Uncover Decades of Southeast Montana’s Past at the Musselshell Valley Historical Museum
The small but tight-knit community of Roundup, Mont. sits nestled in the foothills of the Bull Mountains near the Musselshell River. The town was founded in the 1880s, and named so because it became a natural place to “round up” livestock. Lewis and Clark, who traveled through the area in the early 1800s named the nearby river after observing the freshwater mussels lining the banks of the river. The name stuck, and also later became the name of the county.
The Musselshell Valley Historical Museum captures the history of the town dating back to the 1800s, from farming and ranching to mining and homesteading. A former Catholic school, the building was converted to a museum in the 1970s and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Here, you will get a feel for how settlers lived in the area decades ago, as well as an appreciation for the region today.
From the moment you walk in the doors, the art lining the walls will pull you in. The building houses work only from local artists. You will find pictures of events at Marion Park, the original county fairgrounds, from 1915. The first exhibit you’re likely to see is a room filled with Indian artifacts, petrified wood, crystals and even an old shell of a mussel that used to call the Musselshell River home. In addition to artifacts from the area, you will also find rocks and fossils from across Montana. The second floor will interest those looking for a peek into the wildlife in the area. The natural science exhibit shows off the birds and animals that live in the surround area, such as bobcats and rattlesnakes.
HOMESTEADING AND COAL MINING
Life was definitely different for those who called the area home in the late 1800s and early 1900s than it is today. If you’ve ever wondered what a typical home would look like during that time, you’re in luck. The second floor features the whole set up – from the wood stove, food grinder and pump washing machine in the kitchen to the water heater for the bath tub and wash basin in the bathroom. Make sure to check out the baby’s crib and stroller while there. Walk around and you’ll also find a replica of a one-room school house, general store and post office, once located in the nearby community of Rothiemay, Mont., where soap was sold for only 25 cents!
The introduction of the Milwaukee Railroad between 1905 and 1908 changed the landscape of the town dramatically. Coal mining became the leading industry in the valley, with 26 active mines at one point and the community remains steeped in mining traditions. View a reproduction of a coal shaft then check out an old miner’s cap and lunch pails. Here, you’ll learn about how the remaining mine operates in today’s world.
ONE THING YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS
The state of Montana celebrated its 100th birthday in 1989 with the Great Montanan Centennial Cattle Drive from Roundup to Billings. People came from all over the country to watch and participate – from New York and Michigan to the coast of California. In the end, estimates say 2,400 people, 2,700 cattle, 288 wagons and 3,500 horses took part in the six-day, 60-mile drive in September 1989. Support crews put in quite a bit of work – supplying the cattle and horses with about 25 pounds of hay and 150,000 gallons of water each day. Relive the experience through pictures and newspaper clippings, as the state celebrated its birthday in true Montana fashion.
…AND DON’T FORGET!
While the inside of the museum can take you hours to walk through with all the history, don’t forget to step out in the back. One of the original printing presses for the Roundup Record-Tribune is on display. The newspaper was founded in 1908, was operated by the same family for more than 100 years, and is still the town’s paper today. Even older still, you can step back in history by walking through the Northfield Cattle Company ranch house. Built in 1884, two British cattle lords called the place home for years. Read their story and admire the floors, walls and roof, all of which are still in incredible shape after more than a century.
Aviation aficionados will be thrilled to find an airplane on display in a hangar on the right side of the building as well. As the legend goes, the teenage David Comstock, born and raised in Roundup, built the aircraft and flew it down Main Street in the 1930s. Comstock wasn’t a trained pilot, and the mission was even more complicated by the fact it was the middle of the night – chosen because the sheriff was asleep. The plane was restored in the mid-2000s by a group of Montana students and their instructors.
Out here in Southeast Montana, we love exploring the history of the land. Visit the Musselshell County Historical Museum in Roundup to understand why the little town is so unique. The museum is open daily from May to September, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and is run by volunteers. You’ll walk out with the desire to start walking the streets in town and tracing the history you just witnessed. To stretch your legs more, head to the RiverWalk on the south side of town, or stop in at one of the local cafes for some good grub and local banter.