Waxing Nostalgic: Shuttered Gettysburg Museum Auctions Life-Size Presidents

Jan 20, 2017

By 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, the ballroom at the 1863 Inn in Gettysburg was standing-room only. More than 300 people crowded in, paper numbers in hand, hoping to take home their own slice of history.

"With lot number one, we’re going to get the auction started here," Darren Dickensheets called the room to order before rolling on with his auctioneer's call. "President George Washington,  life-size wax figure, name plaque, six foot two [inches] tall."

The Hall of Presidents and First Ladies Museum in downtown Gettysburg has one of only three complete collections of wax presidents and first ladies in the country. Last week, the small museum closed permanently. But on Saturday, it opened it’s doors one last time for interested buyers.  

“There are so many things to do in Gettysburg now, this is no longer a choice," said Carol Metzler, vice-president of Gettysburg Heritage Enterprises, which operated the museum. "This is no longer the prime attraction. For a lot of people, they’re looking for things that are more modern with the technology."

What the museum lacks in technology, it makes up for with pure kitsch. The 44 president figures are life-size, sturdy and painstakingly designed to look like a passable body-double. The first ladies are...not. They’re all three feet ten inches tall, with what can only be described as a Barbie physique. Some look like angelic dolls. Others, like Michelle Obama, are so terrifying they should probably just be melted down for candles.

Which is exactly the kind of weirdness that Dakota Fischer-Vance would drive in from Philly for.

“It’s really cool to actually see the exhibit. It’s sad to be seeing it when it’s about to close," said Fischer-Vance. "I wish I knew about it earlier.”

She was hoping to get her hands on some President John Tyler memorabilia for her father, a Tyler superfan. The best case scenario would be taking home the man himself, but see foresaw some logistical challenges with that.

“If we got pulled over by a cop when we were bringing it home, we were really laughing about that," said Fischer-Vance, who came with her mom. "Because you can also take off the head, they were saying, and so, if you saw a headless president on the car…"

Once the auction got underway, Fischer-Vance realized the bigger impediment to buying a 6 foot tall wax figure would be money. The crowd of museum proprietors, collectors and serious history buffs drove the prices up. Most of the presidents went for a few thousand dollars, though a few big ticket names — like Gettysburg hero Abraham Lincoln — drew even more.

 

A packed house at the 1863 Inn in Gettysburg.
Credit Eleanor Klibanoff / WPSU

Paul Orr is a lawyer from Carlisle, wearing a Philadelphia Flyer’s t-shirt under a pair of overalls. He had his eye on both Abraham Lincoln, but got priced out.

“$8500? No, I’m leaving with a president but I’m gonna wait until Grant comes up here at 122," said Orr. "I only got $2000 cash with me, so I’m on a budget, right?”

Orr’s wife, the one holding that two grand, didn’t find the budget joke as funny as he did. Luckily for Orr, the museum was selling everything, from the brass railings to the light fixtures to the molds for the first ladies heads. He got Lincoln’s chair for just a few hundred dollars.

“Abe sat in it for 60 years, so if I can get a cheap president, I can sit it in there.”

The event was a tribute to the presidents and their wives, but also to the museum. These independent store-front museums are a dying breed in Gettysburg: the town has seen three auctions like this one in as many years. The best the owners can hope for is to find good homes for the figures — and make a little money.

On that front, they succeeded. Orr was outbid on all of the full-sized presidents he was interested in, though he didn’t go home empty-handed.

Back in the museum after the auction, Orr looked over his winnings.

“I got the one with the fanciest outfit," he said. "It’s not a first lady, it’s the daughter of Andrew Johnson. It’s a lot younger figure."

After sixty years of being upstaged by her neighbor, Mary Todd Lincoln and the other, more famous first ladies, Martha Johnson Patterson will finally get her spotlight — proudly displayed in Orr’s law library.

Find this report and others on the site of our partner, WPSU.