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Matchstick museum proves to be a marvel

Pat Acton makes wildly detailed models out of matchsticks, like the model of Notre Dame above. Contributed photo.

Nestled right next to the Gladbrook Theater, just 45 minutes north of Grinnell, is a museum housing marvelous sculptures no match for any competing art. In fact, this museum contains millions of matches, which serve as the primary material of the works displayed.

Pat Acton, longtime resident of Gladbrook, Iowa, began building models out of matchsticks over 30 years ago. His sculptures range from just a few feet long to over eight feet tall.

“It’s pretty amazing to take a pile of 30,000 matchsticks and actually get it glued together so that it resembles something as close as it does,” Acton said in an interview with Iowa Public Television (IPTV).

His models, composed entirely of matchsticks, include replicas of the Millennium Falcon (910,000 matchsticks), the International Space Station (282,000 matchsticks), the Notre Dame Cathedral (298,000 matchsticks), Terrace Hill — the Iowa Governor’s Mansion — (193,000 matchsticks), the battleship USS Iowa (137,000 matchsticks) and, for all you Iowans out there, the Iowa Hawkeye’s logo (3,000 matchsticks).

When Acton first began making models out of matchsticks, he did not make curves or shapes. Upon his daughter’s persistence, however, he eventually made Pinocchio, realizing that he could use pliers to curve the sticks. Since then, he’s started many projects, many of them standing in the Matchstick Marvels Museum in Gladbrook.

Other models, some of which have been temporarily displayed in the Matchstick Marvels Museum, he has sold to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! museums across the world. Now, since retiring from his job as a professional career counselor, he builds matchstick models full time.

“I love working with my hands. I [used to be in a] job where I don’t use my hands or build or really see what I’ve done at the end of the day,” Acton told IPTV. “But my personality, I’m one that likes to see what I’ve done at the end of the day. And I get a great deal of satisfaction out of that and I don’t think I’ll ever lose that.”

His first creation was a small, high-steepled church. When he began, he bought regular matches from the supermarket, cutting the sulfur tip off of each one. His only tools were a razor blade, a piece of sandpaper, a bottle of Elmer’s glue and, of course, the matches.

“I just continued from there and got more and more intricate and detailed. And the scale of the model went from inches into feet, and from hundreds of matchsticks into thousands of matchsticks, and just continued to evolve,” Acton told IPTV. “Before I’d get one model done, I’d have four or five ideas for other things I wanted to see if I could make.”

Pat Acton makes wildly detailed models out of matchsticks, like the model of Notre Dame above. Contributed photo.

Although matchsticks are being sold in fewer and fewer stores, it has not stopped Acton. His model Steampunk “Plane Loco” is his biggest by far, using over a million matches — 1,029,000 to be exact.

“I tell people that I’m going to have to learn how to make things out of BIC lighters because [matches] pretty much are a thing of the past,” Acton said in the interview with IPTV.

Acton has received lots of praise and attention for his models, but he said that his family keeps him humble. Sometimes, when someone calls attention to the patience it takes to glue thousands and thousands of matches together, his wife “reminds people there’s all kinds of patience.”

“When you get in closely and you look and you start seeing the number of matchsticks, and people start imagining the hours it would take to glue those thousands of matchsticks together, they’re just fascinated by it,” Acton told IPTV. “It gives a person a very big head. I think I’m just pretty neat when I walk away from those shows, but I come home and my family lets me know right away that I’m just dad.”

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