitors around the museum.

Hutchings got degrees in biology and geology from Brigham Young University. He explains he went to college before BYU offered a degree in archaeology, or he might have one more degree. Later he talks about his father having a mining claim on Timpanogos Cave and taking him to explore it in the days before anyone knew there were three connecting caves. And later he shows you the letter from the Department of Agriculture, one of a series obtained by the Hutchings family in the 1930s, authorizing them to pick up samples of animals and vegetation for the purposes of scientific study.

Slowly, listening to his stories, you begin to realize that Hutching's father, with a sixth-grade education, was among the first scientists to study this area of the state. Slowly, you get an idea of how long ago this all happened and what pioneering collectors the Hutchings really were.

GREAT BASIN MUSEUM, 328 West 100 North, Delta. Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Closed on major holidays except July 4 and Memorial Day.

All the people who roamed the desert are represented here, in the Great Basin Museum, in Delta. If you want to know about the people who were there first, you can see the Clovis Point arrowheads. If you want to know about the pioneers and farmers, who managed to eke out a living on this unpromising-looking land, you'll find their stories and artifacts, too. And out in back you'll see their vehicles. If you love rocks, you'll be impressed with the minerals display.

What the Great Basin Museum does best is portray a vast desert landscape while at the same time offering a picture of life in a small Utah town.

Dr. Bird's 1929 operating room is re-created in one corner of the building. There are toys and a toy catalog from the 1940s. You'll learn about the homesteaders who came around 1900, lured by the railroads and a promise of cheap land, with no idea about how hard it was going to be to irrigate.

One of the most moving stories of the Great Basin is still to be told. Donations are still being accepted for the $180,000 project of restoring a portion of the Topaz relocation camp next to the Great Basin Museum.

When one of the original barracks is restored to the way it looked in 1942, and filled with artifacts, visitors will be able to learn more about the Japanese-Americans who lived at the Topaz camp during World War II.

In the meantime, there is a brochure that previews the exhibit. Particularly touching is one photo in which the Topaz residents are all dressed up for New Year's Eve. In 1940s suits and pretty dresses, they look like they were celebrating in a fancy San Francisco night club. Actually, of course, they were in a tarpaper shack in the desert. They were carrying forth, going on with their lives the best they could. They were making a party for each other and for the children.

Recently, Lawson Fusao Inada wrote this poem about the barrack which is to be restored:

It's just an old barrack. It's not worth much.

A farmer could put chickens in it, fill it with junk,

or just chop it up for kindling.

It's just an old barrack.

It wasn't worth much

to begin with.

Some workers just went

out to the desert

and slapped it together, covered

it with tarpaper.

It's just an old barrack. Some people just came

along lived in it for awhile. They filled it with coughing,

sneezing; they filled it with shivering, sweat -

and then they left.

It's just an old barrack. It's just a big, old box,

actually, with a musty smell, like a basement or attic.

Maybe it used to hold memories, dreams;

maybe it used to hold laughter; maybe it used to hold grandparents,

children, but it's empty now.

It's just an old barrack. Filled with cobwebs, echoes . . .

Yes, the floor echoes, echoes and

outside the window is a place called Delta.

Or is it Topaz.

It's just an old barrack. One of many. Many rows

and rows of barracks, behind a fence, like a secret city.

Some people keep the barracks in their eyes.

It's just an old barrack.

One of a kind.

It survived.

THE BROWNING ARMS MUSEUM, at Union Station, 2501 Wall Avenue, Ogden. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

John Browning, gun manufacturer. His name is familiar. But then the words Colt and Winchester, are familiar too. In fact, those names are more familiar. Given his relative notoriety, you may have wondered: How important was Browning really?

Well, tremendously important, as you will learn when you visit the Browning Arms Museum in the Union Station on Ogden's Wall Ave. Browning made an amazing contribution. He invented everything, everything from the days of the Wild West repeating rifles and pistols clear through the heyday of the machine guns of World War I and World War II. Browning invented them all. Then he sold his patents to the Colt and Winchester companies, which manufactured the guns.

After his death, his family donated 300 of his inventions, only a portion of which are on display. In most cases, there is only one of each of these firearms; they were prototypes. The guns themselves are interesting - especially the green rifle, the one he made to match his wife's green boots - but even more interesting is the video about his life.

And what is stunning is the collection of antique cars that belongs to his descendants and that can be viewed in another part of the museum.

Against the dark walls of the barnlike display room, they dazzle. Light glints off their brass and chrome and flawless finishes. They are all in working order, the maroon 1914 Stevens-Duryea, the 1930 coffee and orange-colored Cadillac, the yellow 1926 Lincoln with original paint job preserved because it was stored in a garage and a tree grew in front of the garage and no one bothered to cut down the tree for years and years.

There is also an art museum in the Union Station and a small natural history museum (containing what is labeled the world's largest faceted stone, a smoky quartz). There is also, naturally, a railroad museum. Most charming are the dioramas, little scale replicas - complete with moving trains - of the most daring construction feats of the building of the transcontinental railroad.

JOHN WESLEY POWELL MUSEUM, 885 East Main, Green River. Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., daily.

There is a certain rhythm to the river, where it's wide and lazy. The John Wesley Powell Museum captures that rhythm, just by its design.

Wide winding aisles between displays, soft grey-brown colors add to the feeling that you are on the river, drifting, watching.

But of course the river is also dramatic. And there is drama in the museum displays. Indigenous artifacts and geology but also the story of Powell, who was a war hero and scientist in addition to being an explorer.

The architecture, itself, also has dramatic effects. One complete wall is a three-story bank of windows overlooking the Green River. Lying in the sunlight, as if just beached for the night, are the boats. From the reed basket to the inflatable raft, they represent everything man has used to navigate the Colorado River system.

They look mighty puny in comparison to the wide water.

For maximum dramatic effect, stop by the museum just after you've gotten off the river or just as you are about to embark on a raft trip. You'll have a better appreciation of John Wesley Powell's bravery.