I must have sped past the “Bair Family Museum” signs off of Highway 89 and Highway 12 at least a dozen times on my way to train sled dogs up in the mountains. On every single occasion, I looked around at the sagebrush and the cottonwoods and the endless, breath-taking ranchland and thought to myself, “What kind of museum would be out here, literally, in the middle of Montana?”
I often asked friends traveling with me, “Have you ever been to that museum?”
Never, they all said.
When you’re out on a road-trip and operating in 100 per cent fishing or hunting or dog mushing mode, stopping for a tour through a local museum can seem like a waste of precious play time. But, actually, I’ve found it’s the perfect way to gain a better appreciation for the history of the landscape I’m traversing, making whatever I’m doing in the Montana backcountry a little more meaningful.
After my long-overdue visit to the Bair Family Museum last Labor Day weekend, I’ll never look at the Musselshell River Valley the same way again.
To say that much has happened in the region since Charles Bair first bought the ranch just outside of Martinsdale in 1913 is a massive understatement. Charles Bair wasn’t just a major influence on Meagher county history, but Montana as a whole.
A huge black and white photograph that covers an entire wall of the museum visitor center sums up Charlie Bair’s success as a sheep rancher in 1910. In the mind-boggling photo, a train 47 boxcars long, each packed full of Bair’s Montana wool, prepares to head east to the Boston market.
According www.bairfamilymuseum.org, Charles M. Bair “made his fortune in the Alaska gold rush and went on to invest in mining, oil and real estate. Bair was one of the most successful sheep owners in the world, at one time running over 300,000 head. Among his friends were Will Rogers, Chief Plenty Coups and many U.S. Presidents.”
Charlie Bair was also involved in banking and politics, although he never ran for office himself. Charlie and his wife, Mary, and their two daughters, Marguerite and Alberta, have been one of Montana’s main philanthropic families, “providing funds for scholarships, hospitals, museums, libraries, mental health programs, youth organizations, arts, and music. It was the wish of the Bair sisters to leave their home as a museum – a gift to the people of Montana and visitors.”
And what a gift it is.
The Bair sisters made twenty trips to Europe to purchase antique furniture and decorative art. Because Charles Bair leased land from the Crow Reservation to graze his sheep, he developed a friendship with Chief Plenty Coups and the painter, Henry Sharp. Chief Plenty Coups gave Alberta a child’s beaded vest and a small tipi.
Paintings by Sharp, Charlie Russell, Edouard Cortes, J.K. Ralston, and J.F. Herring and George Cole, as well as the Crow Reservation photography of Edward Sharriff Curtis are part of the estate. As Bair’s collection grew, so did the size of their ranch home – eventually more than 20 rooms were built to hold the antiques, artwork and Native American artifacts.
Charlie Bair passed away in 1943 at the age of 85, and his wife, Mary, died in 1952 at the age of 87. Marguerite passed away in 1976. Alberta went on to live in the ranch house for 17 years by herself, eventually passing away in 1993 at the age of 98.
Over the last several years, there has been a battle over the fate of the Bair Family Museum and its contents. In April 2008, the Montana Supreme Court dismissed the board of the Museum, saying it breached its fiduciary duties by closing the museum from 2002 to 2005. A community group, the Friends of the Bair Museum, fought hard for the Bair’s legacy, and was thrilled with the decision. The museum is now open from May 1 to September 30; the September hours are Wednesday to Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm.
Only in Montana can you spend a weekend backpacking in the mountains and then, still clad in Carhartts, hiking boots, and a dog-hair covered fleece, stop to view a rare collection worth over $6.7 million.
Many of the locals who work at the museum knew the Bair’s personally; their own intimate stories bring the ranch, the art, and the family to life for all who walk the grounds.
Dorothy Spracklen, one of Alberta’s personal caretakers in her final years and also a tour guide at the museum, told me, “Alberta said she was engaged 20-some times, but never found someone she wanted to share her life and fortune with…”
Thankfully, she shared it with us.
Next time you’re near Martinsdale, knock the mud off your hiking boots and stop for a visit.
For more information, go to www.bairfamilymuseum.org, and read the book, “Fourteen Cents & Seven Green Apples – The Life and Times of Charles Bair” by Lee Rostad.
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