Just as the Smithsonian Institution and its associated museums on the mall in Washington, D.C. attempts to capture the historic heart and soul of the United States, small town museums throughout the world attempt to do the same for their communities. Unlike the Smithsonian, however, these museums are supported primarily by enthusiastic volunteers and public donations rather than any taxpayer monies.
For small towns, such as Hamilton, Montana, the local museum is the historic center of the community. It is more than just a place that holds a bunch of old stuff: it is a place that preserves the heritage of the community and allows this heritage to continue to live. The museum is about displaying old things and explaining what these mean; it is about generating a discussion among the people about their heritage. Museums, such as the Ravalli County Museum, are dynamic places which provide presentations to the general public, tours and talks to school children, and resources for those wishing to research family and/or communities histories.
The historic committees of many small towns get their real motivation to start their museum as a part of an effort to save historic buildings. Throughout the United States, buildings which were once a source of community pride and prestige—court houses, schools, factories—are abandoned and destined for destruction. There are always those who feel that a parking lot is more important than the preservation of a historic building.
The town of Hamilton, Montana was originally laid out in 1890 when the copper king Marcus Daly established logging operations in the area to provide timber for his mines in Butte. Three years later, Ravalli County was created with Stevensville as the county seat. The county seat was moved to Hamilton in 1898 since it was the population and economic center of the county. In 1900, voters approved a $20,000 bond issue for the construction of a court house.
The courthouse was designed by A.J. Gibson and his design shows the transition between 19th century and 20th century tastes. It has the graceful round-arched Romanesque style windows which were popular in Victorian-era public architecture. At the same time it incorporated the smooth wall surfaces and a horizontal orientation that reflected the newer trend toward classical styles. The building was completed in 1901.
The courthouse included a large second-story courtroom with an eighteen-foot ceiling. This room, with its electric lighting, was a source of community pride. Shown above is the old courtroom as it appears today, set up for a public presentation. The judge’s desk and witness box would have been in front of the screen. Evidence of the jury box can be seen in the black markings on the floor in the right of the picture. The doorway on the left led to the judge’s chambers and the doorway on the right led to the jury deliberation room and to the narrow stairway used to bring prisoners up to the courtroom.
Shown above is the main stairway to the courtroom. Some trials were popular events, with standing-room-only crowds.
In 1974, the county built a new courthouse and in 1979 the old courthouse became the Ravalli County Historical Museum. While it contains the word “County” in its title, the museum is not funded by Ravalli County: it is owned and operated by the Bitter Root Valley Historical Society. The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Museums are not just places that display a lot of old artifacts: they are places of learning, entertainment, and public involvement. The old courtroom today is used by the Ravalli County Museum for public presentations. The pictures above show a public presentation from the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau program.
One of the challenges facing many small western museums is the inclusion of aboriginal history, particularly when the Indian nations that originally lived in the area have been moved to a distant reservation. Ravalli County was originally inhabited by the Bitterroot Salish (also known as the Flathead). While the 1855 Treaty of Hellgate reserved their homeland for their exclusive use, by 1891 pressure from non-Indian squatters led to the tribe’s forced removal to the Jocko reserve (presently known as the Flathead Reservation). Fortunately, the Ravalli County Museum has not only included the Bitterroot Salish in their displays, they have also maintained contact with both the Bitterroot Salish and with the Nez Perce who also have a connection with the area.
Long before Europeans had even dreamt about the possibility of the Americas, the Bitterroot Salish were living in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. For many generations the Bitterroot Salish occupied western Montana and the area east of the Rocky Mountains past the red paint caves near present-day Helena. They maintained a winter camp at the confluence of the Madison, Gallatin, and Jefferson Rivers east of the Rocky Mountains and they hunted as far east as present-day Billings and south into Wyoming. They were friendly with the tribes to the west, all the way to the Great Salt Water Mystery (Pacific Ocean).
Some examples of Bitterroot Salish beadwork which is on display at the Ravalli County Museum are shown above.
The European heritage of Ravalli County includes a mix of cattle-raising and cowboys (including the rodeo), farming, and timber harvesting.
In order to show how the artifacts are related to each other, the museum has a room showing a furnished settler’s cabin that helps in understanding what is was like for the non-Indians who moved into the area in the nineteenth century.
The museum also has displays regarding the natural history—the plants and animals—of the area.