When Harold Sims moved to western North Carolina in the 1990s, he saw it as “dog country.”
“They didn’t have much use for cats at all,” he says. “They didn’t care about them.”
Now, due to the efforts of this New York native and retired professor, mountainous Jackson County, where dogs are often favored for their practicality in hunting, has both a non-kill, cage-free cat shelter and a community museum devoted entirely to the house cat. This new appreciation of cats may represent a cultural shift in understanding the rural region’s cat population.
The American Museum of the House Cat, home to Sims’s vast collection of cat-related art and memorabilia, has given county residents and those far away a new reason to visit the small Appalachian town of Cullowhee, North Carolina, home to Western Carolina University. He created the museum to both educate about and serve cats.
Sims knew very little about cats until he retired to Jackson County and a number of them showed up on his porch. He welcomed them into his life, and they became his best friends and passion. He opened a shelter in 1996 called CatMan2 (a play on Katmandu), the first non-kill, cage-free shelter in the county. To decorate the walls, Sims collected cat-related artwork and knickknacks, much of it handmade and passed down through families. He eventually collected more than could fit in the rooms and began filling his home with boxes of items that he purchased at antique malls, on his travels, and later on eBay.
“After about twenty years of collecting everything that I could find, putting it in boxes under the bed and outside the house, I had this collection of all kinds of things,” Sims says. He decided to share his collection with the public, establishing his museum inside a Cullowhee antique mall in 2017.
The urge Sims felt to collect, and to share those collections with others, is a deeply human thing. Collecting is a way to honor and preserve the history and memory of some phenomena—in Sims’s case, the human-cat relationship. In an increasingly digital world, owning and sharing a physical collection is both rarer and more valuable. And, while art museums tend to showcase the most expensive and illustrious items, roadside thematic museums like Sims’s speak to shared experience. Those who collect do so for the sake of seeing the whole picture, becoming closer to the subject, rather than pursuing fame or money. It is a pure pursuit.
Sims speaks at a fast pace. He has a lot to say about his cats, his collection, about what he’s been able to accomplish for his community, about the fictional stories he writes, imagining the lives of the cats depicted in his collection.
“He’s very driven,” Kelly Timco, the museum’s docent, observes. “His brain is always spinning and working. He’s nonstop.”
“The point of sharing all of his stuff is to show visitors the bond that’s existed for centuries between people and cats,” Sims said in a Roadside America profile.
Felines have gotten a reputation for being aloof, independent, and uncaring. But a relationship has existed between humans and cats for thousands of years, from the Egyptians who first welcomed them into their homes and worshiped them, to the cats that would travel on Viking ships to rid them of mice, to the internationally renowned Scottish Fold cat Maru of Japan, the most watched animal on YouTube. Despite the oft-repeated phrase “man’s best friend,” cats are the more popular household pet in the United States, outstripping dogs by more than 19 million.
Cats hold a significant place in history, art, folk and popular culture, literature, advertising, and more. They have woven their way into folklore around the world. Art created in honor of these folktales has found its way to the American Museum of the House Cat, where visitors can see evidence of these beliefs.
Sims brings the human-cat bond front and center through his massive collection that spans thousands of years, stacked floor-to-ceiling in a colorful, kaleidoscopic immensity. In a way, the museum is just like Sims: singularly focused on cats, overflowing with information, and both scientific and creative.
“The museum has his own unique imprint on it,” Timco notes. “Even when he’s not there, people get a feel for his personality.”
Sims is happy to give visitors a personal tour of his collection, which includes a 2,600-year-old cat mummy, a medieval petrified cat found inside of a sixteenth-century English chimney, Andy Warhol watercolors of cats, an Indonesian painting of a cat done on teak leaves, wind-up cat toys, a cat carousel, cat glassware, and thousands of other items, comprising the largest collection of the sort in the country.
Vintage advertisements and commercial objects demonstrate the long cultural history of cats and the ancient bond between them and humans. Exhibits tell the story of the domesticated cat’s journey to America, present a collection of 1890s cat automation toys, and display immense sums of memorabilia related to the most famous cats in the media.
“A lot of people are amazed at how much has been done and created about cats, the art and toys and advertising,” Sims reflects. “The cats have so much to give people.”
Surprisingly, amid the abundant feline wonders of the collection, Timco says that a visitor favorite is a poster that depicts the different cat breeds. They look for their own cats, trying to trace their beloved pets’ ancestry. In the same manner that anyone might look for familiar places and imagery among the art in a museum, seeking the comfort of personally resonant themes, visitors seek out their own cats, or ones that resemble them, inside of antiques, photographs, toys, and paintings.
“Actually, a lot of what I do as a docent is just talk to people about their own cats,” Timco laughs. “Looking at pictures of their cats on their phones.” She often finds herself talking about her own cat, a nineteen-year-old six-toed cat named Polly. “I hear amazing stories of cats surviving a variety of challenges or adapting and transforming into special friends who mark a human’s heart. People value the relationship they have with their cats. They tell me how a cat has chosen them.”
Most people who find their way to the American Museum of the House Cat discover it online. However, because the museum is located just off the major highway U.S. 441, the museum also draws the attention of intrigued drivers—visitors report having made U-turns when they catch sight of the massive roadside metal cat statue—who enter and find themselves amazed by the breadth of the collection.
Sims finds that people leave his museum with more than an appreciation of the exhibits. “People come in, see the museum, see the shelter, and then they’re inspired to do something in their own communities.”
Until the museum opened, the CatMan2 shelter was funded entirely by Sims. However, as he ages—“I’m eighty-four years old now. Who knows, I could end up dead tomorrow”—he worries about not being around to maintain and fund the shelter. The museum receives grants and produces income that goes toward the real-life cats in Sims’s care and community services like spaying and neutering. CatMan2 has taken in so many cats, and offered so many services, that the local county shelter (formerly a high-kill shelter) has not had to euthanize a healthy, adoptable cat in over two years. Any cat that is not adopted can stay at the shelter for the rest of its life.
Kaleb Lynch directs all aspects of the shelter operation. He believes that Jackson County has seen a cultural shift in the attitude toward cats since Sims arrived. Timco, who lives close to both the shelter and the museum, agrees.
“People used to dump cats out in my road all the time.” However, in the years since the museum opened, she says, “It’s no longer that bad. They’ve done so much work that cats just aren’t being dumped anymore.”
Timco also credits the internet for some attitudinal shifts toward felines, citing internet cat phenomena and popular animal celebrities.
Scott Stulen, the director of the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the founder of the Internet Cat Video Festival, has observed the relationship between humans and their cats through his organizing of cat-lovers. He believes that the internet has helped break down some of the social barriers that have inhibited cat popularity and appreciation.
“Dog owners go out and take their dogs for walks, take them to parks, and are out meeting other dog owners,” he says. “But cat owners, for the most part, aren’t taking their cats out for walks, so it’s more solitary. There’s less connection.”
The internet, Stulen argues, has become the dog park of cat lovers: it is the place where cat owners can share their passions and socialize, and it has altered the narrative of cat people as lonely and isolated.
“The internet has brought people together,” he says. “There’s a shared culture that’s much more present.”
The internet is also where the museum and shelter reach new people and thrive. Their Facebook following is roughly equal to the population of Cullowhee, and they use it to showcase new exhibits and pieces and to spotlight adoptable cats.
At the shelter, a broader cultural shift has had a positive impact, but Lynch still has worries.
“I think it definitely has changed since he opened the cat shelter, but we still face the problem of being forgotten because we’re about cats, and not also dogs,” Lynch says.
However, with a new generation more inclined to see pets as companions (or as “children,” as Lynch puts it) and institutions like CatMan2 and the museum, the county might be a surprisingly great place to be a cat. The museum’s recent move to a larger facility is a sign that they have more to share.
To illustrate this shift, Lynch tells a story about a recent ordeal. He received a panicked call at the shelter from someone at Western Carolina University about a small cat that kept climbing into car engines in a campus parking lot. The county shelter was busy, as was Lynch, but the employees of the college were deeply concerned because it was nearing lunch time, and people would soon be driving. When Lynch arrived, he found a mob of people surrounding the cars, all frantically working together to figure out what to do. He and another man in the crowd got the cat—now named Cordel, after the Cordelia Camp Building where he was rescued—safely into a crate. The crowd cheered.
“That was one of those amazing things you see, where everybody was so worried about that one kitten that they were taking time out of their workday—so many people,” Lynch muses.
For Sims and Lynch, their work is about combatting apathy toward animals in their area. As Sims remarks, he could have been working in a place where his passion was shared by the community, but instead, he serves those that are overlooked, through his shelter and museum. “I thought this was a place that I needed to be because the cats here needed my help.”
As for the museum, Sims has never lost the urge to collect, to demonstrate that the human-cat relationship has always existed, in more ways than one can imagine. Perhaps museums like this one are a sign that collecting is not a solitary or purposeless process; it has the ability to influence the culture of a community.
Right now, the museum is in the process of moving to a much larger facility just a quarter-mile away. The new building will include more of Sims’s collection that cannot be accommodated by the current space, as well as a kitten room where visitors can interact with cats from the shelter.
Riley Board is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she studies linguistics and German. She is the owner of three cats and a several-time attendee of the American Museum of the House Cat.