Blood, Gore, Tourism: The Ax Murderer Who Saved a Small Town
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VILLISCA AXE MURDERHOUSE
WEEKDAYS 9 AM TO 4 PM
SAT . & SUN 1 PM 4 PM
A note says the owner is out: “I am at the J B Moore house 508 E. 2nd Ave.”
Minutes later a 74-year-old man pulls up in a rickety sedan.
“Hi there,” he says. He wears overalls, a ball cap, a plaid shirt and a blue nylon coat.
“How you doing?”
“Just fine.” He outstretches a hand. “Darwin.”
All of his teeth appear silver.
“Nice to meet you.”
“So this is your museum?”
“Kinda,” he says, unlocking the door. “I guess museums are like people. They have different personalities. Come on in.”
Darwin’s museum is like the lovechild of an old barn and a grandmother’s attic. Dusty and smelling slightly of mold. Everything inside intensely local. Old pieces of clothing on the walls and murals of businesses and banks and doctor’s offices, few of which exist anymore. Black and white photographs everywhere, mostly portraits of stern-looking men. In a glass case, commemorative T-shirts: “Villisca Ax Murder 1912.”
Behind the counter Darwin asks if this is my first visit. (Darwin would die not long after my visit.)
I nod because yes, I’ve never been here before, but in many ways I feel like I have. There’s a sameness to the plight of dying towns.
He wags his finger at the painting on the T-shirt depicting a white gothic house at sunrise. “The fella who did that said he’d like to paint something historical, so I said why don’t you paint the Ax Murder House. He’d never heard of it. So I took him and we made a deal and a few days later I left him on the street with his painting tools and he wasn’t there very long when he came up here and said he wanted the house keys. I said what do you need those for? He said I’d like to check the attic. And well I said What do you want to get in the attic for? He said he wanted an original shingle. He said he’d grind it into the paint for the shingles. And then he said I’ve already found enough lead from the siding that I’ll use in the paint for the siding. So anyway,” Darwin chuckles, “the house is in the house, you know?”
“Do the locals in town still talk about 1912?”
“Oh, some,” the old farmer says. “But not too much.”
I ask if he’d take me to the house. Since I’m a writer he waives the $10 fee.
As I settle into his rickety sedan we talk about his buying the house.
“I’ve had it since ninety-four.”
“And you were a farmer before?
“That was fine for a while but it got to the point when small fellas like me either had to get way bigger or get out. And I didn’t have any children — I mean, I have two daughters and they didn’t have any interest — so I joined my cousin with the museum.”
“What made you buy the house?”
“I was drawn to it. My wife, Martha, didn’t want to buy it. Her mother was a good friend of the Moore family. But it was for sale and it’d been sitting for two years and the furnace had froze up and the pipes were broke and the neighbors were thinking of buying it and tearing it down.”