Montana State University

20,000 people a year visit Tinsley House to learn about homesteading in Montana

July 8, 2013 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

The Tinsley House was built the same year Montana became a state and opened to the public the same year Montana celebrated its centennial. It now attracts 20,000 visitors a year. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies). The Tinsley House came to MSU's Museum of the Rockies in 1986. Part of its route was Interstate 90. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies).

The Tinsley House was built the same year Montana became a state and opened to the public the same year Montana celebrated its centennial. It now attracts 20,000 visitors a year. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies).    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571

BOZEMAN –A log house carrying memories from the homesteading days of Montana merged into traffic and joined the cars and trucks streaming east on Interstate 90.

As angry drivers backed up behind it, the slow-moving Tinsley House rolled from Three Forks to Belgrade, south to Four Corners and east to Bozeman before settling next to Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies in 1986. 

“I could always tell the progress we’d made each day by the angry phone calls,” said Michael Hager, head of the museum at that time and now president and CEO of the San Diego Natural History Museum.  “We backed up traffic for 30 miles on the interstate and truckers were really mad. Then, when it arrived in Bozeman, if trees or mailboxes were in the way, they were removed and a stack of firewood was left for the homeowners along the street.

 “We started off with a sign on the back of the home that said, ‘Follow me to the Museum of the Rockies,’” Hager said. “Charles Kuralt did a national news story about it. We took it off after the angry phone calls started coming in.” 

Sentiments changed, however, after renovators prepared the Tinsley House for more company than it had seen in a century near Willow Creek.  

Twenty-four years after opening to the public, the Tinsley House now attracts 20,000 people a year who are curious about homesteading life between 1860 and 1910, said David Kinsey, manager of the Living History Farm. Among them have been Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, movie stars and the producers of the PBS reality show “Frontier House.” 

“My vision was that the homestead would allow us to tell a very important story of Montana settlement and agriculture in a way that would generate a great deal of public interest,” Hager said. “But I had no idea it would be so wonderful and so important to the educational program of the museum.” 

Shelley McKamey, current director of the Museum of the Rockies, said, “Many people came to Montana in the first wave of homesteaders in the 1880s and 1890s and many of them were involved in agriculture. Helping students and visitors understand what life was actually like at this time in Montana’s history is an important part of the Museum’s mission. Whenever kids can connect with past in a tangible way, it helps them understand that what happened before was real -- real events happening to real people, just like them.”

The Tinsley House was built in 1889, the year Montana became a state. It opened to the public in 1989, the year Montana celebrated its centennial. Since then, the two-story, four-bedroom house has been joined by a root cellar, garden, chicken house, granary, barn, blacksmith shop, outhouse, machine shed, apple orchard, wheat field, chickens and the occasional sheep and milk cows. Almost 100 volunteers -- including children, families and very senior senior citizens – now spend their summers demonstrating what life might have been like for Montana homesteaders. 

“The whole idea behind the Tinsley House is that it’s useable,” Kinsey said. “Artifacts have to be hands-on.”

 Some volunteers tend the garden, where all the plants are grown from seeds that are at least 100 years old and seem to have stories behind them. “Red Orach,” for one, is the first plant to emerge every spring, Kinsey said. It’s loaded with vitamins and sometimes called “mountain spinach.” The seeds of “Snow On The Mountain” were collected by Lewis and Clark and sent to President Thomas Jefferson to grow at Monticello. By the 1880s, the plant was included in seed catalogs that homesteaders might have received.

 Other volunteers cook meals on a wood stove, forge tools, plow fields, spin yarn, weave rugs, and make bread, butter and biscuits.Walter Mason, who became a volunteer in 1989 and continued until his recent death at age 96, demonstrated leather working.

“He was raised on a ranch in North Dakota, so he knew how to do some of these things that they did on ranches in those days,” said his 93-year-old wife and long-time museum volunteer, Allagene. 

Other volunteers lead children’s games, conduct tours through the house and identify photos of William and Lucy Tinsley and their eight children.

“One of my favorite things about the Tinsley House is hearing parents, grandparents and great-grandparents share stories with their children,” McKamey said. “The cross-generational connection is very sweet to see.”

William and Lucy Nave Tinsley moved to Montana to get away from Missouri, a state split by the Civil War, Kinsey said. Even the Tinsley brothers were divided by war, he added. William and Joseph, who originally moved to Virginia City, were probably Confederates.  Their younger brother John, a sketchy character who moved to the Helena area, fought for the Union.  

William and Lucy Tinsley, a dressmaker, married in 1867, Kinsey said. For more than two decades, they lived in an 8-by-16 house near Willow Creek with their growing family. In 1889, they built the larger log house that now sits at the Museum of the Rockies. 

The fact that the house was made of logs indicates that the Tinsleys were relatively poor compared to those who built brick houses along Willson Avenue in Bozeman, Kinsey said.  

Hager said the condition of the Tinsley House and a touching story about the children’s involvement were part of the reason he was attracted to the house. 

“It was built exactly 100 years prior to the new Museum of the Rockies building, and I thought it would illustrate 100 years of change in our region,” Hager said. “It was in incredibly good shape and the personal story of the Tinsley children making a two-day wagon trip alone to get the logs (from the Tobacco Root Mountains) was very compelling.”  

McKamey said the museum has three main goals for its Living History program. The first is to operate and maintain a historically authentic Montana homestead as typical of those established between 1864 and 1917. The second is to provide an opportunity for visitors and students to experience, participate in and understand the importance of Montana’s agriculture and rural heritage. The third is to enhance the meaningful involvement of the agricultural community and the general public in the organization, support and activities of the Living History Farm.

“Even after 25 years of operation, some people don’t know anything about the farm and it’s just too great an experience to have anyone miss it,” McKamey said. “We are in the midst of a long-range plan to chart the future of the Living History program and welcome people’s input.”

The Tinsley House opened May 25 this year and will remain open through Sept. 22. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Cost is included in the admission price for the Museum of the Rockies.

Upcoming events are:

  1. Wild West Wednesdays. Hands-on activities for the family run from 1 to 3 p.m. every Wednesday through Aug. 14. 
  2. More courses in the Urban Homesteading Series. They will run from 6 to 8 p.m. on July 25 (raising chickens), Aug. 22 (Dutch oven cooking) and Aug. 29 (bee keeping basics). Pre-registration is required. 

For more information, go to

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or