HOCKING HILLS, OHIO—Not to put too fine a point on it, but how do you put a price on a dream?
Say that dream involves the more than 3,400 tiny exhibits in the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum.
That’s the head scratcher faced by Karen Raymore, executive director of the Hocking Hills Tourism Association.
The Hocking Hills Regional Welcome Center, about 95 km south of Columbus, is poised to take over the thousands of pencil sharpeners encased in wee plastic fruit, superheroes, sparkly kittens, quivering bugs, U.S. presidential busts, appliances, military ephemera and more that Johnson spent more than 20 years amassing before his 2010 death.
In 2011, the 2.5 x 3-metre wooden shed housing the museum and its collection was moved from the Johnson home to the Hocking Hills Visitor Center. It was set up exactly as Johnson had it, the pencil sharpeners grouped by theme. Glass case fronts were added to keep the collection safe.
Johnson’s widow, Charlotte Johnson, who loaned everything to Hocking Hills six years ago, now wants to gift it to Hocking Hills in exchange for a tax receipt.
“Finding appraisers that do really unique collections is a much more difficult job than I thought it would be. It is a unique collection and it would be impossible to replicate,” said Raymore over a breakfast of homemade biscuits and peppery sausage gravy at Pearl’s Diner in nearby Logan.
Hocking Hills is a gorgeous area in the Appalachian foothills, known for hiking trails, caves, climbing, zip-lining and rappelling. And since you’re likely stopping at the visitors’ center to get maps or make a pit stop, it’s worth hanging around for another five minutes to tour the tiny museum.
The museum’s grand opening made international headlines in 2011, thanks to a “slow news day,” Raymore said with a laugh. The Associated Press news service picked the story up from the local newspaper and 132 outlets around the world, from Australia to Saudi Arabia, ran the pencil sharpener museum story.
“Our Google alerts was going nuts,” Raymore recalled.
Charlotte Johnson started off what became her husband’s passion with a pair of antique car-shaped sharpeners in the late 1980s. “It went beyond anything I ever dreamed it would do,” she told The Columbus Dispatch.
Johnson, a Navy veteran who later became a minister, told the Logan Daily News in 1999, “I just decided if I was going to collect something I wanted top do something no one else did.”
When he went to a flea market or past a stationery store, he’d look for a new pencil sharpener. People gave them as gifts. Johnson found pencil sharpeners as he and his wife travelled. He’d thumb through novelty catalogues, ordering pieces that caught his eye.
His only rule was no repeats, although several of the same pencil sharpener design in different colours was okay. Johnson was happy to give duplicates to visitors to the museum housed in a little shed beside his house in the small town of Carbon Hills.
People usually found him by accident, which is how Raymore first stumbled on Johnson and his collection, thanks to a roadside sign for the museum with his phone number. Callers got a free tour where Johnson would highlight his favourites. His pride and joy was a Twin Towers metal pencil sharpener.
During a recent visit to the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum, it appeared he was also fond of clowns, astrological signs, Disney characters, superheroes, skateboards and military and religious-themed pencil sharpeners. There is also a submarine sandwich with “Budapest” written on top.
“He was a sweet, remarkable man,” said Raymore.
More than 45,000 people visit the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum each year, which amounts to just about everybody who drops in at the Hocking Hills visitors centre for a map of local Appalachian Mountain foothills hiking trails or a bathroom break. One man drove from Dallas with his family just to see it.
Canadians top the list of foreign visitors.
Admission is free and the volunteers (who have heard every pencil pun you can make) find it amusing when people ask if organized tours are offered. As Raymore observed, it takes about 10 minutes to visit “and that’s if you really study them. It’s not the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
It’s ambitious to squeeze more than six people into the museum at a time, so when I was in there with the five members of the Patel family from Columbus, there was some juggling.
Six-year-old Yug needed a moment to figure out what was on display, but excitedly said he uses pencils — and pencil sharpeners — in Grade One. His dad, Nirav, remembered using a colourful pencil sharpener as a kid.
Raymore said the museum accepts donations, as long as the pencil sharpeners are not already in the collection. Meanwhile, she hopes to find a company to make a museum-shaped pencil sharpener for visitors looking for a souvenir.
While tablets and smartphones may have taken over from penciling people into your daily diary or notes scribbled in class, the dot matrix print sign that Johnson affixed to the back wall of the museum has a timeless message: “Keep sharp, be sharp, act sharp, stay sharp, look sharp.”