One hundred years ago a candy shop and ice cream store opened on the Long Beach Peninsula. The original owner, Wellington Marsh Sr., couldn’t have imagined it would eventually become one of the Northwest’s most bizarre roadside attractions.
Over the years, the shop morphed into Marsh’s Free Museum, a family-owned business that plays by its own rules.
The store has an off-the-wall collection of curiosities like shrunken heads, an eight-legged lamb and vintage peep shows. The museum-antique arcade-gift shop hybrid even won the title of “Weirdest Roadside Attraction in Washington,” in 2020 by travel website Thrillist.
At the center of it all is perhaps the most well-known name in Long Beach, Jake the Alligator Man. The grotesque creature takes the form of a mummified mashup of a man’s head with an alligator body. He’s been on display in a glass case at Marsh’s since the 1960s, but reached international fame when his picture ran in a tabloid in 1993.
“My mom would always refer to Jake the Alligator as my famous uncle,” laughed the museum’s co-owner Shannon Ahern.
Ahern and her cousin, Amanda Marsh, took over the business as fourth-generation owners a couple of years ago, but the milestone of the family business reaching 100 years is bittersweet.
Their grandmother, and the store’s former owner, Marian Marsh, died in March 2020. The pair have planned a celebration this weekend to honor her and the rest of the family members who made the business successful.
“We lost her right before covid started so we couldn’t do a funeral or memorial,” Ahern said. “No one could group together, so this is kind of for her and all of our past family members.”
Marian married into the Marsh family and began running the business with her husband, Wellington Marsh Jr., in 1965. It was her eyes that honed in on the grotesque and mysterious Jake the Alligator Man artifact while out searching antique stores for unique attractions that would bring customers into Marsh’s Free Museum. The couple purchased what would become the star of their oddities attraction for $750.
Ahern said she’s spotted bumperstickers with the picture of her “famous uncle” everywhere.
“I went to travel with my parents in Europe and we would even see them there,” Ahern said.
But behind the freak show branding lingers tender love and sentimental memories for the woman who was the cornerstone of the family business.
“She basically worked here until her 80s, even in her later 80s she would just come down and count coins,” Ahern said.
Since taking over, the duo have made some minor changes to the business, like adding more merchandise geared for children and removing some pieces to help customers move through the overflowing shop. As the business gets older, they face some challenges in aging gracefully.
“It’s really hard to find people to work on 100-year old machines,” she said. “We have tons of down machines because of it. We want it done correctly, not just with tape and super glue.”
Taking on a new business just before the onset of the pandemic was a challenge, but Ahern said sales are up, and the cousins are excited about the potential for the future.
“We are both very sentimental people, we grew up in here,” Ahren said. “Keeping the tradition is a big thing. We like hearing people laugh and kids scream when their parents introduce them to Jake.”
The celebration will be held Friday through Sunday and will include family-friendly events and live entertainment. To see a full list of events, visit marshsfreemuseum.com/.