The uncertain future of Harpers Ferry’s historic John Brown Wax Museum

By Vanta Coda III, RealWV

When walking the historic streets of downtown Harpers Ferry, it is hard to miss the wax replica of John Brown peering out the window of the John Brown Wax Museum. Since 1963, the wax museum has welcomed tens of thousands of visitors, but since the building’s recent listing for sale, the future of this historic museum has been uncertain.

Sigourney Brown-Dyer, sits in front of the looming portrait of famous abolitionist, John Brown, as a tour group walks into the John Brown Wax Museum. Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.

Although the museum may soon be under new ownership, or entirely re-purposed, Sigourney Brown-Dyer and her husband Benjamin Wilson stepped in to help repair and clean up the museum, in hopes their efforts may allow this historic spot in Harpers Ferry to live on.

Margaret Jones, peers around an exhibit where John Brown says goodbye to his wife before getting sentenced to hang at the gallows. “I took a day trip from Stephens, VA and I thought I might stop in to see what this museum was all about,” said Jones, “I am glad I did because the museum does a good job of telling this story.” Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.

“The museum is in limbo right now, everything is uncertain and people want to know what is going to happen,” said Brown-Dyer. “The ultimate goal is to help take care of the museum until someone that is also fascinated with its history will preserve it.”

Brown-Dyer and Wilson put up floating shelves for local products. “We are looking for any way to promote the museum, and having local businesses be able to sell their wares here is a great place to start,” said Brown-Dyer. Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.

The duo own and operate their own store in Charles Town called, On the Go Soaps, which they started to advertise at the wax museum, along with other local products from surrounding local businesses in the area. Whenever they are not working at their Charles Town business they head down the road to Harpers Ferry to either operate the museum for the day or to make renovations.

John Brown Wax Museum clutter at the back of the first hallway, as Benjamin and Sigourney finish their renovations for the day. Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.

Both Brown-Dyer and Wilson hope that they will be able to run operations at the wax museum until October, hopefully raising enough donations and peaking the interest of potential buyers after making it through the busy summer tourism season.

Light from Benjamin’s phone casts a glow onto his face as he begins painting the viewing area for a scene depicting a slave auction. “I have been told by Ted that this scene has changed as time has gone on because of its graphic nature,” said Benjamin. Photo by Matthew Young, RealWV.

The John Brown Wax Museum is one of the oldest wax museums in the country, with its wax figurines being made in 1962 from Dorfman Figurine Inc. based out of Baltimore, MD. The museum itself was built in the early 1960’s and has gone through three different owners, Ted Staley being the most recent, purchasing the business in 2010.

A group of customers crowd the front lobby as tourism picks up in the afternoon. Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.

“The original part of the building was built in the 1820’s or so and it was a residence, a feed store and possibly some other merchant type operation until the early 60s’,” said Staley “it was then bought by Dixie Callum and renovated for the intent of creating the wax museum.”

Margarita Dolan puts a twenty dollar bill into the donation jar. The museum relies on donations and gift shop purchases for the museum to be operational. Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.

Despite the heavy foot traffic the museum sees during the tourist season, the maintenance that has to go into the museum has been a lot for Staley, who works a full time job in North Carolina. “We don’t have an admission fee, but we do have a five dollar donation jar,” said Brown-Dyer. “Our hope is that with the donations, we can hold out just a little bit longer until hopefully the right buyer finds their way to us.”

The couple works on the museum’s gift shop as night settles in at the museum. “We honestly don’t know when this museum is going to sell and who it will sell to, but we can help maintain it until that day comes,” said Brown-Dyer. Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.

If you would like to donate to the John Brown Wax Museum, please visit the link: https://www.johnbrownwaxmuseum.com/hours/.

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