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Curious critters invade Hiwan Homestead Museum

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By Stephen Knapp

For the next few weeks, visitors to the Hiwan Homestead Museum would do well to look sharp. The place is crawling with Naugas.

What’s a Nauga? Imagine a throw pillow with 2-inch claws, big googly eyes and a broad, toothy grin, and you’ve got the flavor of it.

“I think Naugas look like something from Monsters Inc.,” says Hiwan program coordinator Meghan McGinnes, “but I’ve heard people say they remind them of ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’ ”

From now through March 30, Evergreen’s venerable hall of history will host about 30 of the strange creatures. Until then, they pretty much have the run of the place.

“They don’t necessarily fit the rest of the house,” admits McGinnes, playfully poking a leering red Nauga’s stain-proof tummy. “They’re just goofy. It seemed like a fun way to start the year.”

In fact, Naugas are fairly benign houseguests, quiet and, for the most part, well-behaved. More than anything, they’re curious relics of the early synthetics revolution. Naugas, you see, are made of Naugahyde.

“In the ‘60s when Naugahyde first became available, people didn’t really know what to make of it,” McGinnes explains. “A lot of people assumed it came from an animal called a Nauga.”

To its eternal credit, Uniroyal Engineered Products LLC decided to play along. As part of what may have been America’s least noticed and most appealing advertising campaign, Naugahyde began manufacturing Naugas in every color of the rainbow, and prominently featuring the fanciful beasts in ads for Naugahyde products. Sound crazy? McGinnes can show you a full-page Nauga in an old Life magazine.

“I think it’s funny that you couldn’t order specific colors for your Nauga,” she says. “You had to take whatever color combination they sent you.”

A clever way to unload factory remnants, no doubt.

Warming to the possibilities, the company went so far as to create a comprehensive history of the Nauga, which is available in its entirety at the Homestead Museum. Did you know that Naugas may have arrived in the New World before Columbus? A stone tablet unearthed in Newfoundland contains two Nauga names — Olaf the Red and Erik the Navy Blue. French Naugas delivered designer clothes to George Washington’s Continental Army, and Catherine Orange completed the first transatlantic flight by a Nauga in 1932. Thomas Maroon, a freewheeling Nauga capitalist, made a fortune in the dry-cleaning business.

Dubious history aside, one might wonder how the easy-wipe critters wound up crawling the halls of the Homestead Museum. For that, one must thank McGinnes and an Albuquerque historian named George Anderman.

“He came up last year to research our Hopi tiles,” McGinnes says. “One day over lunch he mentioned he had all these things in a bathtub at his house. We got to talking about it and just decided to go for it. Just for fun.”

And Naugas are fun, whatever one’s feelings about synthetic fabrics. McGinnes has taken good care to perch many of them in unlikely places about the ancient pile, where they can surprise the unwary and reward the keen eye.

“The kids love them. They like to hunt for them like Easter eggs.”

Naugas may be weird history, but they’re history all the same, and the Hiwan collection is not without intrinsic value.

“People made knock-off Naugas, but most of these are ‘60s originals,” McGinnes says. “They’re quite collectible.”

With luck, the collection will encourage visits by some of the nation’s leading Naugas. Like Cornelius VanderNauga, acclaimed author of the inspirational “Horatio Nauga Story.” Or maybe Nauga astronaut Milton “Buzz” Nauga.

“Aren’t they fun?” laughs McGinnes.

To learn more about the Hiwan Homestead Museum, call 303-674-6262.