Crazy Mountain Museum
November 21, 2011
There is a quiet treasure in Montana I’ve just discovered while traveling the state. It is the Crazy Mountain Museum in Big Timber. I have passed by it many times, going west or east on I-90 but never took the time to stop but recently I decided to visit.
Arriving a bit before the doors opened, I walked around the beautifully kept grounds of this community supported non-profit. The main building is river stone and wood, surrounded by native trees and wandering walkways. Here I discovered a garden filled with native plants, all labeled with descriptions. Chokecherry and current bushes dot the edges of the stone path, as well as Camas Lilies and Elkhorn flowers. There are interpretive panels with original artwork illustrations from the Corps of Discovery journals dotted all along the way. Most of the plants growing here were mentioned in the diaries of Lewis and Clark during their exploration.
Captain William Clark and Captain Meriwether Lewis decided to travel separate trails on their return homeward bound route from the Pacific Ocean in July 1806. They wanted to explore as much of the region as they could. Captain Clark, along with Sacagawea, her son Jean Baptiste (Pomp) and 10 men of the Coups of Discovery traveled east on horseback down well worn Indian and buffalo trails along the Yellowstone River’s north side.
The party spent three days in what is now present-day Sweet Grass County, where they hunted and mapped the area. Using mostly a surveyor’s compass, field observations, and estimates, Clark drew nearly 5,000 miles of new mapping during their long travels. Amazingly, his measurements were off by a mere five percent. Clark’s group had a campsite at a location northwest of the museum, where cottonwood trees grow along the Little Timber Creek at the base of the mountains. Here the grass was lush and abundant water made it perfect for the horses and men alike.
As I wandered down the path west of the museum I discovered an odd shaped building. Being two stories and made of peeled log, the bottom part is much smaller then the top half resting above it. Reading the sign beside the carved and decorated door, I learned that the building was a Norwegian Stabbur. This is a traditional type of home built in Norway and the local Sons of Norway Lodge built this copy and maintain it for visitors. Inside it is filled with Norwegian artifacts and memorabilia.
Continuing along the pathway, I came to a classic, little white schoolhouse, including the bell high in the steeple. This original schoolhouse stood 16 miles north of Big Timber on Sourdough Creek and was built in 1912. It was donated and moved to the museum in 1999 by the Nevin family. Inside the museum, they have an extensive history of all the schoolhouses in the area and a wall filled with photos of most of those schools.
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I was welcomed into the admission free museum by a lovely gray-haired lady. She is one of the many local volunteers who work at the museum Memorial Day through September. Just inside the main door is a complete town under glass … a detailed model of Big Timber as it appeared in 1907. This meticulously crafted miniature is historically accurate and depicts a dozen square blocks of the town. Over a hundred people and many different kinds of animals dot the tiny landscape, which include 184 buildings, 1,018 windows, 152 power and telephone poles, sidewalks, clothes lines, and even merchandise in the windows of the shops. Thousands of volunteer hours went into researching and creating “Cobblestone City.” The detail is great. I loved the dog in the trashcan and the towel hanging outside the bathhouse, not far from the red light on the porch of the female boarding house.
I spent over an hour wandering through the many different exhibit rooms filled with ranching history, Native American artifacts, rodeo and brand stories, Sweet Grass County archaeology and the history of the sheep and wool business so wide throughout the region. “Each year we have new exhibits.” the docent told me. “People come in and love the museum so much, they volunteer their collections for display.”
Several fascinating exhibits were in the back room. One was a shaving mug collection, owned by Kim Moore. Her mother-in-law told her, “If you are going to collect something, make it something you cannot find easily. That way you will have the thrill of the hunt and the thrill of the find.” I was thrilled to see a shelf lined with beautiful shaving mugs, most looking quite feminine for the male task they were intended. Some had flowers and petite scroll-work handles, several with initials and names inscribed in gold, all were used by men for soaping up unwanted whiskers.
My favorite exhibit by far was the “Indian Maiden Calendars” collection. Displayed on panels across the back wall were hundreds of 1900s art calendars, typical of those given out by salesman and companies as advertising. Each had wispy, romantic paintings of thinly clad maidens in feathered headdresses, outside along forest streams and rock outcroppings. They were very “provocative” for the time period indeed and most painted by the well renowned artist L. Goddard (the pseudonym used by two artists, Mrs. L.G. Woolfenden and Rudolph Ingerle).
I was delighted to learn that Montana artist Adelaide Hiebel painted several of the Indian maidens. She had lived in Joliet, not far from my hometown. Perhaps not PC today, the “Maidens” are not only beautiful, but also an example of the artwork everyday people had hanging in their homes in 1932. That one gentleman took years collecting these calendars was thrilling for me and well worth my stop at Big Timber’s, Crazy Mountain Museum.