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Bridal fleas & rattlesnake neckties

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Belhaven is a tiny town on the Pungo River in Beaufort County. But there's something there that no true North Carolinian should miss—the weird and wonderful Belhaven Memorial Museum, home to one of the country's most eclectic collections. It's free, and open daily from 1 to 5 p.m. (except Wednesdays).

An improbable gathering of thousands of objects, densely packed into 7,000 square feet, is housed on the second floor of the town's municipal building. It includes a 700-pound housedress, fleas dressed as a bride and groom (viewable through a magnifying glass), a cyclopean pig in formaldehyde, anchors and pieces of old warships, opium pipes and mustache cups, a whale's skull and a power drill that electrocuted a local handyman.

This downhome Kunstkammer originates from the obsessions of one remarkable woman—Mrs. Eva Blount Way. A lumberman's wife, she presided over a farm just outside town, accumulating strange objects and never throwing any away. The founder of Belhaven's first country club and president of the local D.A.R. chapter, Way also hunted rattlesnakes, won hog-calling contests and killed, canned and ate a bear that had been ravaging her farm. Meanwhile, she filled a 12-room house and a barn with stuff. Way hosted visitors for 40 years until her death, in 1962, at age 93. Her family donated a good chunk of the 10,000-item collection to the city three years later.

World War I uniforms and spiked helmets will thrill military history buffs. Parents can explain the antique typewriters, farm tools and coffee mills to kids, who might be more interested in dim jars containing all the gallstones, tumors and cataracts that Way's neighbors had removed over the years. You can read the front page of the April 15, 1865 New York Herald to see how Lincoln's assassination was reported, or ponder Way's fascination with worn-out shoes.

The Belhaven isn't a "white walls" experience with tags penned by curators. Some of Way's shakily handwritten labels ("First Lock on Belhaven Jail, Home Made") are still fastened to glass cases with yellowed Scotch tape. It's more along the lines of discovering a hoarder's attic, or the warehouse that the Ark of the Covenant is wheeled into in the first Indiana Jones movie. Way was a one-woman Smithsonian Institution with a bent for the bizarre.

Best of all, you can add to this weird and wonderful collection. The Museum still accepts donations of oddments and doodads. Take along that box of dragonfly wings you find on your morning walks or the creepy Nepalese hand puppets you've buried in the closet. Nothing's out of bounds at the Belhaven. "Miss Eva" would have wanted it that way.

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