In 1968, a group of 60-80 people came together in celebration of the history of the Musselshell Valley. Little did they know that conversation would lead to the development of a new long-standing pillar of Roundup - The Musselshell Valley Historical Museum. Today, it stands proudly in the center of Roundup as a beacon for the region’s past, present and future.
The heritage of the Valley is diverse and complicated and telling its story completely would take careful attention. The rise and fall of the railroad brought riches, the boom of coal wasn’t without its scandals, and the relationship between Native Americans and homesteaders has had its battles. Fully aware of the undertaking ahead of them and inspired by the unique story that built our town, the group of volunteers pushed forward, and the Musselshell Valley Historical Museum officially opened April 28, 1973.
Across two stories and several outbuildings, the museum celebrates the stories of the industries and peoples that built our community: coal mining; agriculture; the 1989 Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive, and Native Americans. You will also find a rich geological display of rocks and gems, works by local artists, local aviation history; and so much more.
A centerpiece of the museum installed to celebrate the bicentennial, the museum brought half of a homesteading cabin from the famed Northfields (NF) Ranch to their grounds to preserve the impact of homesteading on the region. Lord Lowther and his partner Cecil Clifton owned the cabin and it was considered a great privilege to get an invite as they were quite exclusive. The inside of the cabin was filled with the best furniture around made of dark woods, marble, and leather but the centerpiece of the cabin was Clifton’s piano. This cabin housed the only piano between Billings and Lewistown (a 125 mile drive today which would have taken days by horse and buggy). Today, you can step through the doors of Clifton’s half of the cabin and stand where the music was played that filled the prairie just a few miles outside of Roundup.
Just steps away from the cabin stands a tepee painted in the Blackfeet tradition by local artist, Joe Trakimas. The Musselshell River was the traditional boundary between the Crow and the Blackfeet. The Crow were south of the river and the Blackfeet nation started in present day Roundup and extended north of the river.
From newspapers to baby boots, from tractors to medical equipment, from yearbook photos to fossils, the museum serves as the archival home for generations of photos and artifacts donated by local people and people from all parts of the world. Today, it is not uncommon to stand in the museum and overhear visitors sharing the memories sparked by the items on display. As a generational town, the artifacts are not just objects from a story of the past, they are objects from the story of our past. The tools our grandparents used, the hair our siblings sported in their yearbook photos, the coal mines our parents worked in. Over the years, these artifacts have even allowed the museum to help curious visitors piece together the stories of their families and learn more about where they come from.
Every visitor to the museum has entered through the doors of the historic Saint Benedict’s Catholic School building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Built in the final years of Roundup’s explosive beginning, this two-story brick building was built in 1920 as a school for the hundreds of European immigrant families that followed the railroad to the Musselshell River Valley. With its buff-colored bricks, symmetrical design, and iconic facade, this building is an archetype of western architecture at the turn of the 20th century.
Over time, the building evolved from a boarding school run by traveling nuns who lived in the basement into a support building for the local public schools and finally, in 1972, the Musselshell Historical Museum stepped in to preserve the building and promote an understanding and appreciation of the history of the lower Musselshell River Valley by collecting, preserving, and providing a broad access to the historical resources maintained by the museum. A perfect mission for a building whose own story is fit for the history books.
As more is learned about the history of the region, the museum grows and evolves. Recent exhibit additions include a saloon, dress shop, tool shed, and a café. With so many scientifically significant geologic discoveries near Roundup, the Museum is also starting to grow its exhibits that celebrate the rock formations and the fossils that surround us!
In addition, the museum provides opportunities for people to come together and volunteer their time by helping with tours, planning displays, or doing research. It is a place for people to be with each other and write the history of the future.
The Musselshell Valley Historical Museum is just one block off of Main Street. The museum is open from May through September every day from 1:00pm to 5:00pm. Admission is free & donations from visitors help the museum grow.
Dale Alger moved to Roundup with his wife Tomi in 1980 for a job as librarian at the historic Central Elementary School. Sixteen years later, he transferred to the Roundup Community Library at Roundup High School. He has always loved history and because of that he began working with the Musselshell Valley Historical Museum several years ago. He enjoys researching and telling the stories of the artifacts and displays at the museum.
Enjoy these photos taken by Dale Alger