Jake, kites: Just some of Long Beach's attractions

When locals advise out-of-town guests about what to do, Marsh's Free Museum inevitably is on the list.

Some folks claim Jake the Alligator Man was a valet in a New Orleans whorehouse.

Others say Jake the Alligator Man was a sideshow freak who smoked cigars and could nod yes or no to simple questions. A retired couple who drive from Kelso every summer to see Jake the Alligator man claim they remember him, alive and nodding, in a Texas carnival.

For all the curiosities at Marsh's Free Museum, 409 S. Pacific Avenue (Washington 103), in Long Beach, the boffo attraction is Jake the Alligator Man. Jake appears to be an ossified dwarf whose skin has turned a putrid black. From the waist down, Jake is an alligator, with scales and tail.

For all the two-headed cows and Siamese-twin lambs, the world-class shell collection and nickel peep shows at Marsh's Free Museum, the star remains Jake the Alligator Man. He perches in a glass case with a sign that reads "We have very little history on Jake."

And yet, history abounds at Marsh's Free Museum, a citadel of wholesome hokum that is the best sort of attraction. It doesn't cost anything to see Theda Bara's headband or the Civil War leg irons or the spittoon from the Silver Dollar Saloon in Alder Gulch, Nevada.

Like Wall Drug in South Dakota, and South of the Border in Dillion, S.C., like Rock City in Lookout Mountain, Tenn., Marsh's Free museum is a cult destination. Like Ralph the Diving Pig at Aquarena Springs in San Marcos, Texas, Jake the Alligator Man has become a legend of the great American roadside.

Marsh's Free Museum welcomes travelers to a curio shop that is like a favorite uncle's attic, an odd kin whom your parents detested, and you adored, because he wore Hawaiian shirts and belched a lot and brought you a whoopee cushion for your birthday.

Nestled between the Super 8 Motel and Krazy Jack's Burger Shop on the main drag in Long Beach, Marsh's Free Museum is the attic of Wellington Marsh Sr., who died in 1977, and his son Wellington Marsh Jr., who passed away in 1995.

Marsh's Free Museum bulges with clam shells, English Channel sea urchins and African scorpion conches, and the shell of a turtle caught off the Brazilian coast. The latter, it's claimed, weighed in at a heroic 665 pounds.

Marsh also claims America's largest collection of glass fishing balls, including an aqua whopper as big as a beach ball. Glass balls are a sentimental symbol for the Marsh family; a local physician, a Dr. Paul, received a big glass ball as payment for delivering Wellington Marsh Jr. in 1928.

You can buy two bubble shells for a nickel. Where can you buy anything for 5 cents nowadays, let alone two for a nickel?

Every customer receives a free seashell affixed to a small card. Marsh's gives away 130,000 shells a year. Tourists think the shells come from Long Beach, glistening just out the back door, but they are from Mexico and the Philippines; the local surf pounds shells to pieces.

Tourists remember places that give something for nothing. And they never forget Jake the Alligator Man. Long Beach antiques dealer Ray Pryor bought Jake at an auction when Whitney's Museum in San Francisco, a similar palace of palaver, closed in 1965. Wellington Marsh Jr. "didn't want to pay $750 for Jake but I talked him into it," says his wife Marian.

"If grandpa and dad walked in today, they would like this place," David Marsh said. "See, they loved being entertained, they loved the old razzmatazz. They were showmen and businessmen."

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