“This place is amazing!” I exclaimed as I walked through the front door.
The warm glow of cheap lighting cast a golden hue over massive wooden statutes depicting a wide array of subjects.
“Yep, it’s pretty cool.” The woman behind the front desk responded without looking up from her paper.
This response caused me to step back for a moment in bewilderment. Had she not ever looked out in awe at what lay in front of her? Or had she been working here for so long, that the magnitude of dedication needed to create these works had lost its impressiveness?
Nevertheless, it was hard for me to contain my excitement as I walked up to the first table and began my experience at Matchstick Marvels.
Gladbrook is your quintessential Iowa town. Surrounded by wide open farm fields, the biggest town for miles even though the 2018 census only counted 861 people residing in it, it’s a “blink and a miss it” area that unknowingly holds one of the coolest places I have found. Like most towns of this size, the downtown is a single street with a couple shops and a City Hall, but sharing the city hall building is a small museum dedicated to the life work of local Gladbrook resident Patrick Acton. Over the years, Acton has taken up the hobby of building models out of matchsticks. Yes, you read that correctly, matchsticks. If we took the time to add it all up, over 7,000,000 of these small pieces of wood have been used to bring replicas to life of everything from buildings to starships to animals. The sheer scale is absolutely mind-blowing.
It all started as a hobby in his living room shortly after graduating college with a replica of a country church. From there, the models continued to grow bigger as he set his sights on more magnificent subjects. Cutting the sulphur tips off of each match, he would recreate his subjects with as much detail as possible. Being limited (or so he thought) by his medium, most sculptures were straight edged buildings who’s construction lent well to the straight edged pieces of wood.
There were two revelations over the years that pushed his creations further than he ever thought possible. The first was the discovery that he could order the sticks without the blue sulphur head. This was the epitome of a game changer! I can’t even imagine how much time he saved from making this change. And all that tedious work that was no longer needed!
The second revelation came about while working on a replica of Pinocchio for his daughter. He had spent years trying to recreate curvature in objects by cutting sticks in small pieces to gradually make a curve with all the straight edges. Then one day, EUREKA! By splitting the matches but not fully separating them, he could create curves that once glued and sanded would look seamless! With this discovery, the possibilities automatically became endless and the scale of the projects got exponentially bigger with each one. Before he knew it, Acton was making replicas of spaceships and buildings that were absolutely massive.
Finding support in the local community, the museum was added to city hall so there would be a place to store all of these intricate pieces of art. At this point it was still a hobby but not far down the road, Acton was discovered by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and transferred into an early retirement by becoming a commissioned artist for their museums throughout the world. Today, most every one of their museums contains multiple sculptures created by Acton.
Wonder is the only word I can find that will accurately describe the feeling that came over me as I walked through the room. Zooming in on each piece to see the individual sticks only added to the impressive feat. It seemed as if Acton had hit all bases in terms of subjects, and I could find everything from spaceships, to cars, to dinosaurs… each sculpture as detailed and impressive as the last.
In hindsight, I keep thinking back to the nonchalant demeanor of the lady at the desk, seemingly so used to the scale around her that she had lost that sense of wonder. Seeing these was just another day for her in this small town. Even so, it will always stick out in my mind. After all the small museums I have been to, all the quirky tourist attractions, this is by far one of the most impressive. And in the middle of nowhere in Iowa.
Who ever would have thought?
Closest Supercharger Dows IA 82.6 mi
904 Cardinal Ave, Dows, IA 50071
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319 2nd St, Gladbrook, IA 50635
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