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In the saddle at the Bison Museum

At the Bison Museum in Scottsdale, Ariz., kids will get a kick out of the Bison Ride exhibit and the Singing Bison Family.

By Felice Prager / January 15, 2008

The popular Singing Buffalo Family croons 'Home on the Range.'

Courtesy of the Bison Museum

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Can you imagine having a collection of something that you like so much that you buy a whole museum's worth of memorabilia? That's what Gary Martinson did! He loves bison collectibles, so in 1999, he bought the Buffalo Museum of America from an Arizona family and added the museum's collection to the one he already had.

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Mr. Martinson was always passionate about bison. In fact, he attended North Dakota State University, whose sports teams are called the Bison, or the Thundering Herd.

From there, he began collecting all things bison-related. And he soon realized that images of bison are engraved, painted, imprinted on, or sculpted into things from all over the world.

Mr. Martinson was so enthralled by the American bison and the Wild West that he named his real estate company in Arizona "Bison Homes." And he displayed his collection at Bison Ranch, one of the company's planned communities.

But after a while, the collection grew too large for that location, so he decided to move it to Scottsdale, Ariz., a bigger city. He opened the Bison Museum in October 2007. And he combined all his artifacts and exhibits with the artworks of the Flagg family, who lived in Arizona beginning in the 1950s and were famous for their western-themed paintings and sculpture.

Just what are bison?

You may have heard both "bison" and "buffalo" used to describe the shaggy, brown beasts that once roamed the plains of North America. But true buffalo are native only to Africa and Asia. The animals we know in the United States are properly called bison. Both types of creatures are in the cattle family, but they are physically different. Buffalo, for example, do not have a large hump on their backs as bison do.

Bison can stand up to 6-1/2 feet tall and are about 10 feet long. Male bison (bulls) may weigh up to 2,000 pounds (1 ton!), and females (cows) may weigh as much as 1,100 pounds.

They can run as fast as a horse, up to 35 or 40 miles per hour. So be careful if you happen to meet one on the prairie out West. Bison don't like to be bothered, and they're speedier than you are.

Every bison has a huge hump on its back that is really a large shoulder muscle responsible for holding up the bison's gigantic head. Both cows and bulls have short, curved horns that they use in fighting for status within a herd and for self-defense. They have coarse, dark brown fur on their heads and lighter brown fur on their bodies.

Their skin is very thick, which helps bison keep warm in extremely cold climates. And they are herbivores – meaning that they eat only grass and other plants. In very rare cases, a mama bison may give birth to an entirely white calf. White bison are considered sacred by many native Americans. Mr. Martinson has a white bison head on display at his museum.

Museum tour

When visitors arrive at the Bison Museum, two enormous bronze statues of bison greet them outside the entrance. Inside, there are thousands of things to see: Paintings, sculptures, carvings, dishes, coins, stamps, silverware, badges, toys, and hundreds of other items marked with the bison image fill the display cases and walls. There are also native American artifacts, the art of the Flagg family, and memorabilia from America's Old West of the 1800s.