Quackgrass Sally: On the Trail 5-6-13
May 6, 2013
Every town has its own history … that unique story of its beginnings, its growth and what's kept it alive over the years. Big cities have their stories but I've found that small towns feel it in a more personal and family related style. One good example of a rural town's pride in its heritage-story can be found at the Museum of the Beartooths, in Columbus, Mont.
Here, nestled in the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains in Stillwater County, along the banks of the Yellowstone River, Columbus has been a spot that history has touched throughout time. Native American people hunted, lived here and watched as Captain William Clark's expedition made its way homeward from the Pacific coast. Men like John Bozeman and Jim Bridger blazed new emigrant trails through these lands, opening up the area to pioneers and prospectors. Homesteader family names can still be found in the ledgers of Columbus, who, along with the whole Stillwater County, are celebrating its "Platinum Jubilee" 100th Anniversary this year.
A few blocks south of the I-90 Columbus-interchange, at the corner of 5th Ave. N. and 5th Street, the Museum of the Beartooths is more than worth the stop. With Free Admission, visitors can experience a wonderful walk through Montana history.
As I wandered through the Museum, the first exhibit told about Hard-rock mining at the Stillwater Palladium and Platinum Mine, which started in 1986 and is currently still in operation. A shimmering, silver-colored smelter-suited life-sized man, complete with reflective face-guard, hood, gloves and boots stands on one side. A little girl near me jumped back, startled, until her mom told her it was a man from the Mine. "My uncles work there" she proudly told me.
In the Rosebud Absarokee (Crow) Agency exhibit, artifacts and verbal histories relate how the 2nd Crow Agency was established in 1875 between Columbus and Absarokee. A Cannon fragment from a mountain howitzer cannon, used on the Agency is displayed, along with an original hand-written letter, telling of the last time the cannon was fired. Seems that on July 4th, 1883, Capt. Allen witnessed the celebratory firing, along with many other on-lookers. The cannon exploded into pieces and luckily, no one was hurt. He later donated the rim-base and trunnion fragment to the Montana Historical Society, on loan here.
Local businesses and period rooms are re-created throughout the museum. Dr. Line's office in Line Drug is displayed, with stored prescription boxes in a tall case at the rear. As shootings were a weekly event in 1898 Montana, Dr. Line was kept busy enough that he decided to obtain an x-ray machine, the first in the state, to help him in bullet removal. History tells the tale that Dr. Line even set the broken arm of Calamity Jane after she had fallen from a horse. He died in 1917, at which time is son took over as the towns pharmacist and worked for the next 27 years.
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A rural kitchen, bedroom and sitting-room, decorated with local families furniture and artifacts give us a true feeling of life in this rural town. The Columbus Creamery room is filled with dozens of creamery bottles, advertising the outstanding quality of "Teeters Rose Brand" products. Here too are the Grocery Store, Barber and Doctors Office. My favorite room was the Beauty Parlor, complete with its pink front-counter. Beside the vanity mirrors stands a huge metal-barrel hairdryer on a stand and another menacing hood-contraption, with long tendrils of dangling electric cords with clips on the ends … a hair-curling machine? (Looked to me like you'd get not only your hair curled but your toes too!)
A modern business exhibit, "A Legend of Silver," commemorates the 40 years Montana Silversmiths, a worldwide company, has contributed to the town's history and economy … but one of the outstanding features of this museum are the exhibits about local people … from the famous to the quiet heroes. An example is a vintage hand-made Miles City saddle, belonging to George C. Campbell. It helps illustrate his life story of homesteader, cattle baron and developer of the areas first irrigation systems but also that when he was 18, he was a deputy under-sheriff during the 1892 Johnson County Wars, as well as its last survivor.
Nearby, a glass case houses the uniform and props used by film star Mel Gibson in the movie "We Were Soldiers." In 1989 he owned a 14,000 acre ranch near Columbus, where he bred cattle. He sold the ranch in 2005 but locals still talk about how Mel would come downtown to the famous Atlas Bar and have drinks.
Everyone knows the story of Lt. Col. James Doolittle and his squadron of sixteen B-25s who bombed Japan on April 18, 1942. One of the crew members of Plane No. 7 (the Ruptured Duck) was David Thatcher (engineer/gunner) who grew up in Absarokee, near Columbus. His flight jacket and helmet, which he donated, are on display. Another local military hero, Tech. Sgt. John Matovich Sr. built wooden dog sleds for the Army, to be used for plane drops into far northern areas. John built 50-60 sturdy sleds during his enlistment, one of which is here.
The most impressive local resident exhibit is of D-day Marine, Donald J. Ruhl, who, two-days before the flag was raised over Iwo Jima, saved his fellow soldiers by throwing himself atop a grenade. A sign along I-90 near Columbus dedicates a section of that interstate highway to Donald Ruhl, for his heroic self sacrifice that day.
Outside, behind the main museum building, a walking tour of log buildings recreate local Tack and Blacksmith Shops. A retired Northern Pacific Railroad Caboose No. 1127 welcomes visitors to explore the inside of a real caboose and learn about how the railroad played a vast role in developing the area. My favorite building was the old T.T. Brown school house, filled with vintage wooden teachers and students desks … and its outhouse outback. If you get this direction, do visit and taste the local flavor of Stillwater County at the Museum of the Beartooths. ❖