“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”—Dr. Seuss.
Travel brings us stunning landscapes, intriguing cuisine, adventurous roads and an abundance of characters. They’re everywhere—you just have to open your eyes. In his book Oh the Places You’ll Go, Dr. Seuss encourages us to travel, explore and discover a world outside our home. And, he encourages us to stand out.
In my visits to Pennsylvania, I’ve been fortunate to cross paths with several interesting characters…people who truly stand out. From a mind-blowing collection of nostalgia to trains with neighboring dinosaurs to art that transformed a neighborhood, here are three of my favorite Pennsylvania characters.
Keeping the Past Alive
Every morning at 7:00 AM, Mr. Melvin Isett’s son drops him off at the Isett Heritage Museum in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. Mr. Isett enters the property’s lodge and sits in his recliner in front of the fireplace facing the property’s driveway. From his chair, he can see everyone that enters the museum. At 5:00 PM, his daughter picks him up and takes him home. He has not missed a day since the museum opened in 2001—seven days a week. While this may not sound remarkable, consider this: Mr. Isett is 97 years old. It’s also remarkable that he can tell you exactly where every single item of his more than 40,000-piece historic collection is located. He can also tell you where he acquired it and how much he paid! I’m nowhere near 97 and I can’t even remember where I put my glasses half the time.
A lifelong resident of Huntingdon County, Mr. Isett and his wife, Beulah (now deceased) collected for over 70 years before opening the museum. They amassed an unrivaled collection of antique farm equipment, vintage cameras, classic cars, model trains, military memorabilia and just about anything else you can imagine. There’s even a church inside the museum. Each piece has a connection to the community. Mr. Isett was the founder of the first television cable company in the area and you’ll find equipment from the business on site as well. One of my favorite items was a working jukebox filled with a collection of vinyl records. I couldn’t resist playing Piano Man by Billy Joel and the sound was incredible.
The mission of the museum is to conserve and display items that portray life in the past with an emphasis on how those items impact our lives today. The museum is housed across five buildings. It’s best to schedule a guided tour to get the full story behind this incredible collection. You’ll hear more than once, “we always have some unusual to go with our usual.” Don’t forget to stop in the lodge and say hello to Mr. Isett—he loves meeting guests and want to know what you think of his museum. “I think you’ll find it’s an unusual museum,” says Mr. Isett. He’s right. www.isettheritagemuseum.com
All Aboard for Dr. Doolittle’s Trains and Dinosaurs
Have you ever been on a road trip and passed something that seemed so bizarre you couldn’t help but stop and check it out? Doolittle Station in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania is one of those places. With Bigfoot out front by the ice cream stand, vintage trains cars spread around the property and a building filled with animatronic dinosaurs, it would be easy to dismiss Doolittle’s as a proverbial tourist trap. But take a closer look and you’ll discover a true gem born out of one man’s love for his community.
Oral surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Rice is responsible for this delightful assortment of frivolity. When he’s not treating patients, he’s working on projects at Doolittle’s—or his wife would say, playing with trains and dinosaurs. “She thinks I’ve lost my mind,” he says with a smile. It might seem that way given the eclectic mix that is Doolittle’s, but what Dr. Rice hasn’t lost is his heart. The entire Doolittle Station concept is his gift to the community—a place for affordable family fun.
You can spend the night in a historic 1901 Pullman Presidential car used as the private transport car for the president of the EJ&E Railroad. Or choose from two cabooses artfully refurbished as bed & breakfasts. Dining happens in trains too. Indulge in farm-to-table fine dining expertly prepared by executive Chef Tara Taylor in an immaculately restored 1913 parlor car—one of only four built. If you’re looking for more casual fare, head to the retro-themed diner car where you can dine alongside a statue of Elvis. Or order a custom-made pizza at Rail Car Pizza and have it delivered to Boxcar Brew Works next door while you sample an assortment of craft beer.
Dr. Rice’s commitment to families and his community is never more evident than in the Little Caring Caboose. This stand-alone car has been converted into a private dining room for children with autism. Many families affected by autism have difficulty dining out. With the Little Caring Caboose, families can reserve the private car, order meals in advance and relax. Toys are provided to entertain the children and parents get a much-needed break.
The newest attraction is the recently opened Dinosaur Park—the largest animatronic dinosaur display in Pennsylvania. From baby dinosaurs hatching from giant eggs, to a massive T. Rex rotating its head as it screams, the dinosaurs will both delight and startle young and old alike. And at a very low cost of $3 it’s yet another way Dr. Rice brings affordable family fun to the community and all those lucky enough to find this delightful place. www.doolittlestation.com
A Colorful Home of Happiness and Hope
Arriving at Randyland, I immediately began taking photos of the multichromatic courtyard filled with a colossal collection of junk turned art. My photo frenzy was interrupted as Randy appeared in paint-splattered overalls. He was shouting one of his many Randyisms…”If you want your battery to run, make yourself happy!” His overwhelmingly positive personality captivated everyone in sight. Randy roamed around hugging friends and strangers, posing for selfies and pointing out pieces of his phenomenal collection including a random table of hairdresser mannequin heads, a psychedelic staircase and a fence covered in welcome signs from around the world. And while the colorful collection was awe-inspiring, the story behind Randyland was even more captivating.
Pittsburgh’s Arch Street was once the heart of Central Northside’s Mexican War Streets overrun with gangs and riddled with drugs. That didn’t deter Randy Gilson. This homeless man with his own share of life struggles—including ADHD and severe depression—bought an abandoned building for $10,000, the limit on his only credit card. Using recycling skills he developed out of necessity, Randy spent 30 years turning trash into a whimsical spectacle of folk art with a message. As he covered the walls of the building and its courtyard with hundreds of vibrantly painted murals featuring butterflies, dinosaurs and dancers intertwined with messages of hope and acceptance, Randy transformed a neighborhood. He’s also responsible for spearheading the planting of 800 gardens, 50 vegetable gardens and eight parks in the neighborhood through the formation of the Olde Allegheny Gardens Society.
Randy hasn’t just transformed a neighborhood—he is transforming the world one visitor at a time. It’s impossible to leave Randyland without a smile on your face and hope in your heart. If only there were more Randys in this world. https://randy.land/
“When you start to travel by planes or by cars, the people you meet and those that you greet will show you the world is full of bright stars.”—Me, pretending to be Dr. Seuss