NORTON, Kan. — Hillary Clinton will make history on Friday, but probably not the kind she wanted.
Here in this tiny town in remote northwestern Kansas, she will be the first woman inducted into a museum that most Americans have never heard of, except for the people who live here and those eccentric few who travel the back roads of the country in search of extremely odd things.
About a half-hour before Donald Trump takes the oath of office to become the nation’s 45th president, Clinton, his vanquished opponent, will have her picture unveiled at the They Also Ran Gallery — or as many people refer to it, the Museum of Presidential Losers. She will be the first woman inducted into the museum, which honors those who tried but failed to win the presidency.
“It’s not us dissing you or making fun,” said Lee Ann Shearer, the museum’s curator. “It’s about honoring people who’ve tried. It’s so hard to run for president … These people worked hard and love their country too, and we think it’s important to remember that.”
The so-called Losers Museum, located on the second floor of First State Bank on Main Street here, has been around for more than half a century. It was a personal project of William Walter Rouse, the bank’s original owner, who came up with the idea after reading “They Also Ran” by Irving Stone, a 1943 book that profiled 19 people who had failed in their quest for the White House.
Among those featured in the book is Horace Greeley, the onetime owner and publisher of the now-defunct New York Tribune, who happened to be one of the most famous people to ever visit Norton. He came through town in 1859 when Norton was a stop on the cross-country stagecoach and wrote about it on a series documenting his journey west from New York.
Though Rouse admired Greeley, it wasn’t just about honoring the memory of him and others who had bravely sought to be the leader of the free world. Kansas, a heavily rural state where people are often just passing through to get other places, is the roadside attraction capital of the country, packed with oddities — like the World’s Largest Hairball and the World’s Artiest Public Toilets — aimed at luring people off the highway and into small towns desperate for business. The Losers Museum, he hoped, could help put and keep Norton on the map.
In 1963, Rouse installed dozens of portraits of those who had been presidential runner-ups, posting a sign with their name, who they lost to and a biography with trivia about the individual and the election. He maintained it until his death, in 1981, when it was passed on to a series of bank staffers who kept the collection going.
But perhaps nobody except for Rouse has been more enthusiastic about the project than Shearer, a 43-year-old mother of three who has worked at the bank for nearly 18 years, most recently as a bookkeeper. Working as an unpaid volunteer, she took over the museum in 2004, eager to keep it going because of its historical significance but also to get people in town excited about it again.
For years, she sat at her desk at the bank and watched visitors come through. “They wouldn’t even get a proper tour,” she said. So when she took over the museum, she made it her job to learn about the people in those portraits on the wall, to make their stories come alive to those who happened to wander through. It was a learning process for her too.
A farm girl who grew up in nearby Lebanon, aka “the Geographical Center of the 48 States,” another roadside attraction, Shearer had briefly moved to Manhattan, Kan., after high school before deciding it was too big a city for her. She worked as a truck driver before landing a job at the bank. When she took over the museum, Shearer, by her account, knew very little about presidential elections and history. “I started by reading everything I could, including Mr. Stone’s book,” she said.
These days, Shearer knows so much about the people on the wall, a visitor can barely get a word in edgewise. Bubbly and blond, she often speaks so fast she can hardly breathe — all while apologizing for the volcano burst of knowledge. “I must be sweating your ear off,” she declared with a giggle.
Foot traffic at the museum is slow but steady. Her guest book includes people from all over the world, including Ireland, Germany and Mexico. Not long ago, an entire class from the University of Wisconsin walked in. “We don’t get the attention that the World’s Largest Ball of Twine gets,” she said of that attraction, located about 90 minutes away. “But they are 24-7, and we’re not.”
So far, none of the 60 people featured on the wall have visited the museum — not even former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, a home state hero. Though Dole, who lost his 1996 bid to unseat Bill Clinton, has come the closest — visiting Norton a few years ago during a statewide tour to thank the people of Kansas who elected him. That day, Shearer closed the museum early and ran to the American Legion Hall, where Dole was speaking, to get a picture with the senator. But she didn’t have time to tell him about his place in history, and someone who had promised to talk to Dole about swinging by the gallery forgot in the excitement of the day. “Oh well,” Shearer said.
Though she has long hoped one of the former candidates might come by, she understands why people don’t. “Losing is painful. I think it’s something many people never really get over,” she said. “But we remember them. Just because they came in second place doesn’t mean they weren’t important.”