By Sara Foss/For The Leader-Herald
Paul Wilson does.
Over the past two decades, the once-ubiquitous household object has inched closer to obsolescence. Fewer people smoke, and fewer places allow smoking.
The West Fulton Ashtray Museum, founded by Wilson, evokes memories of the days when one could expect to find ashtrays in restaurants or automobiles, on airplanes, buses and trains. For some visitors, it might offer a glimpse of a world and way of living they’re too young to have experienced.
The museum opened in the spring of 2021 at Wilson’s home at 1465 Sawyer Hollow Road in the Schoharie County hamlet of West Fulton. It’s unusual subject matter and mischievous sense of fun stand out in a county with an abundance of small, offbeat museums.
“There are a lot of people who will come and look around and go, ‘Oh, I remember this ashtray’ or ‘My mom had an ashtray like that,’” Wilson said.
The museum occupies a 14-by- 14-foot shed Wilson built in his yard for the purpose of putting his 300 ashtrays on display.
The ashtrays, which are whimsical, touristy, tacky, tasteful and tinged with dark humor, are laid out neatly on white shelves. There are animal ashtrays and insect ashtrays, ashtrays from McDonald’s and Pan Am, an ashtray from Nevada with a miniature roulette wheel and a Mount Vesuvius ashtray that gives off smoke when a cigarette is placed in it.
Opening a museum is a longtime dream for Wilson.
The California native purchased his home in West Fulton in 2000. At the time, he worked as a location manager in Los Angeles, finding locations for films and TV shows, including the original “CSI.”
Once a year, he drove cross-country to his home in Schoharie County, taking different routes and seeking out unusual museums off-the-beaten-path. His searches took him to places like the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Indiana, a museum devoted to recreational vehicles, and the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio. Located in a small shed, the pencil sharpener museum was a model for Wilson, who said it “made me think I could build something that small and make it a museum.”
When Wilson retired in 2017, he began working to make his dream of owning a museum a reality.
“I had about 10 ashtrays, and I wanted a museum more than anything, so it seemed like something I could start collecting without going broke,” Wilson recalled. “And there were a couple of little shops around here that were thrift shops that had interesting ashtrays or funny ashtrays.”
“Part of wanting to do ashtrays was that they were becoming a historical item as opposed to a common item,” Wilson said.
Wilson, 62, is a smoker, despite numerous attempts to quit.
The museum includes two ashtrays from his childhood — a wheelbarrow from his father’s desk and a barbecue from the kitchen. An ashtray from the Orient Express was donated by a neighbor whose mother once rode the European passenger train.
The West Fulton Ashtray Museum doesn’t have set hours.
“Whenever my car’s here, it’s open,” Wilson said. “If I’m here, they can come knock on the door. Or if I’m sitting out on the porch, I’ll take them in any time.”
Schoharie County is a small county with many museums.
Here are some that might be of interest to daytrippers and curiosity seekers:
- Dr. Best House and Medical Museum in Middleburgh: Constructed in 1884 for Dr. Christopher Best, this Italianate Victorian-style home shows how a turn-of-the-century physician in a small town might have lived and includes a fully stocked period kitchen and medical equipment. The house is also a stop on the New York State Haunted History Trail.
- Gilboa Museum and Juried History Center in Gilboa: Fossilized tree stumps older than the dinosaurs, from one of the oldest known forests in the world, can be found at the Gilboa Museum, along with other rare fossils from the Devonian period and antique farming equipment.
- Iroquois Museum in Cobleskill: Built to resemble an Iroquois longhouse, this museum contains one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of modern Iroquois art. There are also archaeological and historical exhibits.
- The Glove Museum in Dorloo: Founded by glove maker Daniel Storto, this museum educates visitors on the disappearing art of glove making. Storto converted an old Methodist church to show off glove-making tools, vintage gloves and more.
- Old Stone Fort Museum in Schoharie: The Old Stone Fort Museum presents three centuries of rural New York history in and around seven buildings on 25 acres. The main museum is housed in the Old Stone Fort, constructed in 1772, and tells the agricultural, military and cultural history of the Schoharie Valley.