Ed Grisamore

Grisamore: The museum of all things Indian

ROBERTA -- The Museum of Southeastern Indians is so far off the beaten path you might need your own Indian guide to find it.

There are no giant billboards or neon signs. It is tucked away in the woods at the top of a hill. The museum doesn’t keep regular hours, either. You must call to make -- pardon the pun -- a reservation.

But you can get there from here. I know because I visited the museum on a recent afternoon with my friend Kim Lander.

People from Australia and New Mexico have signed the guest book, so folks in the neighboring villages of High Falls and Lower Bonaire should be able to get there if they bring along their curiosity and a decent map.

(Take U.S. 80 west of Roberta for about eight miles, turn left on Julia Jordan Road and follow the arrowheads.)

Mike Stokes grew up on a dairy farm, not an Indian reservation. His bloodlines are part Cherokee, so he figures he’s got a few pints of Native American running through him.

At the museum on his Crawford County property, he is Chief Mike-Of-All-Trades. He is the owner, founder, curator, docent, maintenance man and custodian.

It may not rival the Smithsonian or the Louvre, but it is one of the most impressive collections of Indian artifacts in the South. There are thousands of arrowheads, hundreds of pieces of Indian pottery, old Western guns and other relics. Several tribes are represented, including the Creeks, Quapaw and Caddo Nation.

The doors officially opened in May 1998. Although there is no admission charge, donations are welcome (and appreciated) to help keep the lights on. The museum is open by appointment (478-836-2696).

Mike probably knows as much about Indian heritage as anyone in these parts, so don’t try to challenge him on trivia night. History buffs seek out his wisdom. Archaeologists come to admire his collection.

He doesn’t do much advertising. There is no website, unless you count spiders in the woods. The museum operates by word of mouth. School groups and church buses regularly climb the steep hill where, after the leaves drop from the trees in the fall and winter, you can see the water tower in Roberta nine miles away.

This isn’t a high-tech place. Nothing has to be plugged in. If you’re looking for an interactive exhibit, Mike’s version of “hands on” is to let you touch the sharp tip of an arrowhead. Or stop to admire an 8,000-year-old mortar, used to grind corn and other grains. Or stand in awe of a 300-year-old canoe, carved from the trunk of a poplar tree.

Mike has also opened a farm Mmuseum in a building behind the Indian museum. It features antique tools and farm implements and is like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting, a slice of rural Americana. (It also is free and open to the public.)

Mike is 68 years old. His wife, Nell, died six years ago and is buried in a small field behind the museum. She was part of this dream, too. It came along after she gave him an ultimatum. His collection of Indian relics grew larger than the room in their house where he kept them, so she had to gently put her foot down.

“It was stacked from the floor to the ceiling,” Mike said, laughing. “If you hit one box, the others would fall over. We had talked about building the museum, and she stood behind me. For her, it also was like getting another room in the house.’’

The 2,100-square-foot building rose on the ridge above the Ulcohachee Creek, a tributary of the Flint River that means “Paw Paw” in the Muskogee Creek language.

Mike designed the building and did some of the construction work. He dedicated it to his parents, the late Bill and Louise Stokes.

If you build it, folks will come.

That is, if they can find it.

The museum’s remote location doesn’t really bother Mike. There is never a long line out the door waiting to get inside. There is no need for a parking lot. You can pull right up to the door.

Please wipe your feet and save your tomahawk chopping for the Braves games. Mike posts only two rules: no running and no cellphones.

He is not out to impress folks or put a value on his collection. His mission is to preserve history and pay tribute to a way of life. His children and grandchildren have pledged to carry on when he is gone.

The seeds were planted more than a half-century ago, when Mike was a fourth-grader at Heard Elementary School. His class went on a field trip to the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds in Macon.

His father owned a 1,500-acre dairy farm in south Bibb County. As a boy, Mike would search for arrowheads on the property. He also picked them up in the woods and creeks he explored in 42 years as a trapper. You name it, he caught it -- from otter to beaver, coyotes, bobcats and muskrats. (Over the years, he also taught more than 100 young men how to trap.)

Even today, he can spot an arrowhead from 20 paces along the creek beds, especially after a good rain. He likes to point out only the smaller arrowheads were used for the tips of arrows. The larger ones were saved for spears and knives.

He has combed the Southeast for Indian artifacts. He has found them, bought and traded for them. He has vases, bowls, pipes and knives on display. He has life-sized wooden statues and photos of such hall-of-famers as Geronimo and Chief Sitting Bull.

The only trick is getting to the Museum of Southeastern Indians.

Once you do find it, be prepared to be amazed.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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