Ozark Ball Museum

Iconic Communities, Odd Collections, On the Road, People, Travel Destinations
on October 11, 2011
Mike Gullett Donna Stjerna and Kelly Mulhollan outside of the Ozark Ball Museum in Fayetteville, Ark., where Mulhollan displays his collection of balls and Stjerna serves as curator

People may think they're goofballs, but Kelly Mulhollan, 52, and Donna Stjerna, 57, are having a ball with his collection in Fayetteville, Ark. (pop. 58,047).

The traveling musicians opened the Ozark Ball Museum last March in the living room of Mulhollan's home in the Ozark Mountains, where guests can make an appointment to see his offbeat collection of "happy face" balls, Hacky Sack balls, 8-balls, sports balls, globes, homemade balls and even eyeballs.

Naturally, a gumball machine is part of the collection. "And we supply the nickels!" says Stjerna, who serves as museum curator.

Mulhollan's spherical fixation started at age 10 when he and his older brother each received a ball-shaped compact transistor radio for Christmas. "I held them up one on each side of my head, tuned them to the same station, and I had stereo," recalls Mulhollan with a laugh. "That was my introduction to collecting balls!"

Over time, Mulhollan added other interesting spherical objects, especially during the last 15 years when the collection snowballed to 3,000 balls-most spotted in thrift stores while he and Stjerna traveled across the United States and Europe performing songs they write as the folk duo Still on the Hill.

"We never pay more than $5 for a ball," Mulhollan says. "We focus on balls that have no value, except to us."

Last winter, they devoted a month to sorting and culling the collection to 2,000. "We kept ones that are unique or have a story," he says.

Inspired to share his collection with others, Mulhollan built lighted floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three sides of his living room, then creatively arranged the balls on candleholders or napkin rings. The museum's grand opening drew about 200 visitors, including Courtney Keating, 13, of Russellville, Ark., who has her own well-rounded collection of 150 balls. "They inspired me to start my own ball collection five years ago when I saw them in concert," Courtney says about the folk musicians.

Tours of the quirky display-which costs 75 cents or the donation of a ball-are fun and entertaining. Stjerna incorporates juggling and magic tricks into her presentation. Mulhollan has a story for each ball.

For instance, a baseball from the 1964 World Series was donated by his great-aunt Rayma, a St. Louis Cardinals fan whose wrist was broken by a foul ball during a game against the New York Yankees.

Mulhollan's favorites are made by nature, such as lint balls that formed inside violins and were donated by Tom Verdot, 62, a former band mate in Columbia, Mo. "Dust accumulates in fiddles, rolls around, and eventually wads into balls," explains Verdot, who restores violins.

Stjerna is partial to homemade balls, such as a 11/2-inch wad made by her mother, Harriett Smith, of Tracy, Calif., by pressing together 200 foil chewing gum wrappers.

Not every ball turns out to be right for the collection, however. A baseball-size metallic sphere that Mulhollan found at a Florida flea market turned out to be a bomblet from a military cluster bomb. "We had it a year in the house and had shown it to many folks to see if anyone knew what it was," Stjerna says. The collectors eventually became suspicious and contacted local police, who called in a bomb squad. "They confiscated it, and we never did get it back. We took a photo of it, and that photo is part of the museum," Stjerna says.

On the other hand, a circular propane tank is safely defused and being put to good use in the museum's front yard. "It's painted like the world," says Stjerna, noting that visitors can write down wishes for the world and place their sentiments inside the "wishing ball."

"We like to think our balls serve a higher good," she says.