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Backyard museum: Hobby historian builds a museum to share his findings with others

Larry Levin is not your typical hunter. To begin with, he doesn't use dogs. Nor does he wear camouflage. There are no guns on Levin's hunt, except those remnants he has retrieved of a French fur traders' rifle. And when he bags a big game prize, ...

Larry Levin is not your typical hunter.

To begin with, he doesn't use dogs.

Nor does he wear camouflage.

There are no guns on Levin's hunt, except those remnants he has retrieved of a French fur traders' rifle. And when he bags a big game prize, he's not loading deer or bear meat into his truck, but rather centuries-old Lakota pottery and fossilized brontosaurus bone.

Without formal training or title, Levin is a hobby historian.

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As a boy, Levin said he had little interest in the history buried beneath his feet. But at the age of 12, when he was trapping gophers for a neighbor, he came across an unusual triangular-shaped rock.

The rock was an arrowhead, and Levin never again looked at a cultivated field the same way.

Levin's curiosity for the natural world soon became a hobby and he began hunting for Native American artifacts in pastures. From that hobby grew trips to trade shows, and fields and riverbanks in South Dakota. Then he found a few dinosaur bones. Then he made some purchases, including a plot of land specifically for his hunts, and shell, mineral and butterfly collections.

And as if to complete the punch line for a joke, his friends had facetiously alluded to since he began his collection, he built a museum in his backyard.

"Most people think I'm nuts," the 49-year-old Levin laughed. The museum is a 35 by 60 foot sheet metal shed (shrine) he built to hold his immense collection of Native American artifacts, dinosaur bones, shells, butterflies and an assortment of natural and anthropological knickknacks.

For a man with his nose pointed in the direction of the prehistoric, his museum's opening on June 10 -- which drew 300 people -- might as well have been yesterday. Located in the backyard of his rural New London home, it's tall enough for the 7-footer to walk around without fear of banging his head on a beam. Levin keeps it open during weekdays and has volunteers for staff.

Lifetime pursuit

The collection resembles the dedicated and detailed lifetime pursuit of a natural scientist or historically inclined pack rat. But Levin is neither.

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Many of the pieces in his collection he's had to educate himself on through hours of weekly research -- which explains the various books stuffed in those places in his museum where a bison skull or Native American pinball machine can't fit. And he said he's different from a pack rat in one significant way -- his desire to share.

Since the opening, he's been able to host at the museum the educational rock and bone show that for years he had taken on the road.

What Levin can claim, then, is an itching curiosity and desire to preserve the past for future generations.

"Finding something that has been buried or covered up for 300 million years to 200 years ago is a thrill," he said.

For 48 years, that thrill was Levin's and Levin's only. In 2005, however, he married Barb Mossberg. "She screwed it up," he joked.

Levin had been storing the collection at home. But the couple had to make a decision when Levin moved in with Barb. She said they would either build the museum or downsize the collection.

"We built," Barb said, as if there even had to be a discussion.

Backyard museum

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Levin's backyard museum -- he doesn't have a name for it yet -- goes back 9,000 years, not including the dinosaur bones. His most prized possessions were found at a site that is named in his honor and is one of the 10 oldest archaeological sites in the state.

The museum's interior resembles any other large, hollow, one-room shed. Except this shed is filled with shelves protruding with rocks and glass display cases that contain colorful shells and minerals.

The museum is logically organized. The dinosaur bones and fossils are near the front of the shed, the shells and minerals are in glass cases in the center and the butterfly collection, one of his more popular pieces, is hanging on the west wall.

At the back of the shed, near Barb's woodshop, is the museum's Native American collection. There is no Native blood in Levin's lineage, only half Norwegian and half Swedish. But, his interest in Native American culture runs deep.

Native artifacts were Levin's first interest and he soon grew interested in pictures, trinkets, books, birch bark baskets and pipestone pieces. He's found hundreds of arrowheads, pottery shards and hammerstones.

In 1983, Levin caught the attention of the state archaeologist when he found a large and old Native blade. The site he found the blade on later turned up a rare pendant as well, and the state archaeologist named the site in Levin's honor.

"I don't have any kids so after me the Levin name is done," he said. "Except for the Levin site."

There are 10 or 12 sites in Kandiyohi and Meeker counties he hunts on, but the Levin site is his favorite. It was most recently a campsite for Lakota Indians. He rents the site and pays to have it ploughed with a disc.

A cultivated field is essential for his hunting. Unlike archaeologists, he doesn't dig. Instead, he surface hunts. But, he's had complications in recent years.

"Farmers in general are often lazy," he said, jokingly. The practice of minimum-tillage, while beneficial for farmers, doesn't upturn the topsoil and hampers his searches for Native artifacts.

But Levin's focus has broadened over the last two decades to include other areas and targets.

New horizons

After a trip to South Dakota he started searching for fossils, including dinosaur bones. In future years, he said he expects to pursue more nature items, such as butterflies, leaves, nuts of trees, skulls of different animals or "any other strange items that we could make a collection of."

Aside from the standard pieces, Levin has a few wildcards as well. One is named the "bending rock," because, well, it appears to be a slender rock and does bend. Another is the teeth of a shark that could've swallowed a man whole. He also has a shelf that contains the antique press plates of The West Central Tribune.

In another case he keeps his latest hunting niche: old tobacco tins and sugar lumps.

Though foremost a hunter, he has traded for or purchased over half the items in his collection.

The shells came from a family in Montevideo and the butterflies from a St. Cloud man.

Unlike his peers, some of whom keep pieces stored out of sight, Levin enjoys sharing his collection with the public. He has presented his collection and the accompanying tutorial in local classrooms and 4-H meetings for many years.

"The kids are getting smarter. I can't fool them anymore," Levin said. His evidence: fourth graders were able to answer why his sparkling blue crystals would turn grey in water. The answer: salt gives the crystal its shine and the salt washes away in water.

Levin is protective of his treasures, but not paranoid. He hasn't insured the museum and a "Don't Touch" sign can't be found. For Levin, the joy comes from the finding and sharing.

Though usually closed on weekends, Levin said he will open the museum this weekend to visitors. Admission is free.

As long as the sites keep coughing up artifacts and the practice isn't made illegal, Levin said he hopes to continue hunting and adding to his collection. He has only one stipulation about what happens to his collection when he's gone.

"I want someone to have it who is going to put it on display for people to see," Levin said.

Whoever it is, they'll need a big shed.

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