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

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.

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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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Next on our itinerary was the town of Browning, where two very different museums, perhaps clustered together for companionship, sat next to each other on what was otherwise a fairly desolate stretch of highway. The Museum of the Plains Indian, operated for half a century by the federally chartered Indian Arts and Crafts Board, has an excellent gift shop and a fine collection of costumes and implements from tribes such as the Blackfeet, Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Sioux.

Across the road is the Museum of Montana Wildlife & Hall of Bronze, impossible to miss due to the enormous outdoor statue of a bucking horse and rider by artist Bob Scriver, who started the museum. Scriver’s art is displayed in the basement, while the ground floor is jammed with all manner of preserved animals, including Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, bull moose, wolverines and a huge bison that somehow managed to die a natural death.

From Browning we maneuvered the Caravan through a landscape of enormous flatness--picturesque High Plains wheat fields alternating with oil derricks--toward Shelby, as in the “All Roads Lead to Shelby” sign that flashed by.

We arrived in Shelby, a pleasant small town with a well-preserved main street, and hooked up with 93-year-old Lorene Christian, a childhood friend of my wife’s grandmother who has an engaging sense of history. A docent at Shelby’s Marias Museum of History and Art (named after a nearby river), she took us to the 10-room ranch-style dwelling, which sits unobtrusively in a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes.

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Carefully organized and well-maintained, the Marias Museum’s 10,000 artifacts, from prayer books to whiskey bottles, give a wonderful picture of what life was like in this part of the world in decades past. Included are memorabilia of colorful local residents like Charlie “Dynamite” Stalnaker, a.k.a “Nitro Charlie,” celebrated for reciting poetry and for his expertise in using liquid nitrogylcerin in the oil and gas business.

If Shelby is known for anything outside Montana, it’s as the site of the controversial 15-round 1923 world heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons. The Marias Museum has the largest known collection of memorabilia from that fight, including training camp photos, a small model of the arena, and Gibbons’ autographed gloves. Some people, however, are hard to impress. As her male companion gratefully took it all in, one woman was heard to mutter, “Do you mean we drove 200 miles to see this?”

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Next stop on our tour was the bustling, energetic city of Great Falls, home to a world class institution that is worth a trip to the state all by itself: the C.M. Russell Museum, dedicated to perhaps the greatest Western artist who ever lived.

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Though his given name was Charles, Russell is universally referred to as Charlie, a “one of us” designation that reflects the strength of feeling Montanans have for the man who lived here from age 16 onward, first as a cowboy, then as an artist, and whose levelheadedness, sense of humor and love of the state made him a model for how residents see themselves. The man is so beloved that when “The Exalted Ruler,” his exceptional painting of a majestic elk, came on the market, a state-wide campaign to buy it for the museum (called “Inches for the Ruler” to emphasize its dependence on small donations) successfully raised $1.1 million from 25,000 contributors, including large numbers of schoolchildren.

The Russell, a three-building complex carved out of a residential neighborhood near the center of town, is heavily visited from overseas: tourists from Australia, Austria, Ghana, France, Germany and the Netherlands had signed the guest book within days of our visit. The museum proper holds the paintings and bronzes that continue to exude the life force Russell clearly felt when he confronted the West. More than any other artist, he saw the best of the region and brought it to powerful life.

Next to the museum is the house the Russells lived in, but the furnishings are not original; his wife Nancy took those with her when she moved to California after his death. By contrast, Russell’s adjoining studio, constructed in 1903 out of red cedar telephone poles, is largely as he left it and includes his exquisite collection of tribal art and artifacts.

The great thing about the Russell Museum is the way it allows you to feel the strength of the artist’s lively personality. A letter on display that he wrote from L.A. said it all: “To an old romance-loving boy like me,” he wrote, the sight of some movie cowboys on horseback was “the best thing I’ve seen in California--at least they were live men with living horses under them.” Which is why he’ll always be Charlie around here.

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Though it’s not a museum, no visit to Great Falls is complete without a visit to Eddie’s Supper Club, “The Home and Origination of the Exquisite World Famous Campfire Steaks.” At the same location and under the same ownership since 1944, Eddie’s, with its cracked red leather banquettes and lively piano bar, is one of those places you pray you’ll come across when you travel: distinctive, authentic, popular and delicious. And, yes, those steaks are as outstanding as they are large.

Headed for the airport in Missoula to end our trip after spending the night in Foxglove Cottage, one of the city’s few bed and breakfasts, my wife and I squeezed in a visit to the U.S. Forest Service Smokejumpers Visitor Center, the largest active base and training center in the U.S. for the elite group of men and women who parachute into remote conflagrations. The museum section is good on smokejumper history, but most compelling is the guided tour of the facility itself, especially the 40-foot-tall tower room, where chutes are aired out and inspected for rips and tears. Visible on one workbench (the smokejumpers make all their own gear except for helmet, boots and gloves) was the unnerving motto, “Pain is just weakness leaving your body.”

Let the Louvre take a shot at matching that.

Turan is The Times’ film critic.

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GUIDEBOOK

Museum Crawling

Getting there: From LAX to Missoula, in west Montana, there’s connecting service only, through Salt Lake City, on Delta; lowest round-trip fares begin at $330.

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Where to stay: Foxglove Cottage, 2331 Gilbert Ave., Missoula; telephone (406) 543-2927. Rates: $75-$100.

Where to eat: Eddie’s Supper Club, 3725 2nd Ave. North, Great Falls; tel. (406) 453-1616.

Museums: All are either free or have nominal admission fees.

Polson-Flathead Historical Museum, 708 Main St., Polson; tel. (406) 883-3049.

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Miracle of America Museum, 58176 U.S. 93, Polson; tel. (406) 883-6804.

Museum of the Plains Indian, junction U.S. 2 and 89, Browning; tel. (406) 338-2230.

Museum of Montana Wildlife & Hall of Bronze, junction U.S. 2 and 89, Browning; tel. (406) 338-5425.

The Marias Museum of History and Art, corner of 12th Avenue and 1st Street North, Shelby; tel. (406) 434-2551 or (406) 339-2443.

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C.M. Russell Museum Complex, 400 13th St. North, Great Falls; tel. (406) 727-8787.

U.S. Forest Service Smokejumpers Visitor Center, Missoula; tel. (406) 329-4934.

For more information: Travel Montana, 1424 9th Ave., Helena, MT 59620-0533; tel. (800) VISIT-MT or (406) 444-2654, fax (406) 444-1800.


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