Dr. Caroline McGill realized more than 50 years ago that the Treasure State was in danger of losing many of its treasures, so she started spending her lunch hours and weekends at garage sales and estate sales.
In her campaign to keep valuable artifacts and antiques in Montana, the Butte physician bought so many items that she eventually filled much of her four-story apartment.
It was time to start a museum.
McGill contacted administrators at Montana State College, and they, together with members of the Bozeman community, opened a museum on Feb. 12, 1957 in three World War II Quonset huts on the MSC campus. The museum later moved to a dairy barn and then into a new building on the southeast side of campus.
Today, stored in the basement of that building—the Museum of the Rockies—is McGill’s original collection, as well as collections from 2,500 other donors, said MOR Registrar Pat Roath. Together, the donations make up the Caroline McGill History Collection. It is the MOR’s oldest collection, available for both research and student training.
“It’s important that we maintain these collections so we have the tools to tell the stories of the people who have lived in the Rocky Mountain region for centuries,” said History Curator Michael Fox. “Most of the materials in here are really one of a kind, not necessarily from what they look like, but how they were used, where they were used and who used them.”
McGill was especially interested in community life, so it’s no surprise that she collected everything needed to outfit a 1920s kitchen, Fox said. McGill also collected Native American and Asian items and saved her medical equipment. She appreciated ceramics, particularly Italian Majolica.
Other donors amassed textiles, quilts and clothing. Some accumulated farm machinery, guns and musical instruments. One of the most unusual donations is a dog-powered treadmill that dairies used to churn butter, Fox said. An empty can is believed to be the only remaining can from the Bozeman pea cannery, which closed in 1958. Two cast iron dairy cows helped MSC instructors teach agriculture.
The size of today’s history collection is more than 35,000 items. In total, the MOR houses more than 360,000 objects and specimens in all collections, which means that the MOR—like McGill once did—needs more storage space and plans to begin construction of the new facility within a year, Fox said.
The wide variety of materials in the collections also creates challenges for preservation, Roath said. Not only does she watch for mice, silverfish and other pests, but she tries to keep the storage room at 65 degrees (plus or minus 5 degrees) and 40 percent humidity (with no more than 5 percent variation) in a 24-hour period. She examines, cleans and photographs donations. She researches their background, writes detailed descriptions, records that information in a digital database and prepares them for storage.
“There’s so much work in caring for them,” Roath said. “It can take several hours just to catalog one object.” ■