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Underrated Northwest Museums

Visit Quirky and Hidden Gems that Bring History to Life

They’re tucked into neighborhoods, housed in nondescript buildings and left out of travel guides. But what the Northwest’s lesser-known museums lack in publicity, they make up for with intriguing collections — the kind that capture a unique perspective or an overlooked area of life.

Across the region, dedicated curators have worked to preserve these treasures. And one of the best parts about these museums is that their under-the-radar status means they often delight visitors who stumble upon them with a feeling of discovery. (Keep in mind that the hours of operation were accurate as of press time and could be subject to change.)

Figure of Bing Crosby and memorabilia in the Bing Crosby Museum in Spokane
Bing Crosby Museum, Spokane. From Facebook

Bing Crosby House Museum, Spokane

His sultry, baritone voice fills living rooms every year around the holidays. And while most Americans know singer and actor Bing Crosby for making “White Christmas” the world’s best-selling single, fewer know that his roots are in Washington. A Spokane native, Harry Lillis Crosby (who earned the nickname Bing in elementary school after the comic-filled satirical newspaper “The Bingville Bugle”) grew up along the banks of the Spokane River.

His childhood home, now owned by Gonzaga University, has been converted into the Bing Crosby House Museum, which keeps more than 200 of the singer’s possessions, including his 23 gold records and the Oscar he won for his performance in “Going My Way.”

 Admission is free. Hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Nutcracker Museum, Leavenworth

Leavenworth, a Bavarian-styled town tucked in the Cascade Mountains, is a fitting setting for the world’s largest collection of figurative nutcrackers, considered good luck in Germany where they originated. The Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum was founded by George and Arlene Wagner who in 1995 donated their extensive nutcracker collection and the building that became the museum.

Over the years the nonprofit has accepted nutcracker donations, growing its collection to showcase more than 9,000 nutcrackers from more than 50 countries. Take your photo with the museum’s largest attraction: Karl, a 6-foot-tall beer-drinking nutcracker. Arlene Wagner, an authority on the history of nutcrackers, continues to work as the museum’s curator.

Hours are from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $5 for adults, $3.50 for seniors, $2 for youth (age 6 to 16) and free for children under 6.

Exterior of the Karpeles Manuscript Museum
Karpeles Manuscript Museum. By Eric Frommer

Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, Tacoma

You don’t have to be a writer to appreciate what is on display at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum: a collection of original documents that changed history. This Tacoma-based museum is among more than a dozen locations across the country that house the world’s largest private holding of important documents. Every four months the museums rotate through the collection, displaying documents in themes, such as women in history or important documents in medicine. 

Well-known manuscripts in the Karpeles collection include Noah Webster’s original dictionary, musings from Charles Darwin and a proposed draft of the Bill of Rights. The 1896 proposal for the first modern Olympic games, the Titanic’s official rescue report, and orders from Adolf Hitler are part of the Tacoma location’s permanent collection, all housed within humidity-controlled glass cases.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Admission is free.

Northwest Carriage Museum, Raymond

Before we had cars and trucks whizzing down highways, Americans relied on a mode of transportation powered by horses. It was a slower-paced lifestyle, one you don’t have to imagine — you can transport yourself with a visit to the impressive collection of 19th century horse-powered vehicles at the Northwest Carriage Museum.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the museum displays more than 60 carriages, buggies, wagons, stagecoaches and sleighs of all shapes, sizes and social class. The museum also has hundreds of historical artifacts and an interactive exhibit that shows you how to drive a horse-drawn carriage. You also can find carriages made famous in movies, including Belle Watling’s carriage from “Gone With the Wind,” Shirley Temple’s carriage in “The Little Princess” and the stagecoach seen in the 1940 Western “Virginia City” starring Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart.   

Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Admission is $8 for adults; $7 for seniors, military and AAA members; $5 for children 6 to 18; free for children under 5 and discounts for families.

child pats a Appaloosa horse
Child with horse. Courtesy of the Appaloosa Museum & Heritage Center.

Appaloosa Museum & Heritage Center, Moscow, Idaho

Although the Palouse region is known for its rolling hills and fertile soil, fewer people know it is the namesake of a unique type of horse: the appaloosa. Its eye-catching coat of colorful spots makes for a striking breed — one you can learn all about at the Appaloosa Museum & Heritage Center.

Early evidence of spotted horses in cave paintings, historic artwork and other artifacts from around the world is chronicled by the museum. However, it was the Nez Perce people who developed the American appaloosa breed and Moscow’s Appaloosa Horse Club that formed the breed registry, preserving and maintaining the breed’s bloodlines in 1938.

In the nonprofit’s self-guided exhibits, you can learn more about the Idaho state horse, other horse breeds and the history of the region. There is also a kids’ area and outdoor appaloosa exhibit in the summer.

Open Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Friday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free, but a donation of $3 per adult, $1 per child or $5 per family is appreciated.

The Buffalo Soldiers Museum, Tacoma

Tucked into a Tacoma neighborhood is a house-turned-museum with a small but mighty collection honoring an often-overlooked history. The Buffalo Soldiers Museum tells the story of the four regiments of Black enlisted men created by Congress in 1866, many of whom were veterans of the Civil War.

These troops were sent to the western front to fight in the Indian wars, when Native Americans gave the troops the nickname “buffalo soldiers” because of their fierce fighting nature and their dark curly hair. Through photos and artifacts, visitors are taken from post-Civil War defense of the expanding American West to World War II and the Korean War. Visitors will walk away with a new appreciation for these unsung military units.

Open from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday. There is no admission fee, but donations are appreciated.

Center for Wooden Boats, Seattle

Although it is not a museum in the traditional sense, the Center for Wooden Boats is a nonprofit that aims to preserve the Pacific Northwest’s maritime heritage through education, interpretation and hands-on experiences. Recognizing wood as an increasingly rare material for boats, the center has amassed roughly 200 wooden boats in its collection, including a subset of rare and unique Northwest boats.

Some of these vessels are on display inside its building on the shores of Lake Union, while others can be seen from the center’s docks. Visitors are encouraged to touch and even come aboard, as the center has a fleet of classic wooden sailboats and rowboats that are available for rent. They also offer free one-hour rentals of peapod rowboats with a reservation. Informational placards and an army of dedicated volunteers who act as docents add to the immersive experience.

Open Wednesday through Sunday all year, except for a three-week winter closure in December and January. Hours vary by season. Admission is free.

Written by Emily Gillespie

—Top photo is a display within the Northwest Carriage Museum. From nwcarriagemuseum.org

—This article appears in the 2022 Fall Edition of AAA Washington’s member magazine, Journey.

Interested in planning your next road trip with AAA Washington? Call your travel agent directly or your nearest AAA store to get pro tips, TripTik maps, and more. Find more Pacific Northwest scenic drives and road trips.

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