Yellowstone County Museum Coolest Free Museum in Area

Most free museums feel like junk stores without price tags, but this place, as small and four miles away from where you probably want to be, wasn’t just worth the trip, it was straight up awesome. Not only did we find a bunch of great cowboy stuff to buy our brother for his upcoming birthday at fine prices, but we also saw neat stuff, had great fun, and all on free admission.

Two-headed calf… yes, creepy, but also pretty cool.
Two-headed calf… yes, creepy, but also pretty cool.

According to them, the mission of the Yellowstone County Museum in Billings, Montana, is to “collect, preserve, research, and interpret the natural history, history and diverse cultures of the Yellowstone Valley of Montana and the Northern Plains.”

That all sounds pretty boring, so let me tell you what they really do. They focus on the pre-history of the plains/Montana area through to the 1950s with exhibits and archives including materials specific to Northern Plains Indian Tribes, western expansion, mining, cattle/sheep herding industries, transportation industries, military (1870-1950s), various medical fields, music, textiles, household goods and personal goods… I mean really strange stuff people like us have never seen before.

Let me put all that in terms you can actually wrap your head around. The main floor is pretty neat, and has a bunch of stuff you can buy to remember your trip. Downstairs they have the weirdest assortment of neat stuff like “The Western Room” where you can see an actual chuck wagon that served dinner to real pioneer cowboys riding the early Yellowstone county area.

They have the only known 1910 Kenmore automobile in existence. If you’re a car buff, or just love washing machines, this is something you have to see to believe.

They have the creepiest (and they say the most famous) two-headed calf in the country.

ABOVE: Having k'jillion ton exhibits on display is one thing, but the fact that they let us touch them is quite another indeed, and a very cool one at that.
ABOVE: Having k’jillion ton exhibits on display is one thing, but the fact that they let us touch them is quite another indeed, and a very cool one at that.

 

And outside, they have “the last steam engine” on display. This is a huge feather in an already pretty swollen cap, because scrap alone says it’s worth tens of thousands of dollars, and hundreds of thousands to the private collectors. The fact that they have it at all is testament enough, but that they have it sheltered from the elements, but still in a place where you can play on it speaks that much higher of them.

And if you want to know something, all the people we met there were perfectly happy – even giddy – to answer questions and share their wisdom.

Museum Summer/Autumn Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 10:30am – 5:30pm. They’re closed January to update exhibits. Guided tours are available by appointment, but call the museum if you have questions. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day, open other legal holidays.

And although it’s free, they do gladly accept your gracious donations.

The museum is located directly South of the Logan International Airport in Billings (not the “other” Logan International”). Just drive in to the airport past the front of the terminal and follow the road as it curves east. The museum is located just before the airport exit on your right. You can also check them out online at YellowstoneCountyMuseum.org.

ABOVE: Even if you should show up on one of the few days in the year the place is closed, they don’t close the lawn, and you can still check out the awe inspiring locomotive of old, you know, just for your enjoyement.
ABOVE: Even if you should show up on one of the few days in the year the place is closed, they don’t close the lawn, and you can still check out the awe inspiring locomotive of old, you know, just for your enjoyement.

 

Fort Missoula Museum; Big on History, Small on Boring

If you’re looking for something between cheap and free to do with your kids, a real standout is the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. The museum is very cheap, but the historic collection around it is free and it’s got more fun stuff to play on than my parents could even endure.
Among the many fine exhibits is the choo-choo graveyard, with hands-on gems like this.

Among the many fine exhibits is the choo-choo graveyard, with hands-on gems like this.The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula was established in 1975 to collect, preserve, and interpret the history of Missoula County, Fort Missoula, and the timber products industry in western Montana for the education, recreation, and cultural enrichment of visitors and area residents, blah blah blah, if you know what I’m saying. What I care about is fun, so lucky for everybody, these guys got that corner of the market, um, cornered I guess.*Some of the free features, or “freetures” include the following:

You can learn about the founders and settlers of early Missoula inside the museum, and out on the grounds. Learn why Missoulians wanted Fort Missoula built, who did build it, and what groups of people lived here. Apparently Fort Missoula went through 5 building periods and many different uses between its 1877 establishment and 1947 when it was decommissioned, but they’re not like bragging or anything, it’s just a fact.

One of our favorites was the old fire lookout tower. You get to climb up from Miller Creek Guard Cabin up to the 1934 Sliderock Lookout tower (at your own risk, because, come on man, it’s like really, really old,) and learn about the daily life of forest rangers who lived alone in the small building atop the mountain each season watching for fires.

Giant antique locomotive at the Historic Fort Missoula Museum ABOVE: There is hours of stuff to explore, and the train is only a small part of it. There's an old depot, school house, and just about anything else you could imagine that ties in, even remotely, to the funner parts of the history of Missoula.
Giant antique locomotive at the Historic Fort Missoula Museum
ABOVE: There is hours of stuff to explore, and the train is only a small part of it. There’s an old depot, school house, and just about anything else you could imagine that ties in, even remotely, to the funner parts of the history of Missoula.

There are also a bunch of neat old train cars to check out, and you can be a real train man with these. They have the Big Blackfoot Railway Willamette #7 Shay-type logging locomotive available for viewing among many others. If you want to, and can be stopped from playing for like five seconds, you can learn the main parts of this 1923 locomotive, one of only 30 built worldwide.

The rest of the grounds walking tour (pamphlet available in the museum) has 13 historic buildings, 7 with exhibits you can look at and apparently learn from, though we always try not to learn stuff when we’re having fun, unless we have to.

If you’re more interested in a real downer experience, you can learn about the World War 2 (the sequel I think, and I’m pretty sure we can agree sequels are never a good thing, especially when it comes to wars,) Alien Detention Camps.

You can see the internment camp barracks where over 2,000 Italians, Japanese-Americans, and Germans were detained from 1941-1944 and hear about their experiences, see photographs taken by U.S. Border Patrol officers and more.

Fort Missoula is located on 32 acres at the core of historic Fort Missoula, just a few miles outside of town, an area included on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum has over 25,000 objects in its collection, which is a number so great I can’t count them all and don’t wish to even try.

* Kind of knew I wasn’t going to be able to finish that sentence about five words in to it. If only I could find the darn backspace key on this thing.

ABOVE: Whether you're looking for a depot, a teepee or a pulp mill teepee incinerator, if it looks cool from across the yard, you're sure to find it on the grounds of the Fort Missoula museum.
ABOVE: Whether you’re looking for a depot, a teepee or a pulp mill teepee incinerator, if it looks cool from across the yard, you’re sure to find it on the grounds of the Fort Missoula museum.
ABOVE: Even though there is a genuine fire tower on the grounds of the historic museum at Fort Missoula, Montana, it can be a bit trying for the courage to climb. For those who want a better look, or at least a different perspective, you can enjoy a model replica cased in glass. I say you should climb it fearlessly, because there's no warning sign I could read that said anything different... there is one, and it's posted everywhere, but I couldn't read it. Didn't even try to.
ABOVE: Even though there is a genuine fire tower on the grounds of the historic museum at Fort Missoula, Montana, it can be a bit trying for the courage to climb. For those who want a better look, or at least a different perspective, you can enjoy a model replica cased in glass. I say you should climb it fearlessly, because there’s no warning sign I could read that said anything different… there is one, and it’s posted everywhere, but I couldn’t read it. Didn’t even try to.