Deer Lodge Car Museum Floors Parents, Kids, Cars Alike

For those of you late to our Perplexing games, let me take you back some years and tell you that, until just last year, we were a family of journalists entrusted with the noble duty of testing out cars for the media. It wasn’t an easy job, but the benefits were amazing. So I think I speak with the bare minimum authority when it comes to cool cars, and this place had them all over.

With about 150 on seasonally changing display, this place has everything from steam carriages to crazy Corvettes.
With about 150 on seasonally changing display, this place has everything from steam carriages to crazy Corvettes.

It was a sweet deal by any measure. Every Friday we got a brand new wagon gassed up and ready to go. We didn’t even notice gas prices had doubled until Daddy got coerced into testifying in a homicide case, thus ending his professional ability to review cars forever… that’s a long story, and the punchline isn’t hardly worth it, but don’t worry, heads have yet to finish rolling.

I’d all but forgotten the joys of the cars until we got to the Picadilly Auto Museum in Butte, Montana, but it only stirred a bit inside me at that point.

When we saw the mega museum in Deer Lodge a few days later, it all came rushing back to me.

They’ve got over 140 cars on display at any given time and they rotate through the exhibits. They’ve got some of the most interesting items on display, though more for the looking than touching (and as I found out, the crawling under of ropes is extremely off limits).

You go through it one room at a time, starting with the old steam perambulators, moving to the ancient Ford and Packard kinds of cars. Next room is the Driving Miss Daisy era where everything felt the need to be bigger than a bus, even though engines weren’t very impressive back then.

But the real excitement is when you get to the last big room, and I do mean big. You wander a maze among the most stunning cars ever built. Unforgettable classics from the 30s through the 70s that shaped the future of automotive design, the rarest ugly ducks you might not even remember by seeing them polished and painted to primo, and as with any museum, a handful of head scratchers.

Even when it was technically my job to climb the entireties of interiors to examine and report on Fords, Volvos and the rest of them cars, I wasn’t that much in to it, but I could understand the majesty of a place like this, with what must have been a ten million smackeroo collection of the greatest rides in history.

And if you think I was excited, you should have seen the Daddy-Man. He’s my chauffeur, so I imagine there’s a certain professional curiosity about cars, but there was just no tempo for our foxtrot from door to door that was slow enough for him. Seemed like he had a tidbit of trivia for about every car there, and I bet your dad would find the same experience in it.

The Montana Auto Museum is located in Deer Lodge at 1106 Main Street in the Old Prison Museum Complex (in the same gift shop as the Prison Museum), and is open daily. For rates, seasonal hours and better directions than I could ever give you, check out their web site for yourself.

Antique cars at the Deer Lodge car museum
ABOVE: There’s a broad, sweeping gray area between “do not touch” and “touch”, but our handlers didn’t seem to think so, taking instead the narrower, more traditional view of what exactly constitutes “not touching”. I don’t care for labels myself, as a non-reader, but I do love to touch stuff from time to time.

 

Elk Country Visitor Center Welcomes Amerigrants

I’m not familiar with the country of Elk, but I’m not familiar with my own country either, no matter how much of it I’ve traveled, so I won’t try to make like I’m some geographical prodigy or anything. I’ll just tell you that we didn’t need passports to visit Elk Country, and the visitor’s center was worth ten times the suggested donation, and even that was only a suggestion.

Fairly certain this is an artificial elk, and a fancy one at that.
Fairly certain this is an artificial elk, and a fancy one at that.

It’s located in Missoula, Montana, just a tad to the non-city side of Interstate-90, in a building so new and fancy you’d be right to ask where they get their funding. Like all noble causes, it was a mix of grants and private contributions. That means they have a cause the blindly benevolent can support, as well as those who actually know where there money is going.

It’s a big building, made of all kinds of interesting and renewable materials like pre-consumer laminated materials in lieu of giant beams. They call it Glulam, but I think they might have made up that name for my benefit, because it’s a giggly name by any measure. Glulam!

It turns out they’ve got a strong base of support, even though their contributors are mostly human and not elk. This is the center for Elk habitat conservation and preservation for North America (ever heard of North America?), and so half the building is offices for that purpose. I can’t imagine what they do there, but you know me; out of site, out of possible realms of imagination.

They have trophies on display, and that sounds cheesy, so let me say they also have a movie theater with a short educational film that runs on a loop (not a film for short people but, as a short person, I found the brief film both interesting and informative).

There are pyramid assorted exhibits explaining all kinds of aspects of Montana outdoorery, and even without the capacity to read (not sure if I mentioned it lately, but despite my succinct command of active English, my passive reading of it is entirely non-existent.)

If you’re in Missoula, or you’re going to be passing through (and if you’re in Montana, whether you’re stopping or not, be honest a second and admit you’re going to be passing through Missoula,) you should really pay them a visit. The place is technically free, though they do ask humbly for a donation (and I recommend it, because once you see the place I’m sure you’ll be sold as much as I was.)

Elk jumping out of a trailer
ABOVE: This elk, a movie star I think, was obviously unhappy with his trailer. Demanding a bigger trailer, as stars do, he burst out, slamming the door open, to make his demands known. He likely underestimated the temperature, because he froze in his tracks. Also I think he’s made out of molded plastic, but that’s technically a benefit for most stars in Hollywood.

The facility is exceptional, the exhibits are very good, and the people are very, very nice (or of average Montana nice, which is still a compliment, but come on, these people are just champs among the monkeys the rest of us are to make them look like men.)

They also go by the name “Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation,” but this rose by any other name is still open 7-days a week, has a staff of 150, and can be found for best details online at www.RMEF.org.

And remember, unlike visits to other so-called “countries” you don’t need a passport for this one. They can tell who are the real elk without paperwork, though how they do it still baffles me. They likely take Canadians, Mexicans, Germans and assorted Worldian persons as well, but I can’t speak to that any more than I could figure out why the stuffed owl was staring at me so intently.

Elk Country Visitors Center
ABOVE: Here you will see the front of the building. Not sure how this picture made the final cut, but apparently it did.

 

New Influx of Readership Begs Renewed Questions

I know we’ve begged the question before, but not in years, and our latest round of review articles has pushed our onsite traffic to all-time highs, and as kind as search engines have been for us, the increased readership is all organic. So I have to ask, who are you new readers, or are you just the same people coming back more often?
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We’ve been pretty faithful as of late with our updates, even though our oversight committee insists the new stories are much too long for the web medium. What can I say, we have a lot to say and we’re hedging for a book deal, but even with that potential downside, readership is on the upswing, and in pretty big ways, and pretty consistently at that.

If you’re a reader, and you have some idea about what you like, or what you might like, let me extend explicitly the otherwise implied offer to give us feedback. Just follow the link listed up above for contact, and although we can’t respond to every letter, I can assure you somebody here will read them all (my guess would be dad. He makes me clean up my toys so I make him read my email.)

Tell us whatever you like, or almost nothing, but we’re curious to know who all our readers are, and since it’s been several years since last we asked, we’re more curious than ever.

And that’s pretty much just that. Look forward to hearing from you soon.

Random picture of kids climbing through a tube
ABOVE: If you’re reading this, you’re plainly a fan of the non-sequitur, so here you go… it’s kids climbing through a cleverly crafted iron tubeworks.

 

Sapphires in Them Thar Hill For Keepsies if You Find ‘Em

One of the must-see attractions in Montana is the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine. Don’t take my word for it, they’ve been featured everywhere from National Geographic to the Discovery Channel, and those are tough customers to please. It’s a short drive from Helena, and worth your visit, even if you aren’t an aspiring prospector.

I dig mining, apparently quite literally.
I dig mining, apparently quite literally.

We saw so many deer on the way out we could hardly believe it, but that’s because we can barely see out car windows, and we didn’t actually see half of them, so we had to take it on faith. I for one, could hardly believe it.

Seriously, it strains credulity, but apparently they’re just everywhere out there.

The Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine is a working, open pit mine, where the owners and their guests can all dig for (and find) a variety of stones. Garnets, topaz, gold, diamond and sapphire are on the list, but there’s much more in there, and it’s so plentiful it’s almost shocking.

You can go up and dig for yourself, though you don’t have to if you dislike sun, mild effort, or having the fullest amount of fun possible. If you do go up, you can use your own shovels, or borrow one of theirs, and dig, sift and fill your bucket with your very own selection of lucky gravel.

You can dig it from side of the pit, the bottom of it, or from the throwaways of past miners, all of which seem about equally good.

Digging an open pit sapphire mine
ABOVE: One particular member of our party took greater joy in supervising the dig than actually working with a shovel, but far be it from me to name any names, not even a name like Dominic.

If you skip this step, you can just buy a bag of gravel from the gift shop, but either way it’s going to be good. You buy a bag from the Spokane Bar (where you are), the El Dorado Bar (another mine of theirs, quite a distance away), a Guaranteed Bag (with even more and better stones, guaranteed) or a Party Pak (even more great stuff guaranteed, and designed for a take-home party with a dozen or more participants.)

And if you’ve got an attention span as short as ours, you can just get a sampler bag, which is only about the size of a sandwich, but somehow has a bunch of great stuff in it. Super easy to find, too. You know how it is; small bag, lots of gems, short work.

Now it’s time to wash and shake your rocks, and they’ll help you figure out how that’s done, because there is a bit of a trick to it.

Now take a seat and pull out your tweezers, and get to hunting for your gems. I guess they call it mining or prospecting, or maybe panning or something, maybe even sifting, but I call it hunting, even though it doesn’t use guns. I like to be difficult though, it’s just kind of my thing.

using tweezers to find sapphires in Helena Montana
ABOVE: As tedious as it may seem, it’s actually so much fun that the time really sails right by. And if you don’t have tweezers, don’t worry, they have plenty available there for purchase. Besides, you don’t want to use your own tweezers on yourself again after they’ve been through rocks, do you?

Once you’ve finished off your work, you can head inside and find out for sure what you actually got. They’ll check you out to see what kind of stones you got (my father warned me I’d be judged in this way, I just figured he meant it wouldn’t be until I grew up!) They’ll tell you what each stone is, weigh them out, and divide them in to three distinct gem types.

 

  • TYPE 1 – Facet-grade stones. These ones can actually be cut for use in jewelry or resale, and they’ve got information on a guy facet-cutting guy who’ll do it for you and even mail it to you, and he does your cutting super cheap. Like $22 for a single stone or $65 for ten stones. Like I said, very affordable.
  • TYPE 2 – Souvenir Stones. These are nice, and they’re authentic stones you really did find yourself, but you’re never going to cut them, they’re just fun, and yours to keep and give to your children some day. That’s what my dad did for me, and it was just yesterday.
  • TYPE 3 – Pretty Rocks. We found a lot of really neat rocks that, though cool to us, are still just rocks. Luckily we had somebody like them on hand to tell us the difference, because we’re allowed to play with these ones, and with no fear of losing them either.

 

We bought an extra bag to take home, and have already pulled out two yellow sapphires of greater than 1.2 carat (uncut weight, of course), and we only dug out about half a bucket of rocks. Whether you’re looking for fun or odds a ton times better than the lottery, this is a great way to go. One guy unearthed a 18.5 carat sapphire, and while this is unusual (but not the site record, that was 155-carats by an Idaho man,) it’s a pretty remarkable find for them to give away on such good terms. We did have fun, and in the end, I think we bested our initial investment, which is kind of unusual for a tourist attraction, don’t you think?

But here’s what really makes it neat. It’s a family owned and operated operation, and even though they’ve had buyout offers of all sorts to exploit the land and get all the greatest bits of it out and gone forever, they haven’t done it. They run it as a real, family-sized mine, and they do it in such a way that they can allow people like you and me to go in and take part in it.

And why do they do it? We asked, and they looked really satisfied in their answer. Because they want to give it to their kids some day. Not the land, but the mine. The business. The whole kit and caboodle-de-doodle, a word I just made up just now, but that means an all inclusive amount too large to measure because it includes heritage, history, honor and sentimental considerations.

I don’t see Webster’s picking that one up as word of the year, but I like it.

Maybe it’s just me being a kid, but I sure have a lot of respect for people who want to leave stuff to people like me.

Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine & Gold Fever gift shop is located 5360 Castles Road in Helena, Montana. You can find their hours and directions at www.sapphiremine.com, and even have a bag of jewely gravel mailed out to you if you like. They are open year-round, and I recommend heading out there as early in the day as possible. You’ll beat the heat that way, and have more of the time you’ll need once you realize how engrossing it is, and how easy it is to spend a lot of time there.

Sifting through gravel to find Spokane Bar sapphires
ABOVE: While some members of our gemming expedition were obviously more interested in the process than others, a good time was still had by all.

 

Take a Wong Turn to See the Old Fire Tower

If you’re ever in up-city Helena, Montana and think you might be lost, there’s a good chance you are, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good things to see. By “up-city” I really mean “up-hill” and I know because even though we found a cool little park to revive us, we were already worn down by our uphill trek.

A quick ride on the cheap-as-crazy town trolley was enough to make up for having to stand outside and wait for it, plus a bit too.
A quick ride on the cheap-as-crazy town trolley was enough to make up for having to stand outside and wait for it, plus a bit too.

Once you’re up there, there is a classic Pioneer Cabin to see, as well as the rich-in-history Reeder’s Alley area, but we hit those two spots on the one day of the year when they were closed for maintenance, so all I know with certainty is that the steep hill of the main town drag led me to a less main, even steeper drag that tried to pull me up another half block, with no reward in its closure.

You can almost find all this area by other means though. The town trolley (which is pretty darn cool, and we may refer to again in a whole different article) runs by there, as does the Last Chance Train (which we’re still hoping to hitch a ride on pretty soon).

When you’re up there you can view the historic Fire Lookout post. It was actively maintained until a mere zillion years ago, or thereabouts, (can’t be sure of any dates prior to my own birth a few years ago), but it still stands as a historical reminder.

You can’t go up inside of it, and that’s a shame because I’m sure the view would be great, provided you didn’t spy a fire, which is why the whole thing was built in the first place.

But if you’re looking to find the Fire Lookout, it’s easy. Just get to the top of the hill, hit up Reeder’s Alley and the Pioneer Cabin, and maybe the wonderful kiddy park right around it all, and then take a Wong turn, and you’re there.

Reeders Alley Helena Montana
ABOVE: Reeder’s Reedy-Reed alley wasn’t much up to par on the day of our visit, but they’ve got all kinds of historically preserved buildings, not to mention a tourist office for darn-near half the state, even if they were busy keeping it all painted on the particular day of our visit.

Taking a Wong Turn in Helena Montana
ABOVE: I don’t know how to take a right turn, but apparently I do know how to take a Wong turn, and it’s right there at the corner at the top of the hill in Helena. What a hand-basket you are, my dear, what a one of those indeed… don’t know what those are any more than I do a Wong turn, but that hardly helps the joke anyway.

 

Staggering Ox Eatery Proves People Can Stagger Too

A decades-old fixture of Helena, the Staggering Ox was recently voted by MAXIM Magazine* as creating one of the top 3 sandwiches in the country (for “The Nuke”.) Our little stop off proved more to us than that they know their way around the kitchen. We found they know the way around the whole experience of people dropping by for food, fun and an array of stimu-tainment ranging from musical to visual with many stops in between.

This is the happy we feel when eating at the Staggering Ox.
This is the happy we feel when eating at the Staggering Ox.

The sandwiches aren’t just unique, they’re downright unheard of. They feature the famous Clubfoot™ bun, which is a federally registered trademark. Half the items on the menu are trademarked™ and the other half probably should be.

Being the kids we are, we were delighted to find that we could get hot sandwiches made with the crusts cut off. No small feat when you consider it’s nothing more than a Clubfoot roll basically gutted to the spongy inner goodness. They’re baked, cheesy, optionally saucy, and perfect for even the blandest tastes in your party… and that’s important when you read the next paragraph.

Dad skipped the Nuke™ , Three-Mile-Island™ , Mount Saint Helens™ , Saddam Slammed™ , and the Yo’ Mama Osama™ , and went straight for the Chernobyl Melt Down™. It was interesting to watch him force sweat to roll down the back of his head, as if on command, strictly by eating a sandwich he described as “super nummy”… I may be paraphrasing a bit there, but he did like it. He loves spicy food, but something tells me this one might have snuck up on him.

The decoration of the place is great, and it’s tough to do good work when you’re looking to fill a space as cavernous as theirs. This place is seriously huge. They do it with an honest to goodness art gallery, a 20-foot tall tree made of recycled artistic thingy-doos, and by basically making the place mad enough even your most attention deficited junior can spend an easy hour trying in vain to take it all in.

And that’s nothing compared to the live music.

We didn’t stick around for the music, though they do have plenty of it. For us it was time to head back out on the open road, drive a good ways, and bed down for the night some 10-odd blocks away at our hotel. A meal like that really makes a weary traveler feel at home. Also works well for cranky travelers, trust me.

More than music and major foodage, they’ve got ambiance aplenty, an on-site art gallery, and free Wi-Fi to boot, so whether you’re looking to get in touch with your artistic side, or just stay in touch with your email, you’ve got your bases covered.

And that MAXIM win? Yes, it’s a real accolade they genuinely won, but the sub-first-place ranking cheated them. The winner was some joke restaurant that put a whole meal on a bun, French fries and all, and passed it off as edible. The things these sammysmiths get away with, I’ll never understand.

You can check them out for early lunch, lunch, late lunch or dinner at the original location in Helena, Montana at 400 Euclid Ave, or in Billings or Missoula, Montana, as well as in Spokane, Washington. Check the website www.StaggeringOx.com for directions and hours, and a calendar of upcoming events and performances too.

More than just excellent decor, the Staggering Ox Restaurant has good food too
ABOVE: In case you needed a reason to visit beyond the unique greatness of the food, consider the outrageously outlandish decorations… that or the fact they have all kinds of local and touring music numbers that play live almost constantly. Either way it’s your call, but it’s worth it even if just for the food.

 

Piccadilly Museum of Transportation Worth the Free Admission

Butte Montana has a solid handful of things going for it. Not the least of which is that an easy majority of the buildings in town are built out of brick, which is odd all by itself, though odder still, you won’t find a brick museum. One of the less assuming attractions in Butte is the Piccadilly Transportation Memorabilia Museum, which is pretty sound, even without keeping the free admission in mind.

Speed Limit of 70 does not seem as reasonable once on foot, or somehow deep in the past amongst cars that go less than zero miles per hour.
Speed Limit of 70 does not seem as reasonable once on foot, or somehow deep in the past amongst cars that go less than zero miles per hour.

It isn’t a big place, but it’s a heart-of-downtown museum run entirely by the kindness of locals, with entirely free exhibits.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a place worth stopping in on, it just means you shouldn’t expect a museum on par with the New York Metropolitan when you aren’t paying to enter, and when you’re entering a place in Butte, Montana.

And by that I mean, you aren’t getting the stuffy and uptight folk who hawkishly watch over you, rather you are getting tons of information about the dozens of interesting cars they do have in the building. These cars aren’t just interesting and museum-quality, they are (mostly) extremely rare, and every one of them comes with a history.

What is that history? I could tell you, but it would take as long as our visit, so instead I’ll just try to impress upon you that the volunteer on-hand has them, and if they don’t, and you still want it, they can get it right quick.

It’s not that the citizen volunteers love Butte, though they do, it’s that they love the antique cars as they pertained to Butte.

There is a better-than-new baby blue Edsel on the floor, complete with the story of how the town foolishly tried to use it as the undercover car even though a baby blue Edsel was every bit as obvious and conspicuous today as it was back in the Edsel-driving era.

There is an extended chassis turn-of-the-other-century Ford that was used as a school bus, even though it lacks booster seats, seat belts, doors, windows or even walls.

Oh safety, what took you so long to catch up with our species?

The museum is located at 20 West Broadway and is open during all the normal, seasonal hours you might expect. If you have any doubts, check out their website at PicadillyMuseum.com or call them directly at (406) 723-3034.

And if you want to know why we’re giving them such a sweet endorsement, it’s because we got our free admission granted for free because we’re such super-cool journalists. I know, that makes us bias, but only until we learn the value of money, which those parental types are hopeful comes no time soon.

Kitsch at the Picadilly pAuto Museum in Butte Montana
ABOVE: So many cars, so much of the collectibles, and yet still so darn many things that beg me to play with them. How am I to resist such things?

Modified Ford used as Antique School Bus
ABOVE: This is the Ford that was cleverly modified for use as a high-capacity school bus. The absent safety features seem as secondary as they were once you realize the ride only had like a handful of horsepower. Oh Ford, why must you never exceed any expectations?