I enjoy finding an unusual attraction that's well off the beaten track. Here's one in Eureka Springs that goes very nearly unpublicized. The name of the place is the Gallery Mint Museum, and their business is minting reproductions of antique coins, which they sell to collectors who want to fill in gaps in their collections without shelling out the four-point-one million samoleans for a genuine proof 68 1804 dollar. You can get your reproduction for only fifty bucks, minted in metal identical in composition and weight to the original and manufactured with machinery and techniques appropriate to the period. The law reqires that the word "copy" be stamped on it, but aside from that the replica is as perfect as the mint can make it.
If the coin somehow isn't perfect, the guy to blame is Colorado-trained engraver Ron Landis. That's him pictured sitting at his workbench. He's worked as an engraver for twenty years, but for about five years prior to settling in Eureka Springs he made his living touring on the Renaissance Fair circuit. Renaissance Fairs are generally touring companies of fluid membership assembled by impressarios. Organizationally similar to a circus or vaudeville enterprise, Renaissance Fairs are at once businesses and lifestyle refuges for the remains of the hippie culture. Ron used his training as and engraver to set up coinage demonstrations in which he would take rocks and turn them into metal and thence into coins.
All this he did not do alone. He had help from this guy, Joe Rust, a machinist who like Ron felt the urge to drop out of the rat race and join the Renaissance Fair circuit. I take Joe to be an accomplished and respected machinist because that piece of machinery to his left is the first steam powered coin press used by the U.S. mint. It was built in 1836, coincidentally the year that Arkansas entered the Union. The American Numismatic Association has entrusted him with retooling the press before it is lent as a temporary display to the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia on its way to its new permanent home at the ANA Money Museum in Colorado.
Ron and Joe actually began their association as a musical team, playing guitar and mandolin, before they became manufacturing partners. On the fair circuit Ron was doing his coinage demos and Joe was selling pottery when they were introduced by Ron's girlfriend. Quickly enough they realized that between the two of them they had all the skills necessary to set up a mint and make some money.
Eventually the road will grind you down, and Ron and Joe started looking for a spot to set up a permanent shop. Their original plan was to plant themselves in the Branson area, but one day they wandered into Eureka Springs and just about overnight they knew this was to be the place. Here's how that happened.
They walked into Chelsea's with their musical instruments under their arms and no money in their pockets. That speaks well of their character that these two had the means and skills to mint their own money, yet determined to do the wandering minstrel shtick for drinks and tips. An off-duty bartender named Chip saw them walk in. He approached and stuffed a five dollar bill into Joe's (or maybe it was Ron's) shirt pocket and said something to the effect, "Start playing. If we don't like the first song, we're going to throw you out of here."
They played "Lonesome Fiddle Blues" and the crowd's approval was downright effusive. Ron and Joe were invited to stay at a local's home for a few days while they got to know the town and earned pocket change playing folk tunes, again for drinks and tips. Within a few days, Ron began to notice that half of the people he met on the street he knew by name. Eureka Springs quickly became their home town.
So they got a little place and here it is. It's the Gallery Mint and Museum and you'd better call for directions. The number is 501-253-5055. You'll turn west off highway 23 onto a dirt road south of Eureka Springs somewhere just north of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. You'll drive a couple of miles looking for another dirt road and there you are. Seriously, call for directions. Parts of the museum tour as demonstrations, and Ron and/or Joe with them, so visits by the public are a sometime thing.
Here's a guy cheating. Ideally, to comply with the philosophy of the mint, these replicas of 2500-year-old Athenian drachmae would be hand-struck. However, the quality of hand-struck coins varies considerably, as it did 2500 years ago; and a modern customer buying a replica would probably be less likely to buy a replica of an uneven, off-center strike, regardless of the authenticity of such a reproduction. So for these ancient coins, the only ancient reproductions thus far offered by Gallery Mint, a screw-press is used.
So here's what you can get for eighty smackers plus tax. They are stamped from dies made from Ron's original engraving, definitely NOT dies made from casts of original coins, as SOME short-cutting-cheapo-outfits-whom-I-won't-mention will do.
The face on the coin is the Greek goddess Athena, patron goddess of Athens, classical symbol of wisdom and reason. On the back of each coin is an owl, the symbolic animal equivalent of Athena. You can see the word "copy" stamped across the feet of the owl. That should give you an idea as to how unobtrusive the stamp is.
They also do some clever stuff with nickels. Some of Ron's hand-carved nickels have sold at auction for over a thousand dollars per, and they've got some dies that stamp plain old fivepenny pocketchange so that Jefferson comes out looking like a viking. I asked Joe if there is any legal problem regarding the mutilation of legal tender. I guess I entertained secret fears that the Small Change Division of the Secret Service might raid the place while I was there. He told me that this is a common misconception on the part of the public. The law only provides for the punishment of persons who mutilate money with the intent to defraud. So drawing on a one dollar bill to make it look like a ten is a crime, but lighting your cigar with it is not.
If you're in Eureka Springs, give them a call at 501-253-5055. Their postal address is P.O. box 706, Eureka Springs, AR 72632. Here's a link to the Gallery Mint website, and here's an email link.