2006: Glacier

Deer Lodge, Montana



One of the things I enjoy most about traveling by RV is not so much visiting the big destinations, but finding unexpected small delights on the road. The hamlet of Deer Lodge was one of those surprises.

We were on our way from Yellowstone to Glacier, and we needed a place to stop for the night halfway in between. We'd planned to stop at an RV park I'd found on the internet, near a town named Anaconda; but the navigator -- me -- was distracted and we missed the turnoff. While Mike groused, I looked for alternatives; and we turned off the road a few miles further up into Deer Lodge. The RV park was one of those by-the-interstate-in-a-field nightmares, but it was just for overnight. While driving through town, we'd seen an old prison-turned-tourist-attraction right on main street, so after parking the RV, we decided to go back and check it out.

As it turned out, there was much more to see in this small dusty town than just an old prison. According to their website, Deer Lodge "is home to more museums and historical collections than any other town in the Northwest". Far be it from me to dispute their claim.

First, we strolled through Cottonwood City, a display of restored original buildings from the area's homesteading days. The buildings included a typical one-room cabin, a post office and sheriff's office, a small jail which was undergoing restoration, and a blacksmith's shop. Normally there is an actual blacksmith working, but we were too late in the afternoon and missed him; so I posed in front of the shop with an old wagon.

Next was a doll and toy museum called Yesterday's Playthings. It contained mostly dolls, but also a small collection of Tonka trucks and other old toys. At least there was SOMETHING for Mike to look at.

The Powell County Museum, the Frontier Museum, and Desert John's Museum were collectively a treasure trove of old firearms (a particular interest of Mike's), home furnishings, mining equipment, general cowboy memorabilia, and a very large collection of old whiskey bottles. A lot of drunk cowboys were represented.

One of the displays contained costumes and other items from the Buffalo Bill show, including a red-white-and-blue banner with an eagle picture that was draped on the podium for the show. Unfortunately my picture of that case didn't turn out.

The Old Prison Museum was even more forbidding inside than its exterior indicated. Opened in 1871, it went through a number of expansions and renovations before closing over a hundred years later.

Exhibits inside the prison included log books, photographs, and original furniture in some of the administrative offices; but the concrete and steel bars and wire mesh spoke for themselves. Most disturbing were "the hole", a bare concrete room where a prisoners would be placed, naked and without light, for days to weeks at a time as punishment; and the solitary-confinement cells in the women's section of the prison, with lattice-steel doors less than five feet high and nothing but cots inside.

1933 pop-up tent trailer.

We were relieved to exit the grim walls of the prison and move on to the final exhibit, the Montana Auto Museum for a look at over 150 beautifully restored cars dating from the turn of the century through the 1970s.

Many of the cars on display are on loan from private collectors, and I was surprised at how many belonged to owners local to Deer Lodge or surrounding areas in Montana. My favorites included the 1928 REO Speedwagon -- who knew it was a car before it was a band?; the 1928 Pierce Fleet Arrow Camper, the original luxury RV; the 1967 Amphicar from Germany capable of 70 mph on land and 8 knots in water, completely watertight but built of steel and prone to rust; and the 1967 Volkswagen Beetle which reminded me of my own 1969 model.

Another nice touch: the reproductions of Burma-Shave signs hanging around the museum.

Amphicar. 1928 luxury RV. REO Speedwagon. 1967 VW bug.