The Carbon County Historical Society Museum in Red Lodge, Montana is a slice of western history not to be missed.
If you think small town museums are hokey or not well-curated, you’ll happily discover you’re wrong visiting this one. Step into this nicely appointed building—the former Labor Temple Built in 1909 by local miners—and learn a thing or two, or three, including that it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983.
With a mission, “…to preserve and communicate the history of the Cabin County area,” firmly in place, the museum does just that.
Certain family names become easily recognizable to a newcomer to Red Lodge. The Greenoughs, Waples, Linderman have a long history of rodeo and ranching. The area was once heavily mined for coal—my first home in Red Lodge was a transplanted miner’s shack. The right size for one person, but I don’t know how a whole family lived in it. The basement of the museum takes you underground into a simulated mine.
There are rotating exhibits that change at least annually. The current traveling exhibit while we toured was “Parading Through History, the Crow People.” (On loan from the Western Heritage Center in Billings).
With the original John “Liver Eating Johnston’s” cabin located at the north entrance to town alongside the Chamber of Commerce, it was interesting to see a replica in miniature inside the museum. For fans of the Robert Redford movie, Jeremiah Johnson, it was truly fiction with the real Johnston being Red Lodge’s first constable, never a mountain man and maybe—or not—someone who got his wicked reputation by eating a dead warrior’s liver. At six feet tall and 220 pounds, he would have been a mountain of a man for the 1880s, so maybe that’s where the poetic license stems from.
Friends with Buffalo Bill Cody, he and Liver Eatin’ were known to tipple a brew or two at the then Spofford, now Pollard, Hotel. If you’re looking for a four-star accommodation in the center of town for your visit, this is the place to check out (or check in!). If nothing else, arrange to have an elegant dining experience—reservations required—or opt for the pub side and perhaps enjoy a live local band. Guaranteed to get your boots stomping.
A 2017 exhibit we enjoyed looking was the home-country attire of some of the folks who settled in the area. The Red Lodge Festival of Nations was once an amazing week-long event that celebrated every nationality with live events—dancing, attire, games—from those countries. Sadly, 2016 was the last year for it due to lack of volunteers. With that event ending, it was nice to see some of the clothing on hand.
If you want to see a huge fire arms display, head to Cody and visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum—there’s an entire wing of this vast facility devoted to them. In the meantime, enjoy several vintage rifles and revolvers on display.
It was a bit eerie to go into the basement and walk through the coal mine area. It’s dark, there is equipment that the miners would have used. There are remnants of the Smith Mine in nearby Washoe, where 74 out of 77 working miners were killed in an explosion in 1943. The disaster was the largest mining loss of life in Montana and the mine was never re-opened.
The adjoining gift shop—The Mercantile—can easily put you in mind of packages wrapped in brown paper and bound with twine. If you don’t know the reference, get to watching some Westerns. You’re sure to find some cowboy-themed items to pop into your luggage as tidbits for remembering your visit.
When you go:
The museum is on Broadway—Red Lodge’s main street—and can’t be missed.
Winter days are limited, so check the site before you go. Summer hours are Tuesday-Saturday from Memorial through Labor Day weekends.
Hours are 10:00 – 4:00 and allow at least one hour.
Cost is a very minimal $5 for adults and lots of discounts—making it easy to add a donation if you’re so inclined after visiting.
Vast and multi-floors
Liver Eating Johnstons cabin in miniature
Building’s original Labor Temple Safe
cabin in miniature