Matchstick Marvels

Monday, May 13, 2013

Gladbrook, Iowa can out-Match any Midwestern town

The casual passerby would never guess that this little Iowa city (of 941 residents) is home to Patrick Acton's Matchstick Marvels museum.  Acton's works can be found in Ripley's Believe it or Not museums on 4 continents, and have been featured in various magazines and tv shows.  

A few weeks ago I studied a roadmap of Iowa and noticed the museum only 30 miles from my  own home!  How can a person live so close to something so interesting for over 10 years and know nothing about it?   

"Blink and you miss it!"  is certainly the case with the Matchstick Museum.  Situated beside the theater and city hall, it blends modestly with the quiet town.

We payed the very reasonable admission fee (it's 5 dollars per adult, 3 dollars for a child between 5 and 12, and free for children under 5), and the 13 foot long USS Iowa replica quickly caught our eye.

It's built to scale, 1/70 of the original ship.  In 1998, it took Acton 800 hours and 137,000 matchsticks to build.  The turrets are rotatable (other matchstick replicas such as the space shuttle also have moving parts).  Still in awe, we glanced around us. 

 "You're in luck," the very helpful volunteer receptionist Kathy Herink told us, "this is the first time Mr. Acton has ever been here since I've worked here."  Sure enough, Patrick Acton himself was there, answered our questions, and gave us a personal tour!  He signed a brochure for me to add to my autograph collection, and consented to having several pictures taken with us!  What a wonderful surprise and blessing!

Patrick Acton and I in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral replica.
The Notre Dame Cathedral is Acton's most intricate and detailed work.  It was built with 298,000 matches, 2000 toothpicks, and more than 10 gallons of glue.  

Oh, the beauty of matchsticks and toothpicks!

All this, and yet Mr. Acton claims that patience is not one of his traits.  "One of the most common things people say to me is 'You must have a lot of patience!'" Acton says, "but I don't; just ask my wife, she'll tell you."

The Capitol (with the space shuttle Challenger and Notre Dame in the background)

This replica of the United States Capitol is built to scale at 1/65 of the original structure.  It is amazingly detailed; one of my favorite parts of this chef-d'oeuvre is the interior lighting.  The Capitol is double-walled which makes it possible for lighting to be used on the inside which will show through the windows, but not through the walls.  The effect was discovered by accident when Mr. Acton once left a light he was working with in the building.   The receptionist, Kathy, kindly turned out the ceiling lights for us to see the effect at its best.

The Cutty Sark is another of my favorites.  Even the sails and figurehead are made of matchsticks.  

Patrick Acton says he loves architecture, but believe it or not, there are no instruction booklets for matchstick architecture.  He was entirely self taught.  His technique of sheet-building allows him to glue thousands of matchsticks together on a base of Plexi-glass to make matchstick boards.  

He says animals and people are hardest to replicate because of their curves.  In 1985, his daughter begged him to create a replica of Pinocchio.  He finally complied, and in the process he learned how to bend  matchsticks with needle-nosed pliers to create curves.  After that, he could create any shape.   

Patrick Acton with the Space shuttle Challenger

American Bald Eagle (15,000 matchsticks)
Besides the masterpieces mentioned above,  you can see replicas of an Apache AH-64 helicopter (complete with pilot and passenger/co-pilot), Terrace Hill (The Iowa governor's mansion), the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, the Wright Brother's flyer, a Parrot Rifle and Limber, a SR-71 Blackbird, Conestoga Wagon, Brontosaurus Dinosaur,  P-51 Mustang Fighter Plane, and Acton's 2nd creation--a barn and windmill.

The World Trade Center Memorial, pictured in the first photo, is Patrick Acton's most recent project.  It was completed in March of this year, and will be shipped from Gladbrook to a Ripley's Believe it or Not museum (most likely either in New York City or Florida) on July 1st.  It was constructed with 468,000 matchsticks and over 17 gallons of glue, and towers above our heads, reaching through the ceiling of the museum. 

I would definitely recommend to my fellow Iowans to visit the museum while this great work is still in Gladbrook--it's much less expensive and more quiet than (and can certainly out-match) the long trip to New York City!

P51-Mustang Fighter Plane
Credits: Many thanks to Charity of With Charity for the photography!  Thanks also to S.F.C. and D.T. for photos.