Framework

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June 1926: W. Parker Lyon, left, salutes friend and fellow Western historian Albert Dressler at the bar of Lyon's museum of California antiquities in Pasadena – later called the Pony Express Museum and moved to Arcadia. This photo was published in the June 10, 1926, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: E. J. Spencer / Los Angeles Times

1940: W. Parker Lyon cracks the whip over wooden horses at his Arcadia museum. This image, published in the Dec. 16, 1949, Los Angeles Times, was a publicity photo for "Unusual Occupations" a Paramount Pictures short subject released in 1940.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Paramount

1940: Publicity photo of W. Parker Lyon inside his Western museum for a 1940 Paramount episode of "Unusual Occupations."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Paramount

1940: Publicity photo of W. Parker Lyon inside his Western museum for a 1940 Paramount episode of "Unusual Occupations." This photo was published in the Dec. 16, 1949, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Paramount

Sep. 12, 1945: For his 80th birthday, W. Parker Lyon received a 400-year-old Chinese saddle gun. He also received the news of a new great-grandson. This photo was published in the Sept. 13, 1945, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Sept. 21, 1936: W. Parker Lyon "drives" his four wooden horses at his Pony Express Museum across the street from the Santa Anita Race Track. A different photo of Lyon and his wooden horses was published in the Sept. 22, 1936, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Associated Press

June 28, 1941: W. Parker Lyon poses with a large gun and train engine at his Pony Express Museum in Arcadia. This photo was published in the June 29, 1941, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

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W. Parker Lyon and his Pony Express Museum

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W. Parker Lyon and his Pony Express Museum

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W. Parker Lyon and his Pony Express Museum

W. Parker Lyon, former mayor of Fresno, moved to San Marino in 1913. His collection of California memorabilia quickly outgrew a small building at the rear of his home.

A Jan. 17, 1955, Los Angeles Times story reported that “The museum started as a stamp collection and grew into a mammoth exhibit which included a narrow-gauge railroad, stagecoaches, dance hall and other antiques valued at more than $250,000.”

In 1935, Lyon’s collection opened as the Pony Express Museum across the street from the Santa Anita Racetrack — and became a popular Southern California attraction.

When Lyon passed away in 1949, writer Ed Ainsworth reported in his Dec. 16, 1949, Los Angeles Times obituary:

The paisley vest, the tall silk hat, the two-pound watch that once belonged to Tom Thumb, the black frock coat and the pearl gray spats lay neglected in the Pony Express Museum at Arcadia yesterday.

The fabulous showman who had collected and worn them had just gone out on a collecting trip to a new kind of world.

W. Parker Lyon, 84, was dead.

His wooden Indians stood like frozen mourners staring with unseeing eyes as the great empty leather chair on the museum porch.

In this chair for many years had sat the man who, because he wished it that way, was known more for his volcanic humor, his stupendous anecdotes and his collection of bedroom crockery than he was for his political wisdom, his business genius and his innate gentleness.

He waved aside his achievements as mayor of Fresno, as founder of the Lyon Van & Storage Co., as a man who made $1,000,000 out of a little furniture store. But he could go into ecstasies over a Royal Doulton pot or a bustle that might have been worn by Jenny Lind….

W. (for William) Parker Lyon could just about prove he was the world’s greatest collector. Every one of his hundreds of thousands of relics in his museum was gathered by him personally in collecting trips to all parts of the state, particularly the Mother Lode gold country. With his famous laugh, he bragged that when he got through cleaning out the gold towns from Mariposa to Hangtown and Weaverville there wasn’t enough left to fill up a midget’s room in the State Museum at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento….

Fact never bothered Lyon when a good story was concerned.

Goggle-eyed Midwesterners clustered in awe about the expounding owner, heard of fortunes in gold recovered from the bellies of ancient fire engines from the Mother Lode; of Buffalo Bill personally attesting to the authenticity of dozens of rifles and pistols in the gun collection; of Wally Simpson, the duchess, donating a choice vessel for the pot room; of King George offering $5,000,000 for the Lyon stamp collection; of Kit Carson having ridden in the old saddle on the stuffed horse…

To the 100,000 or so visitors who paraded annually through the fantastic museum, Parker Lyon was curator, guide, mentor and prevaricator supreme. Everything possessed a colorful history, or if it didn’t, he invented one for it. Bandits peeped from behind every Wells-Fargo trunk and gay blades surrounded the western bars as antique nickelodeons blared their cacophony.

The movies couldn’t get along without the museum. They obtained their rental props there–for a price, of course–for pictures such as “Union Pacific,” “Mark Twain” and the like.

But with Lyon’s passing, the museum couldn’t continue.  In 1955, William Harrah purchased the Pony Express Museum and moved the collection in 14 railroad cars to his casino in Reno.

Harrah passed away in 1978, and as explained in this 1986 Los Angeles Times story, the Pony Express Museum collection was broken up and sold at auction.

The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection has 50 photos online of the Pony Express Museum in Arcadia. Search using Pony Express Museum or W. Parker Lyon.

3 Comments

  1. August 24, 2012, 10:38 pm

    W. Parker Lyon seems to have been an interesting person. Ed Ainsworth appears to have been a long-time acquaintance — if not a friend — of W. Parker Lyon who also wrote a biography of Mr. Lyon.

    Two of the cars of the narrow gauge train are now in the collection of Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City, Nevada. The steam locomotive — built in 1915 — is in regular use at the Silverwwod Theme Park near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

    By: Brian N
  2. August 25, 2012, 11:54 pm

    We have the 1850 Lemuel Gilbert piano forte in our log-cabin museum at Mormon Station State Park in Genoa, Nevada! You can see the piano in the online photos. Come see it in real life. I would have loved to walk through his museum in Arcadia.

    By: Mormonstation
  3. May 18, 2014, 9:31 pm

    He was my great, great uncle. My grandmother was his only blood related niece. Furniture store story = true. Second mayor of Fresno = true. However, he wasn’t the founder of Lyon Van & Storage….My great grandfather, Edmund Cobb Lyon, was the founder. My great grandfather founded Lyon Van & Storage in Oakland, CA in 1895 (with a loan from a family member) when he was 22-23yrs old …W.Parker had already left Oakland, and their younger brother Harvey was in the 6th grade, IIRC. One of the stipulations re the loan was that Edmund eventually take on Harvey as a junior partner in Oakland (without $ from Harvey) when Harvey became an adult. In 1905 (10 years later) Edmund left Harvey to manage the Oakland loacation and moved to Los Angeles to open a branch in Los Angeles that had no affiliation with Harvey. Edmund and older brother W. Parker eventually became equal partners in Los Angeles (re $ W.Parker invested). In 1915 (my grandmother’s Freshman year (in the Fall) at Stanford) Edmund sold his half of the Los Angeles location to W. Parker (who later sold to Bekins) and moved back to Oakland. Edmund built a large house in Oakland and a warehouse on Broadway that (at the time) was one of the tallest buildings in Oakland. It still stands to this day, next to I-580 (some know it as the Saw Mill Building). He and Harvey worked together, as they had before Edmund (and my grandmother and great grandmother) moved to Los Angeles. In the mid 1920’s my great grandfather Edmund made a fatal mustake. Harvey wanted to invest more money into the business and build another warehouse. Edmund didn’t want to take the risk. Harvey asked for permission to invest money not connected to Edmund to build the second location. Edmund granted permission. Once Harvey injected that capital, he controlled over 50.1 % of the company. Harvey suspended the dividend, and Edmund was forced to sell his now slightly minority share to Harvey to stay solvent. Harvey soon wanted to receive a particular award from the Rotary Club. What he had done to his brother was brought up as a reason not to honor Harvey. Harvey promised to make Edmund whole, and received the honor. Harvey later welched on this promise. 40 + years later he sold to the Transamerica Corporation (who later sold it to an Australian firm). Harvey also gave an ‘oral history’ (archived at UC Berkeley) in the early 1970’s (he died in 1975) where he lied and said he was the founder of Lyon Van and Storage. Harvey wasn’t a completely bad guy though. He donated the money to build the Bruce Lyon Memorial Research Lab at Children’s Hospital in Oakland. This lab later became CHORI (Children’s Hospital Oaklamd Research Indtitute). Recently, CHO and CHSF announced they will merge and also take on the Benioff name for part of the operation (Marc Benioff, the billionaire founder of Salesforce.com, and his wife donated 100 million USD). Another good thing Harvey did was have our lineage papers done. His son Richards (known as Dick) gave my aunt a copy of the papers when I was 20, and she gave me a copy as a 21st birthday present. My aunt and my mother visited the Pony Express Museum many times during visits to see ‘Uncle Will’. I knew Harrah’s had sold the contents, but didn’t know where parts of the train had ended up until reading the above comments. I’ll have to include seeing those cars and the locomotive on a future trip.

    By: J.R.

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