Clayton Emery paints some details on the jail in his hand-built western town in Portsmouth, New Hampshire's Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | Portsmouth Herald

Off the beaten track of Portsmouth’s cultural, historic and arts attractions is the Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff, intentionally named without a hyphen, so visitors can draw their own conclusions.

It’s in the eye of the beholder whether the museum displays dumb-guy stuff, or dumb guy-stuff, said Clayton Emery, whose antique Mechanic Street home houses the museum in its basement. The contents are collections of customized action figures displayed in dioramas, a scale train set in a 1959 New England town, and a piano Emery is learning to play by watching online videos.

“He’s doing it because he got the piano for free,” said museum co-curator Rod Hildebrand, who met Emery at the Portsmouth dog park.

Both retired, the friends began assembling the train set 2½ years ago and still consider it “a work in progress.” At the same time they’ve been making and displaying the action figures in various handmade settings to depict scenes such as an old West saloon and a World War II bunker.

“We’re just a couple of guys who want to share hobbies,” said Hildebrand, retired after working for 22 years as a manager for the Apple computer company.

Emery has written multiple novels under his own name, two under a pseudonym and worked as a blacksmith, farmhand, surveyor, technical writer and a zookeeper at Benson’s Wild Animal Farm. He jokes he’s “been fired from more jobs than most people ever worked.”

The men first hung an “Open” flag in front of their workshop announcing it was an open work space for hobbyists, but Hildebrand thought they needed a better message. Emery came up with the Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff name and since then, they’ve had locals and tourists stop in to see what the heck a Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff is. Other giggling passers-by have stopped for photos and selfies with the museum’s name on the front banner, they said.

The museum curators happily offer tours.

The centerpiece is Hildebrand’s train set, painstakingly designed to be Dover in 1959, but because some critics nitpicked about alleged historic inconsistencies, he now calls it a typical New England town of the same year. There’s a cannery, a handmade bridge with a lighted parked car, landscaping, a train yard, “Emery’s Texaco,” a saloon, a cop eating a doughnut and a man sleeping on a park bench.

Hildebrand said if they built it in his home, on a private Portsmouth street, no one would see it.

“It’s mostly to share with people,” he said.

Some of Emery’s museum pieces include action figures he disassembled and glued back together in new poses, with new clothes and accessories. “She Hulk” is going to be Thor’s girlfriend with a sword and shield, he said. There’s the “Legion of Superheroes,” a vignette that holds Supergirl, Super Boy and Teen Titans, reconfigured to interact in a lighted display cabinet. The “Marvel Universe” holds the likes of Sandman, the Hulk and Ironman and, Emery said, each of the customized figures takes 10 to 12 hours to create.

Displayed in his handmade “Silver Dollar Saloon” is an old West diorama made from vintage GI Joe and Barbie dolls he re-created into Western characters. Sewing, modeling, gluing and hair-making are all part of the process.

“This is Barbie as a French can-can girl,” Emery explained about one doll posed on the saloon’s balcony. “She fell on hard times and now has to work as a saloon girl.”

He made a Sean Connery doll into a Western undertaker and a Gen. Omar Bradley doll into a general store keeper.

“That’s Wonder Woman who was on sale at Toys R Us,” Emery dryly noted. “She’s just visiting.”

Emery said he strives to make the dioramas historically correct, noting a World War II scene depicts a group of German soldiers relaxing in one room, while a team of American soldiers are ready to storm with rifles and a flame thrower on the other side of the door.

Two figures were made to depict Emery’s wife, Susan Therriault, a physician, one as a doctor in the old West and the other in contemporary time. On one, Emery said, he made the skirt from a coffee filter and all of the details are hand-painted.

Hildebrand is currently making a vast display of a French countryside, working under a brick-arch hall in the Emery basement-museum.

“Rod’s retired, I have to keep him busy,” Emery said, adding their friend “Charlie from the dog park” will be joining them to make model airplanes.

“I don’t sell them or charge money,” Emery said. “Our object is to invite people to bring in their hobbies.”

The Museum of Dumb Guy Stuff at 114 Mechanic St. in Portsmouth is usually open 11 a.m.-2 p.m., and the banner will be hung out front to signify when it is.

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