2014 South Dakota – Day 26 – Custer: Hanging with Harley Niblack

Saturday June 14, 2014

Tourist areas like the Black Hills are full of attractions – some a rip-off, some well worth your time. It seems most people see the National Museum of Woodcarving to be a rip-off. I’m not sure what to think when I wander down there after a sleep-in (we did 89 miles on 2 hours of sleep yesterday, so a bit of recovery was needed!). I’m hoping to find a wood carving of a turtle to send to Nigel.

What I find is a museum unchanged since the 1970s when it was constructed. The architecture and the plush carpeted seating blocks in the theatre make me feel like I’m six-years-old again. The price IS a rip-off – $10. That is good for 2 days, but you only need an hour at most to engage with the exhibits. The title “National” is a misnomer, too. The museum features the work of one artist. The gallery, a fancy name for a gift shop, does have artists from all over, but commercialised imports from China and Mexico, too.

If you can get past all of that, and allow yourself to be amazed by the talent of the artist on display, it really is an interesting place. The artist, Dr Harley Niblack, liked to whittle wood. He did it as a hobby. As a profession, he was a chiropractor. He was also an inventor. His diathermy and weight-loss machines allowed him to retire at age 42 and spend the rest of his life carving and animating wood.

The museum showcases 30 scenes and other pieces of his work, including furniture and figurines. He was a pioneer in animation – and the scenes are truly inspiring. Yes, they are out-dated, now, but you have to consider that he was carving the caricatures and developing these scenes in the 1940s and 1950s. Such was his talent that he was recruited by Walt Disney to work on the first animatronics at Disneyland.

Some of the humor is definitely pretty crude and would be considered politically incorrect now, but the attention to detail and the amount of things happening in each of the scenes leaves me speechless. In addition to carving all of the minute detail in each scene, Niblack also built all of the tiny machines and pulleys that animate each scene. He even built working mini-engines and machines that are exact scale replicas. The talent is just phenomenal – and blows me away. Three pieces of his work at the museum were once on display at the Smithsonian. The man spent more than 70,000 hours on his carvings over a thirty-year period. I truly am blown away by the vision and detail. I can’t wait to tell my Dad about this place.

After checking out the woodcarvings in the gallery, and only finding a little grizzly bear to send to Nigel (no turtles), I go into town and pick up food and drink. I spend the rest of the afternoon just eating, drinking juice, drinking milk, drinking water, and napping. Storms come and go; the rain gets everything wet just after it dries each time. I also spend a long time cleaning and lubing the bike (still trying to get sand from that rainy day out of all the nooks and crannies).

In the evening, I call my Dad and tell him all about the museum. He is a woodworker (builds furniture and such, not a carver) and would have loved the place. He also spent 38 years repairing and maintaining patient equipment at a hospital, so he has worked on diathermy machines! Plus, we always joke about Disney animatronics after getting stuck in one ride at Disney World when I was a kid and having to hear the song “Now is the Time” over and over. So he was in my mind and heart all day today.

He is always most excited to hear my voice and know that I’m safe, but it is always fun to have a bit of a dad-daughter bonding conversation, since dads and daughters don’t tend to have as much in common as mom-daughter relationships. I tell him he’s been on my mind all day today because I’m in the Black Hills (an area he loved when he spent time hiking here some years ago), I saw the personal work of one of the Disney animators, and he would have been so impressed by the talent and creativity on display (because he’s an incredibly creative and talented guy himself). I tell him I’ll be thinking of him as I do a hike tomorrow, and then climb Harney Peak in a couple days time. His support and love that comes through the phone is like he is right there. It’s a great verbal hug. I am so lucky to have such wonderful parents – and I’m so lucky to have them cheering me on from afar. Another great day.

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