Many museums have unique and historic items on exhibit but let’s take a look at some rather quirky things at three of Central Montana’s small town museums.
In Stanford, Montana you’ll find the Judith Basin County Museum next to the local courthouse. A well-manicured lawn and beautiful flowers surround the entrance during the summer. As you enter the main floor level of the museum you can’t help but see their massive collection of salt & pepper shakers. They have over 2,000 sets, all nicely displayed.
You’ll learn history of the cowboy during a transition from open range cattle ranching to sheep herding and homesteading. And, of course, there’s information about well-known Charlie Russell, America’s cowboy artist, who lived in the area when he came to Montana.
The museum is open Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Another place to visit after touring the Judith Basin County Museum is the Basin Trading Post, a mini mall with a central display of a huge white wolf – a wolf who terrorized ranchers’ cattle for many years. When his career in eating cattle ended, the wolf was taken to a taxidermist, and now is proudly displayed in a glass case. You can also view historic photos in the area where the wolf is displayed. A local coffee shop/deli is in the building and serves breakfast and lunch. Across from the coffee shop is a local gift store.
The landscape in Judith Basin County is usually described by it’s prominent feature – the local butte named Square Butte. It looks like a mountain with its top cut off and is visible for miles.
The town of Fort Benton is easy to miss because you can’t see much of it from the highway. There are several entrances from Hwy 87 so put it on your itinerary and you won’t be disappointed. When you take one of the exits into town, you’ll go through residential areas and end up at the Missouri River levee and the river breaks.
Fort Benton is a town that has embraced it’s history. At one time it was the most inland port in the era of steamboats as they traveled up the Missouri River with supplies. Rapids and a series of waterfalls were upstream, not good for steamboat travel. Supplies and passengers came off the boat near Old Fort Benton.
From 1831 – 1846 several forts were constructed along the river but a request was received to relocate the fort. A new site was selected on the north side of the river and construction began. Building supplies were adobe bricks made from Missouri River clay, resourceful construction materials but not widely used in this uncharted territory. My thoughts of forts are much different from this large, partially two story, enclave that today is part of the town of Fort Benton.
Let’s get to the quirky part – as you enter the trade store at the fort, one of the first displays you see is a small keg and a sign detailing the recipe for trade whiskey. Each time I see that recipe I shudder at the thought of drinking something with those ingredients! I’ve seen liquids poured from that keg but I plan to keep my distance from it.
The fort is incredibly impressive though, certainly more than questionable whiskey recipes, so allow time to take a guided tour. You’ll see fur pelts (it was a fur trading fort), a blacksmith shop, exhibits about area Native American tribes, items found during archeological digs on this site, impressive artwork and much more. Guides are also frequently dressed in period clothing.
River recreation and tourism have contributed greatly to the community’s economy. There are two river launches in this town, a walking trail following the river, a lighted pedestrian bridge complete with seating to catch a sunset or just watch the river amble by, and the grassy levee is dotted with interpretive panels detailing the area’s history.
Fort Benton is also the location of BLM’s Upper Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center, the Museum of the Northern Great Plains which chronicles agriculture, and a the Museum of the Upper Missouri. You can also rent non-motorized watercraft locally or take guided river tours.
Fort Benton’s visitor center is located on the levee with knowledgeable volunteers eager to share information about their town. Museums and the visitor center are operated seasonally, from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Let’s travel next to Big Sandy and their museum.
Big Sandy Historical Museum is easy to find as you drive on Hwy 87 into the town of Big Sandy, home to about 600 people. The converted rail depot that became the museum is on the north end of Big Sandy’s Main Street, next to the rail tracks.
Now, for quirky, there is a coat displayed in the museum that was made from a horse!
Cye Schwink lived on a farm near town. He ended up selling the farm, moved to Big Sandy and resided with the Belschner family.
When Cye’s beloved horse died he had a coat made from him. It seems a bit odd but the coat looks very warm, quite wind-resistant, and it is really heavy! That’s quite a bond between rider and horse.
The Big Sandy Historical Society museum is open Tuesday – Saturday from 10am – 4pm from June 1 through September 1.
After visiting the museum take a minute to drive down Big Sandy’s Main Street, grab a bite at the Bear Paw Deli or the Mint, check out the historic back bar at Pep’s, and then drive past the historic jail which is located in a residential area.
This charming town also has a backdrop of the Bear Paw Mountains, an island range that almost seems out of place on this rolling plain. Views of the beautiful Bear Paws are endless. Take time to enjoy the beauty.