The surprising museum you won’t want to miss on a Hocking Hills, Ohio road trip

(Note: The Canada-U.S. land border is closed to non-essential travel to help stop the spread of COVID-19.)

The coolest little museum in America showcases one man’s passion for a quirky collectable few kids would recognize today: pencil sharpeners.

The Hocking Hills Regional Welcome Center, 95 km south of Columbus, is home to thousands of  wee plastic fruit, superheroes, sparkly kittens, quivering bugs, U.S. presidential busts, appliances and military ephemera. Collector Paul Johnson spent more than 20 years amassing 3,400 pencil sharpeners before his 2010 death.

In 2011, the 2.5 x 3-metre wooden shed museum and the collection moved from the Johnson home to the visitor centre. It was set up exactly as Johnson had it. The pencil sharpeners are grouped by theme. Glass fronts keep the collection safe.

With COVID-19 protocols, numbers of visitors limited inside the small museum and visitor centre next door. Masks are required.

Hocking Hills is a gorgeous area in the Appalachian foothills, known for hiking trails, caves, climbing, zip-lining and rappelling. Since you’re likely stopping at the visitor centre to get maps or make a pit stop, it’s worth hanging around for another five minutes to tour the tiny museum.

Pencil Sharpeners Museum

The Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum at the Hocking Hills Visitors Center near Logan. Ohio. Photo: Linda Barnard

Johnson’s widow, Charlotte Johnson started off what became her husband’s passion with a pair of antique car-shaped sharpeners in the late 1980s. “It went beyond anything I ever dreamed it would do,” she told The Columbus Dispatch.

Johnson, a Navy veteran who later became a minister, told the Logan Daily News in 1999, “I just decided if I was going to collect something I wanted top do something no one else did.”

When he went to a flea market or past a stationery store, he’d look for a new pencil sharpener. People gave them as gifts. Johnson found pencil sharpeners as he and his wife travelled. He’d thumb through novelty catalogues, ordering pieces that caught his eye.

Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum

Visitor Lavanya Sunkara poses for a selfie outside the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum. Photo Linda Barnard

His only rule was no repeats, although several of the same pencil sharpener design in different colours was okay. Johnson was happy to give duplicates to visitors to the museum housed in a little shed beside his house in the small town of Carbon Hills.

People usually found him by accident,, thanks to a roadside sign for the museum with his phone number. Callers got a free tour where Johnson would highlight his favourites. His pride and joy was a Twin Towers metal pencil sharpener.

It appeared he was also fond of clowns, astrological signs, Disney characters, superheroes, skateboards and military and religious-themed pencil sharpeners. There is also a submarine sandwich with “Budapest” written on top.

More than 45,000 people visit the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum each year, which amounts to just about everybody who drops in at the Hocking Hills visitors centre for a map of local Appalachian Mountain foothills hiking trails or a bathroom break. One man drove from Dallas with his family just to see it.

Canadians top the list of foreign visitors.

Admission is free and the volunteers (who have heard every pencil pun you can make) find it amusing when people ask if organized tours are offered.

It’s ambitious to squeeze more than six people into the museum at a time, so when I was in there (pre-COVID) with the five members of the Patel family from Columbus, there was some juggling.

Hocking Hills Visitors Center

The Patel family from Columbus Ohio visits the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum. Photo: Linda Barnard

Six-year-old Yug needed a moment to figure out what was on display, but excitedly said he uses pencils — and pencil sharpeners — in Grade One. His dad, Nirav, remembered using a colourful pencil sharpener as a kid.

The museum accepts donations, as long as the pencil sharpeners are not already in the collection.

While tablets and smartphones may have taken over from penciling people into your daily diary or notes scribbled in class, the dot matrix print sign that Johnson affixed to the back wall of the museum has a timeless message: “Keep sharp, be sharp, act sharp, stay sharp, look sharp.”