What’s the story?
Growing up, we lived for a while in Phoenix.
Every weekend that the weather was right, we could watch the hot air balloons lift off and soar high over the earth, each a brilliant unique splash of color against a deep blue desert sky. By the time we moved again, I’d become somewhat blasé about the sight, but thinking back I can still remember my first thrill at seeing those huge mounds of bright yellow, blue, red, orange, green, purple, black and every shade in between in a patchwork of patterns and styles, seemingly rising from the ground behind the neighbor’s house.
No, they weren’t that close, but they sure looked it. And they were even bigger on the couple of occasions we got to go see them being launched during our time in Arizona – baskets turned on their side, fans blowing air into the impossibly-large balloons, and then, as soon as the reservoir was large enough, flame shooting from the burner into the balloon itself with heart-stopping closeness to the nylon. The balloon would get bigger and bigger, then suddenly lift off the ground, dragging the basket upright and sometimes towing it along if it wasn’t tethered with enough weight!
After we moved away I didn’t give the balloons much thought. It was a fond memory, but nothing more. Then I was researching the route we were taking on a trip to Texas, looking for places I hadn’t been yet, and discovered the National Balloon Museum. Old-buried interest sparked, and I asked the guys about stopping there. “Sure,” said Jerry; “Sounds interesting,” said Ted.
It’s a welcoming place. One of the signs on the door reads, “If you’ve come a long way and we are closed, please contact Becky Wigeland or Dennis Nicholson. We will open for you if we are available.” And it gives both phone numbers. Immediately inside the door is the guest register – which we signed – and a map of the United States. On the support for the display is a box with pins and a sign, “Please take a pin and mark where you’re from.” Every state has at least one pin stuck in it, even Alaska and Hawaii.
We were greeted at the door by Barb. She describes herself as “One among many, many volunteers;” I hope that every volunteer there is as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about ballooning as she is, because she made our visit an absolute pleasure. She was a teacher of fifth- and sixth-graders, and says, “I used to use the idea of hot-air ballooning with my kids. Teach them math and science and English…” (Why couldn’t I have had Barb as a teacher?!?) “We’d go out onto the playground and throw baggies like they do on the balloon meets, you know, and then measure distances… It’s a real good, useful way to be able to teach them things.”
The National Balloon Museum obviously thinks so, too. There are interactive displays dotting the museum, exhibits that can be touched as well as seen, and a room set aside just for the younger generation. They can color at the tables, curl up inside the cushioned “Book Basket” to read, or play a video game called ‘Hot Air Pilot.” They can even step inside a real balloon basket to get their picture taken! And just outside the Children’s Learning Center is a display of custom-shaped balloons!
Oh, and did you see the banner in the Children’s Learning Center? It was made by Barb’s fifth-and sixth-grade class one year. During the art portion of their studies they colored in their designs onto iron-on transfer paper with crayon. Barb did the ironing, then the class sewed their balloons on the banner and stuffed them. “I had two,” Barb said. “I had one in my classroom, and then we sent one here to the Balloon Museum. It was when Pac-man was really big, one of my kids did a Pac-man balloon.”
And for Disney fans, there’s a display dedicated to a hot air balloon built to look exactly like Carl’s house from the movie Up. In order to give the 3-D effect of a cluster of balloons, 54 pockets – “mini-balloons” – were created when the main balloon was stitched together. Carl’s house is an inflatable wrap-around on the balloon basket.
The museum itself began with people who wanted ballooning memorabilia and important events not to be lost when they were, Barb said when telling me about the National Balloon Championships. The Championships had been held in Indianola for the first fourteen years, after which the Balloon Federation decided to start moving it around, but Indianola still has its own event every year, the National Balloon Classic. “And they had the Balloon Museum in an old house,” she said with a fond laugh. “And then they moved it again to another old house, and then another old house, and they finally decided to build the building.”
Barb’s been involved with ballooning for over thirty years. Being a teacher, she had summers off and so she’d bring the family to her father’s home town of Indianola, where her mother would watch the kids and she could get out to the balloon field and crew for the balloonists. When you meet her, make sure she tells you about how she worked with Malcolm Forbes’ crew the year he came out to Indianola, bringing with him the castle-shaped balloon!
“They built this, I guess, with the idea that this would always be here and be big enough, but I know they have artifacts downstairs…” Everything in the museum is donated, and baskets take up a bit of space! They do rotate the displays, usually in January when they’re closed for cleaning and reorganization.
Despite that, the museum is surprisingly large, with cubbies and cases leading you deep into rooms that aren’t obvious from the outside. Some of the displays detail significant events in ballooning history, such as the day Tracey Barnes set seven new altitude records on the same day. Some show memorabilia – the pins and collectors cards of ballooning teams being prominent. Others show scientific specifics, such as the structure of a propane tank. The room farthest from the entrance is set up as a theater that plays a short presentation on the history of ballooning – definitely a must-see.
As we were leaving, another group came in. Barb greeted them with a cheerful “Good morning!” One of them asked, “Can you show us, is there anything that will, like, fascinate us, and still, you know, educate us?” Ted and I chorused, “Yes, she can!”
And next summer when Indianola is again hosting its Balloon Classic, I am so going back for another tour of the Museum, and maybe even a balloon ride.
National Balloon Museum
1601 North Jefferson Way, Indianola, Iowa
From May to October – Monday to Friday 9-4; Saturday 10-4; Sunday 1-4: in November, December, and February to April, see the website (listed below).
The Museum is closed Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and Christmas Day, plus December 26th and 31st, plus the entire month of January
$3 ages 12 to adult; under 12 free
515-961-3714 or firstname.lastname@example.org