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.