The lifts are running and the snow is the best of the season in southern Montana and if you are in the mood for a fun day of skiing, then Red Lodge is a dandy choice. I hear the snowmobiling is tip-top too, although I have to admit I don’t do either sport. Since I am a bit of a klutz just walking (I can trip on the pattern in a rug) I think I’ll forgo the ski runs and just stay home and help straw the corrals. Calving season starts in February on our ranch and that’s sport enough for this ranch wife!
I did get a chance to have a mini-winter-vacation the other afternoon in Red Lodge when I headed over to renew my truck license plates. Down the street from the county offices is the Carbon County Historical Museum, housed in a square brick building on the corner, at 224 N. Broadway. This Montana landmark is almost as famous as the museum items that now reside within it’s walls. Gazing up at the four-story tall red brick building, I saw the words Labor Temple set into the brickwork. I came to discover that this had been the home of the Red Lodge Miners Local No. 1771, who built the 20,000 square foot building in 1909. Using a quarter of a million bricks manufactured in the Fromberg Brick Yard and costing $36,000 at the time, it served over a 1,000 union miners in the Carbon County area.
Throughout it’s early years, the first floor had been a Mercantile, with the second floor the headquarters of the union offices and a public library. The third floor had lodging rooms and modern showers but the crown of the temple was what was dubbed “the finest dance hall in the county.” During the buildings long life, it has housed some unique occupants, including a rifle shooting range in the basement. In the 1950s a business put in a roller skating rink on the hardwood floors of the third floor. People from all over the county can remember skating upstairs well into the 1960s.
A Chevrolet car dealership was next on the main floor and the Red Lodge Cannery Company used the huge basement for storage. Sadly, in 1963 a car fire broke out, damaging the main building and also causing 13,000 cases of Cannery peas to be water damaged. It sat mostly vacant until 1990, when it was anonymously donated to the Carbon County Historical Society. With moneys from grants, private donations and the surrounding communities, the main floor and basement were restored and in 1999, opened its doors as the county’s museum.
Joan Guralnick, assistant Director of the museum, told me how this museum was filled with personal items relating to families all over the county. She showed me an exhibit of the notorious Liver-Eatin’ Johnston, who’s 1880s log cabin is still located in Red Lodge, not far from the museum. Johnston had earned his nickname in 1869 while cutting wood for the Missouri River Steamboats in north-central Montana. After a battle with the Lakota, he was said to have eaten the liver of a killed warrior. Johnston used this wild reputation throughout his life, including the years he served as the first constable in this rather rugged mining community.
A colorful display of rodeo memorabilia fills one area, with items of the Greenough family and history of the legendary Home of Champions Rodeo of Red Lodge. Here too are elaborately embroidered western shirts, tall fancy buckaroo boots and musical mementos of Norrine “the Outlaw Queen” Linderman, a famous local county music singer and owner of one of Montana’s most noted Swing Band Clubs. Joan led me past an outstanding gun display, Native American photos and a beautiful piano, lovingly restored, all of which having been donated by local residents. A large framed 1800s Hair Wreath sits beside the piano, a fine example of the popular fancywork made by Victorian women for friends or as a remembrance of a loved ones death.
We headed to the basement and at the head of the stairs I notice an interesting machine ... a 1916 Gain-a-day Washer-Wringer. It was one of the first electric household washers that housewives could buy, as it could do “Two days work in One. No need to send out part of the wash ... do the whole wash in the more hygienic environment of YOUR home laundry.” Reaching the lower level, I entered the Mine Exhibit ... an interesting combination of historical items and local mining history. Here I saw a diorama scale model of the Carbon County Smith Mine during its working heyday. Next I entered the dark opening of the “mine,” following the rail-tracks painted on the narrow floor. I walked through a recreated coal mine where side-tunnels displayed mining techniques, tools and life deep within a mine. Beside a recreated mining office, murals tell of the famous Smith Mine Disaster in 1943. Seventy-seven men descended into the Smith Mine only 90 minutes before a huge explosion ripped through the mine. The worse mine disaster in Montana history, it killed 30 men instantly, the rest later succumbing to the gas. The force of the blast knocked a 20-ton locomotive off its tracks but was so deep underground that it wasn’t felt on the surface. Today the remains of the mine can still be seen along Highway 308, south of Red Lodge, near Bearcreek, Mont.
One of my favorite exhibits was the mounted White-face Beef-a-lo hanging above the vintage Yellowstone Touring Carriage ... both local celebrities. The museum also houses extensive archives, open to anyone interested in doing family research. Their Mercantile Store sells history books, many by local authors, so do drop by anytime you are in Red Lodge. ❖