Whenever I fly in or out of the Billings Logan airport, I’ve noticed the rustic log building sitting atop the Rimrocks along the airport road. Here, boasting a panoramic view of the whole Yellowstone River Valley below, sits the historic Yellowstone County Museum.
Last week I decided I would visit the Museum ... and on the way, learned I’m still not completely used to those “round-a-bout” intersections. One-way, round ’n round, with roads coming in and going out the circle ... I missed the correct exit road the first loop round but with a renewed determination to conquer left/right-turns, discovered that you have to drive the long circle-road to the airport terminal and pass the parking lots to access the museums entrance and parking area. When I walked through the museum’s front door, I mentioned my loop adventure to the young lady who greeted me and she smiled, saying that it was a very common event for first-time visitors.
“Sometimes people go round-a-bout twice before they discover how to get up here” ... at which time I started looking around the room because I didn’t want to admit it had taken me three times round.
The Yellowstone County Museum was founded in 1953, with the intent of preserving and protecting the wide assortment of artifacts specific to the Yellowstone River Valley and its inhabitants. The main log cabin was originally built by early valley pioneer Paul McCormick, Sr., and was moved to its current location in 1954. A new cabin extension was built on which now houses the Landmarks Gallery, featuring special artists throughout the year. During my visit, the Gallery had one of Montana’s greatest female artist on display, J. Brock Lee. Here were her paintings of natural color and design ... horses dancing in a western prairie, sparkling mountain meadows and majestic native Crow people. This presentation will stay till May, when the Gallery will host the next featured exhibit of the year.
I headed downstairs and into the rooms housing the extensive collections of authentic western artifacts, including a complete chuck wagon, outfitted like the one described in J.K. Ralston’s painting of the Wagon Pilot. Underneath this wagon I saw a large chain-link mat constructed of metal circles and read that it was an antique cattle-round-up Fire Drag. Kept stored in the bottom of a wagon until needed, the Drag originally had a woven asbestos mat that covered the metal rings. When a prairie fire broke out, two cowboys would use their lariats and pull the Drag along the sides of the fire-line to help keep the fire from spreading. Because it was heavy work for the saddle horses, the cowboys had to work in relays pulling the Drag back ’n forth.
Along the nearby walls, the story of the cattle and ranching heritage in the Yellowstone River Valley and Eastern Montana is told. A row of vintage handmade saddles, crafted by the Connolly Brothers, highlight the history of the famous Miles City Saddlery. An exhibit of angora “wooly” chaps caught my eye, especially a small, long-haired vintage pair, which had belonged to a young girl, dyed a beautiful vivid orange. Here too, (what I’m sure the school kids find fascinating during museum tours) is a two-headed, six-legged taxidermy calf, gazing out of a glass display case.
The next room had impressive displays of the Native peoples of the region, including the legend of Sacrifice Cliff, where in 1837, 16 young warriors blindfolded their horses and galloped off the cliff above the river. They sacrificed themselves to the Great Spirit, hoping the smallpox epidemic would stop. A diorama depicts the historic event, along with the story as told by Chief Plenty Coups.
Here also you can see rows of moccasins decorated with beautiful bead-work and quill-work. Beaded clothing, knife sheaths, flute bags and some stunning gauntlets from 1890 are on display, many from the Fred and Leah Allison Family collection.
When I entered the next room, I grinned at an exhibit of a vintage automobile repair shop, complete with a Model T and a mechanic’s legs protruding from under the chassis. This classic black 1912 Model T is a restored duplicate of the “Ophelia Bumps,” once used by the young female school teacher, Effie Hoover, who taught the Mission school students on the Crow Reservation. (I’m sure there is a dandy story connected with the cars unusual name!)
I wandered through the rest of the exhibits, enjoying the artwork, the local historical information and the artifacts. I even peeked inside a real sheep-camp wagon. When I chatted with the staff back upstairs, I was informed that the Museum has only a small amount of their actual artifacts on view but that its Archives are now fully digitized and available to the public for research, using their new computer station. With such an extensive collection, the Museum can not only share their permanent displays but create wonderful revolving exhibits, inviting visitors to return again and again.
Open Tuesday thru Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., February through December, the Yellowstone County Museum’s FREE admission will bring me back for sure.
Before leaving, I walked outside and viewed the American Locomotive Company No. 1031 steam engine and coal car, the last switch engine used in Billings by the Northern Pacific Railroad. Only a few yards further away, stands a stunning bronze statue of the 1920s silent movie star, William S. Hart, entitled “Range Rider of the Yellowstone,” donated to the people of Billings in 1927. It is also through this valley that Lewis and Clark traveled and along these same Rimrocks, Yellowstone Kelly scouted for General Miles when Montana was still just a territory.
While I gazed out across the valley I came to realize that this historic spot, high above the busy-ness of the city, was a very fitting place for this historic log-cabin and the museum it houses ... both are a true crowning feature of Billings, Mont. ❖