As I bypassed Sioux Falls in blinding rain, I was still determined to re-visit an unlikely attraction that would take me well out of my way. Vermillion is a town of about 11,000 in the southeastern corner of South Dakota. Its named for the red banks of the river that flows through it. The unlikely attraction, the National Music Museum (NMM), was there.
Several years ago, Ruth and I stopped there while traveling south from Winnipeg, Canada. It was a slow day so a NMM curator showed us around. During World War II metal was scarce, so an instrument company manufactured about 1,000 plastic trumpets. NMM had one. I was curious about its sound, so our host took it down from the shelf and played it. Its tone was warm and, well, perfect.
In the early 20th century The Larson’s were a musical family in an unlikely place–Hanska, Minnesota. All 9 Larson brothers and sisters were musically-inclined, and there were enough of them for an orchestra so they formed one. Brother Arne began collecting instruments in the 1920s, and during The Depression he set out for the Minneapolis College of Music with a nickel in his pocket. By the time he started teaching several years later, he had earned a Master of Music degree. While his bands & orchestras were winning awards, Arne was obsessively collecting instruments. In 1966 he accepted a job of Professor of Music at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. The National Music Museum was founded in 1973. Six years later Arne donated his collection of 2,500 musical instruments to the State.
There was a temporary exhibit in NNM’s Arne B. Larson Concert Hall. The instruments were owned by the Sax family of Brussels, Belgium. I asked the lady at the entrance desk if the Saxes were connected to the Brussels’ Musical Instrument Museum that has over 8,000 musical instruments. Unwittingly, I said it was the best museum of its kind I had ever been in. She visibly bristled. Her National Music Museum has 9 well-filled galleries, and its collection has grown to 15,600. “We’re the best!” she exclaimed.
To calm the lady down I asked about NMM’s oldest instrument. “A 1560 harpsichord,” she said. I asked her about its weirdest and she had to think that over. “That serpent thing in the Beede Gallery,” she said vaguely. The Beede was upstairs and focused on instruments from Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. I couldn’t find the serpent, but I continued looking for the plastic trumpet. The Rawlins Gallery featured an arresting Stradivari collection including a rare guitar, one of 4 survivors of its kind. Lillibridge featured row upon row of classic guitars. After looking around the National Music Museum, it was impossible to argue with the desk lady, especially after I found a Theremin and an unusual Pouchette collection of dancing masters’ fiddles. On the way out I learned from Micky that the plastic trumpet is still in the collection but not on display.
At one point a woman passing me said, “absolutely fascinating!”. At first I thought she was talking to me, but then I realized she was telling herself about the 5 Compass National Music Museum. She was absolutely right.