Museum of the Mountain West in Montrose, Colo.: Tour an authentic, Old West town
October 16, 2013
Nineteenth-century outlaw Robert LeRoy Parker — better known as Butch Cassidy — didn't plan to leave his saddle and chaps behind, but when one is running from the law there is no choice.
Recognized by another man when he was visiting with a rancher near Colbran, Colo., the infamous robber, who had previously stolen a substantial amount of money from a bank in Telluride, had literally switched horses and hit the road with nothing but the clothes on his back.
"Because of that, we've ended up with these items today," says Richard Fike, curator of the Museum of the Mountain West in Montrose, Colo.
On display for the upcoming "Tribute to Western Movies Day" event on June 8, the well-preserved set will be featured, as well as a special guest speaker, Bill Betenson, Butch's great-grandnephew.
He'll be sharing some of the stories that he grew up with as they've been passed down from Lula Parker Betenson, his great-grandmother, who was Butch's younger sister.
History literally comes alive every day at this amazing museum, which consists of a 21-building "town," called Adobe Flats, and over 500,000 items.
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According to director Richard Fike, who has been collecting, archiving, repairing, and restoring this massive collection of artifacts and antique buildings since the age of four, "almost everything is from the period between 1840 and 1940.
"We have several completely furnished doctor's and dentist's offices from the 1880s; a schoolhouse and a saloon from the 1890s; a 1900s Apothecary (which still smells strongly of powders, tinctures, and other drugs); and an assortment of grocery, clothing, dry goods, feed, and other stores.
"What's unique about a visit here is that not only are visitors taken inside the actual buildings, but their guides will share fascinating historical facts about the eras."
Did you know, for example, that cigar cases, bars, and game tables (as well as sitting areas with books for the ladies) were once common staples in hotel lobbies?
That rather than galloping breakneck across regular roads, Pony Express riders used to cut across hillsides in order to save time?
How about this: rattles from snakes used to be placed inside of pendulum clocks because the oils permeated the air and kept the mechanisms running smoothly.
And the female teachers — who lived in tiny, Spartan houses next door to the school houses — had specific lists of rules to follow which included:
— "You are not to keep company with men."
— "You are not to loiter downtown in the ice cream store."
— "You may not dress in bright colors."
And perhaps the most prohibitive, "You may not travel beyond the city limits unless you have the permission of the chairman of the board."
For Richard, creating a place where history can be experienced first-hand has been a true labor of love which has consumed him (as well as his wife, education director Carol Harris-Fike) for the past dozen years.
"My folks lived in Ogden, Utah, but I moved them out here after buying a house", he explained. "I started by building a barn on the six acres, gradually expanding it from there".
It now houses everything from Wurlitzers to game tables to one of the few Beaver hats ever made for a lady … and that's just for starters.
"I started by installing the windows and then building around them, putting each display together as it would have originally appeared."
Opening the door to one of them, he motioned for me to step inside and continued, "this bar came from the Nevada/Utah border and is dated around 1858. It was not only a stage stop back then, but the Pony Express riders were associated with it, also." (Stage stops were convenient since there were plenty of corrals.)
Gesturing towards a mounted buffalo head, which had been hung above the wood stove and card table (complete with an authentic poker set, shot glasses, and whiskey bottle), he asked, "did you know that at one time, those animals were so thick on the plains that a train might have to wait eight hours on the track for a herd to cross?"
But for music-lovers, the best was yet to come.
After carefully opening both doors to gorgeous wooden cabinet, Mr. Fike started up one of his most prized possessions: a 1928 Mills Violano Virtuoso.
Running off a paper roll (reminiscent of a player piano), the full-sized violin inside — which was backed by a ½ scale keyboard — began belting out an amazingly in-tune, tinny-sounding waltz.
"It used to entertain travellers on an English cruise ship for a penny a song," he explained, raising his voice so I could hear. "It's put together with 44 miles of wire, and the paper is coated with wax so as not to catch fire from the sparks, which activate the system."
Who does the mechanical work on such a delicate instrument?
"I have a specially-trained guy who lives in Ohio … but I've worked on it, too."
In fact, over time this former archaeologist has become a skilled mechanic, electrician, carpenter, bricklayer, furniture restorer, and wheelwright, all in the name of preserving the past for those in the present to enjoy.
As part of his upcoming "Tribute" day, Rich will be continuously showing the classic, 1968 movie "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", and volunteers will be strolling up and down the streets of his fictitious town dressed in period clothing.
There will be blacksmithing and other demonstrations going on throughout the day, schoolteachers, who will be teaching turn-of-the-century games, an assortment of craft booths, as well as numerous musicians playing old-time songs (and perhaps even a gunfight or two).
"It will be exciting and entertaining — great fun for the entire family, with the gates opening at 9:00 and closing around 4:00." It's the fourth time that the museum has put on a large-scale, Western-themed event; In 2012 the featured movie was "The Sons of Katie Elder," with John Wayne; in 2011, it was "The Virginian," complete with the cast of the original TV show; and in 2010 the public was treated to "True Grit," along with John Wayne impersonator Ermal Williamson.
For Rich and Carol Harris-Fike, the Museum of the Mountain West is an on-going work in progress, and their goal for the future is to turn it over to an organization that will keep it going.
"We have already been likened to the Smithsonian (he once worked for that institution) as having the possibly second-largest collection of Western artifacts in the United States," he says proudly.
The museum has appeared in True West Magazine and on National Public Radio and has been featured in "Wonders on the Western Slope," a KJCT television series.
"For years now, people have been driving by us on the way towards the Black Canyon, watching the buildings expand, and wondering what's going on here, and now they're finding out," he concludes. "In the past season alone we had visitors from 22 countries."
The sky is the limit for this hands-on history museum … and since Rich Fike continues to collect memorabilia out of creek beds and old dump sites, from donations and private sales, and from just plain poking about in the dirt, his collection might end up heading out in that direction soon, too.
"I have another 40 boxes stashed at home with stuff I haven't seen in 60 years," he shrugs with a smile. "I guess I'd better open them." ❖