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Destination: Montana

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of Museums

A fan of fact and whimsy stops to tour some of the home-grown archives along the highway in Big Sky country

July 05, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MISSOULA, Mont. — Forget the Louvre, the Met, the Getty and the Tate. If exhibits are an obsession and a willingness to risk the unexpected a goad to passion, it's difficult to avoid being captivated by the small museums of Montana.

Granted, museums are not the first thing that comes to mind about Big Sky Country. Montana is a beautiful, expansive place where livestock tends to outnumber people and establishments like the Buck Snort tavern and Call of the Wild Taxidermy are not hard to find. The biggest newstand in the town of Great Falls, in the state's northwest, is stocked with magazines like Bow Hunter, American Angler, and Bugle: the Journal of Elk and the Hunt; there's not a copy of Artforum in sight.

But first impressions can be deceptive. Montana is rife with charming, informative museums. A Museums Assn. of Montana brochure lists close to 85, and the state publishes a 48-page booklet called "Montana's Cultural Treasures," a thorough guide to museums, art galleries and studios.

Reflecting the regional character, Montana's museums are open, genuinely friendly places where signing the guest book is expected. Though I grew up in New York, where museums are of the more stately, reserved variety, I found myself completely won over by these very different institutions. It dawned on me that the pride Montanans take in who they are and what they've accomplished in an exacting and difficult environment paralleled the way residents of my home borough of Brooklyn felt about surviving their own kinds of challenges.

Since my wife grew up in the university town of Missoula, we focused on the northwest quadrant of the state. Cinching that decision was the fact that my wife's siblings had decided to relive their idyllic childhood summers by renting a house in August on Flathead Lake--a prime vacation spot near Missoula--which has the distinction of being the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi (yes, that includes Tahoe). We flew into Missoula, spent the night on the lake, and then headed out in the morning in a sturdy Dodge Caravan borrowed from my wife's sister.

We didn't have far to go initially, as our first stop after a fortifying breakfast was in Polson, one of the towns that ring Flathead. In a quonset hut next to the Polson Body Shop in the city's business district sits the Polson-Flathead Historical Museum, which displays souvenirs of life in the area. Calamity Jane's elaborate last saddle gets a place of pride, but there also is room for a different kind of Western relic: resting next to a 1921 newspaper headline detailing how "Polson Wife-Slayer Shot Down by Posse Last Evening In Hell-Roaring Creek" is the rifle that did the deed.

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The Polson Museum's biggest claims to fame are large indeed. Taking up considerable floor space is the stuffed remains of Rudolf the Steer, a handsome example of the Scots Highland breed, so celebrated that, upon expiring, it had its own full-page obit ("Rudolf, the best known steer in Montana, is dead at 19"). A participant in 136 parades throughout the state, Rudolf was transported over 25,000 truck miles and captivated more than 1 million spectators before he passed on, and his dignified bulk continues to impress even in death.

Nothing quite like that can be found in Polson's other stop, the Miracle of America Museum, but that's not for lack of trying. While the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., is sometimes billed as the nation's attic, this astonishing jumble, which fully lives up to its "more memories for the money" motto, surely deserves at least a share of that title.

If, as the Sioux saying written with arrowheads at the museum's door insists, "a people without history is like the wind in the buffalo grass," the Miracle of America, sprawling lazily on the highway between Polson and Missoula, does its best to ensure that that won't happen. Exhibited inside its doors are a humbling variety of artifacts from sheet music, license plates, mouse traps and tractor seats to World War I uniforms, an early hearse, some ancient Harley motorcycles and hundreds of farm implements. And that's just in the main building.

The museum's backyard, crisscrossed by railroad tracks, is home to a small village, an ancient gas station, venerable tractors, an Army rescue helicopter kids can play in, a large fire engine and all manner of oversize machinery. Lurking around corners are a selection of old pinball machines, a barbed wire display that took a prize at a recent Great Falls Barbed Wire Show and the official headquarters of the Montana Old Time Fiddlers Assn. Hall of Fame.

As I staggered back to the car past the Paul Bunyan, an enormous logging towboat now beached in the museum's parking lot, I almost collided with another, similiarly disoriented visitor. "They've got the stuff, haven't they?" he said. It was a hard point to argue.

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