Housed in what looks like a beautiful red-brick castle at 317 Main Street in downtown Bozeman, Mont., I discovered a fascinating place, the Pioneer Museum, devoted to the history of Gallatin County and southwest Montana. When walking to the entrance, I noticed that all the windows were covered with thick iron bars. A volunteer at the desk told me the bars were original to the building, as it had been the official county jail from 1911 until 1979, when the Gallatin Historical Society moved in.
It didn’t take me long to see that many aspects of the jail were still around. Stepping through a thick iron door, I entered a two-story room where in one corner, the original “visitors cell” still stands. Here, people would be “enclosed” in a small iron cell, with iron bars between themselves and the inmates they were visiting. (Makes you wonder if they were as worried about the visitors as they were the inmates) I learned this tall room also housed the Gallows and looking overhead I saw the hangman’s noose suspended from the ceiling above. Many criminals were hung in Montana during its historic past but only one person was ever hung inside here, a Seth Orrin Danner, at 2:00 a.m. on July 18, 1924, for a double murder. Heavy boot weights, shackles, brass knuckles, jail-door keys and a history of law enforcement in the county are also on display, including the old fingerprinting desk. It sits in the exact place it sat while in use in this jail. On one wall is a small inside-window, through which the sheriff’s wife sent prisoners food into the dining cell and many of the small holding cells are still intact, some with rather interesting nicknames.
In the next exhibit-room, I came face to face with a large cannon on wheels and a recreated 1876 frontier cabin. Here too, the story of Fort Ellis is told and many items recovered from the fort site can be seen. Established in 1867, the Fort was named for Colonel Augustus Van Horn Ellis, who died at Gettysburg in 1863. Situated about 3 miles east of downtown Bozeman, it played a large part in Montana territory history. One display retold the life of Lieutenant Gustavus C. Doane, who served at the fort and commanded a military unit who escorted two expeditions into the Yellowstone region, helping to establish our nation’s first National Park. He was assigned to help the crews from the Northern Pacific Railroad survey along the Yellowstone and Musselshell Rivers. In 1876, he was with General Gibbon’s command who arrived at the Little Big Horn massacre only one day after the battle. It is said it was he who helped a wounded Major Reno reach a steamer. A beautiful beaded bandolier Doane recovered from the battle-site is on display, along with several other items. Not only was Lieutenant Doane involved in Indian affairs in Montana but was with Troop E, Seventh Cavalry, sent after Chief Joseph’s Nez Perces’s and to rescue any civilians near Yellowstone Park. He later went to Arizona territory (1885) to hunt Geronimo’s Apaches. Doane died in Bozeman in 1892, six years after Fort Ellis was closed by the U.S. Military.
Another fascinating exhibit I enjoyed was the Grand Magic Lantern, an oil-lamp projector through which rectangle-glass slides are slid and shown on a screen. I had to giggle at the quote on the historic sales-card which proclaims, “an evenings entertainment that is worth a college course, may save a Doctor’s bill and equal to a trip around the globe!”
Past the large display of 1800s rifles, stairs led me to the second floor, where the story of Bozeman (the town) is chronologically told, including it’s key role in exploration and development of Montana. Here a gallery of By Gone Business and Montana Ghost Towns photos line the walls, as well as many items of the renowned Photographer Haynes. One of my favorite display cases was filled with school memorabilia of Frank James Cooper, who graduated from Gallatin High School in 1922. Lobby cards, movie posters and a tall pair of his boots help celebrate this strong, tall, quiet speaking Montana man ... better known to we western film fans as the famous movie star Gary Cooper.
I wandered past Crutches, Cavities and Cures ... a bygone era, where multicolored bottles of wild medications and strange tools filled dark bags and doctors made house calls. Where a dentist chair looked like it had come from a horror movie-set. I admit I hurried to the next room, where five beautifully made wedding dresses stood elegantly on display. All were exquisitely beaded and represented five generations of the Accola-Spain Family (1886-1992). Here too a handmade bisque Bru Jne Be’be Doll smiled at me in her 1884 gown, donated to the museum by the original owner.
Throughout the museum I discovered pieces of Montana history .... brought to light by the people who lived it, preserved it and continue to develop a place where heritage is kept for future generations. A large archive library is available to everyone, tucked behind a nice bookstore, so drop in for a visit next time you are in Bozeman ... but behave yourself or you’ll end up in the “arctic cell.” ❖