Virginia is full of sites that relate to the founding of our country, the Civil War, and many other historic moments, including museums housing relics from significant events. But what about the lesser-known, quirkier artifacts of Virginia? Many proud Commonwealth residents have dedicated their lives to preserving interesting objects from the past that you won’t find at other museums. Visit one of these unbelievably odd yet fun museums to get a different take on Virginia’s history.
American Celebration on Parade—Mount Jackson
Ever wonder what happens to magnificent parade floats when they retire from the cheering crowds and flag-waving children of their moment in the limelight? The thousands of hours of hard work, craftsmanship, and artistry was a great passion of the late Earl Hargrove Jr., who owned a large decorating corporation that built floats for Presidential Inaugurals starting in 1949. Today, you can see over 20 of his massive, full-size parade floats from Presidential Inaugurals, Tournament of Roses and other national celebrations at the American Celebration on Parade museum. Seeing these beautifully preserved, detailed floats up close is truly a once in a lifetime experience.
Virginia S. Evans Doll Museum & Model Railroad Museum—South Hill
The concepts of these two museums could not be more different, yet it is this juxtaposition that lends to the success of the Virginia S. Evans Doll Museum and the Model Railroad Museum existing in the same building. Located within the South Hill Visitor’s Center and Historic Train Depot, the doll museum houses a unique display of over 500 historic dolls dating back to the 1800’s. Each doll has a backstory that tells the origins and significance, all painstakingly hand-written by Virginia S. Evans.
The train museum focuses on 200 miles of historic railroad in Virginia, referred to as the “Wiggle, Bump, and Agony”. The most important piece in the museum is the Atlantic & Danville Model R.R. reconstruction, a scale model of the train and town during the 1950’s.
The Roanoke Pinball Museum—Roanoke
If you’re interested in classic games, visit the Roanoke Pinball Museum, an interactive museum dedicated to the history and science behind the invention of the game. One of the first interactive electric games, pinball has a unique role in the rise of gaming in American culture. The museum showcases over 50 machines produced between 1932 and 2012. Jump on one of these arcade machines in the museum and test your skills at any level of pinball play.
Virginia Musical Museum—Williamsburg
With the famous Crooked Road winding through the state, Virginia’s musical narrative is long and interesting. The Virginia Musical Museum pays tribute to that history, housing rare instruments from bygone eras in the Commonwealth, such as the harpsichord, nickelodeon, phonographs, and other early musical memorabilia. Outfits worn by Patsy Cline, Wayne Newton’s car, and other significant pieces of history round out the collection.
Steins Unlimited Museum—Pamplin
German beer steins have been around for centuries, and the Steins Unlimited Museum in Pamplin houses one of the largest collections in the world. The steins span the expansive time frame, with the oldest dating to 1594 and moving through history to the modern era. You can see a collection of the world’s most valued, historic, and even strangest beer steins when you visit the Steins Unlimited Museum. If you want to take a souvenir home from the trip, there are special steins available for purchase at the museum, as well as a repair shop for broken antique steins.
Keystone Tractorworks Museum—Colonial Heights
The Keystone Tractorworks Museum is about 30 minutes south of Richmond off of I-95, but farm and antique motor fans flock to this interesting museum. One of the largest private collections of pre-1960 restored tractors, vintage trucks, and other collectible vehicles on the East Coast, the museum spans more than 65,000 square feet. Purchase special collectible gear from makers like John Deere, Ertl, and Farmall.
Virginia Quilt Museum—Harrisonburg
Quilting is more than just sewing together pieces of fabric. The process involves telling a story through the intricate needlework, and the Virginia Quilt Museum in Harrisonburg’s expanding downtown area has dozens of beautiful examples of the art. The museum’s quilts rotate with contributions from other museums and private collections, keeping the display fresh and diverse. They offer workshops, lectures, and a resource center for people interested in studying quilts and how they have shaped the lives of Virginians in both previous and current-day generations.
Isle of Wight Museum—Smithfield
Smithfield is known for its cured hams, so it is no surprise that the Isle of Wight Museum’s biggest draw comes in the form of pork. Come see the world’s oldest cured ham that is still edible! In 1902, the owner of the farm cured the ham using the patented Smithfield method and promptly forgot about it. When discovered decades later, he went to every trouble to ensure the meat would stand the test of time. Today, the cured ham piece stays inside a climate controlled glass case that also houses what is arguably the world’s largest cured ham. The museum houses many other artifacts from the Tidewater region, including prehistoric fossils, Native American artifacts, and Colonial-era antiques.
Where did famous Americans like Martha Washington, James Monroe, and Robert E. Lee go to get their prescriptions filled? The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary in Alexandria! This genuine apothecary closed the doors in 1933, but instead of another business moving in to the bustling district, the furnishings and medical goods left in the store would remain untouched, preserving the historical accuracy for decades to come. Now, you can tour the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary for a look at over 8,000 antique medical objects, from hand-blown glass bottles with gold-leaf labels to an amazing collection of medical journals and hand-written prescription formulas.
National Firearms Museum—Fairfax
The collection at the National Firearms Museum has more than 2,000 examples of firearms that span more than 600 years. With such a huge collection, be prepared to do a little walking when you visit this 15,000 square foot facility in Fairfax. Located at the National Rifle Association Headquarters, the museum holds some of America’s most important weapons, such as the oldest gun in the country and firearm pieces that sailed from England on the famous Mayflower. Firearms belonging to legends like “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Jesse James, Annie Oakley, and Napoleon can be seen during your tour of the National Firearms Museum.
Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop—Fredericksburg
If you want a deeper dive into the medical practices of the 18th century, come to the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop in Fredericksburg. This 18th-century building was restored as a museum of strange medical practices, including leeches and lancets, which were commonplace in the Colonial-era doctor’s office and pharmacy. Museum guides will tell you all about the popular treatments of the day, such as curing a lady’s hysteria or a medicine so powerful that it would, according to a wealthy plantation owner, “cheer a man with a bad wife.”
Museum of the Middle Appalachians—Saltville
The Appalachian region in Virginia has been occupied for more than 15,000 years, and in some ways, the earliest inhabitants are still around at the Museum of the Middle Appalachians! The museum displays full size replicas of ice age mammals that roamed the mountain region during that time, as well as archaeological discoveries unearthed much more recently in the region. Native American history is also an important part of the region’s history, and an extensive collection of bead work from local tribes showcases the intricate skills of these inhabitants. You’ll also find information about the two Civil War battles that happened in the region at this Southwest Virginia museum.
Edgar Allen Poe Museum—Richmond
The only literary museum in the Commonwealth pays tribute to Edgar Allan Poe, a great American writer that lived in Virginia during the early 19th century. The Poe Museum has the world’s largest collection of artifacts from the late author, and while Poe’s original home a few blocks away is no longer standing, the museum’s building is of historical significant itself as the oldest standing structure in Richmond. See dozens of artifacts that belonged to Edgar Allan Poe, take a guided tour to learn about his life and tragic death, and finish your visit with a stroll through the “enchanted” courtyard garden, a secluded oasis that makes you feel as if you were in a quaint English garden rather than modern downtown Richmond.
Camera Heritage Museum—Staunton
The largest museum of cameras open to the public in America, the Camera Heritage Museum in Staunton houses over 4,500 cameras and accessories. These artifacts date from the late 1840’s until today’s modern equipment, and in addition to cameras, there are more than 20,00 historic images that explain how cameras developed into more refined machines with the course of history and technology. You’ll also learn about the photographers behind the cameras who recorded history or made history themselves.
A visit to Virginia’s quirkier museums can open your eyes to interests and a rich history you never knew existed. Check out one of these 14 memorable museums to discover more about our incredible state!
My husband and I were headed up through Virginia for our daughters wedding in New Jersey. We were coming from Birmingham, Alabama and traveling close to or through Wytheville. We took some detours on the way back to,see some close historical sites that showed to be just off our route. We ended up staying someplace that night but we can’t remember the town. But when we went to the gas station to gas up next morning, and right behind our hotel and the gas station there was a military museum and we didn’t even know it was there. We visited it and there were so many veterans who were there helping with the tours. I think it had a name that was like W-4 or maybe a tribute to a certain flying wing of pilots from the area. We would like to go back but we moved and can’t find our memorabilia from the trip. Can anyone help?
Do you happen to know if it was a museum about a certain war? There is the American Civil War Museum in Appomattox that is situated right off 460 but if it was just a more generalized military museum I can see what I can find!
Larry Lamar Yates
I established the Virginia Museum of Veiled HIstory in Winchester in May 2017
There is also the Civil War Medical Museum in Gordonsville, VA.
Also in South Hill there is a nice Tobacco Museum.
I love the quilt museum. They change their exhibits regularly so it is always fun to go back.
Perry Payne Millner
This is a wonderful list! But don’t you want to make it a nice round “15,” and add The Old City Cemetery and Mourning Museum in Lynchburg? 🙂 https://www.gravegarden.org/museums/
Coming soon… the Museum of Veiled History in Winchester, Virginia. I hope you write about it when it’s open.
That sounds interesting….can you tell me more of what it’s about?
Can it get any more unusual than the world’s oldest ham at the Isle of Wight County Museum in downtown Smithfield Virginia? How about the oldest peanut too! Yikes – how did we miss the list?
The Isle of Wight Museum is included in this post.
I’ve been to three of these – Parade floats, apothecary in Fredericksburg, and firearms. They were all great and I hope to go to the others.