Eye Candy: Montana Auto Museum

Photos by Larry Edsall

When I was a kid, the prison at Deer Lodge, Montana, was just that — a prison. I know, because my Grandfather helped put it back together after a riot in 1959 that cost the life of a guard.

My Grandfather had just retired as the warden at the Old Joliet Prison in Illinois. If you’ve watched the Blue Brothers movie, you’ve seen that prison. As the movie opens, you see the part of the exterior of the second-floor apartment where my grandparents lived within the prison walls.

At some point in his career, my Grandfather met the governor of Montana when he was visiting Illinois. After the riot at Deer Lodge, the governor hired my Grandfather as a consultant to work with the prison’s staff and inmates.

Fast forward a few decades and the ancient Montana prison, located on the main street of town and just a couple of blocks from the downtown business district, had outlived its usefulness and a new, modern facility was built a few miles out of town. At some point, the old prison was turned into a museum.

In 1979, Montana rancher, banker and businessman Edward Towe turned a huge workshop adjacent to the prison, but just outside its stone walls, into the home for his huge collection of Ford automobiles. Towe’s collection included at least one Ford from every year Henry and his descendants had made them.

I’d visited Deer Lodge twice while my grandparents lived there. I went back in the mid-1990s, touring the prison-turned-museum and the Towe collection.

Now it’s 2014 and I’m back again. The prison museum continues to be well-worth the detour from I-90, and while the Towe collection no longer exists, its place has been taken by the Montana Auto Museum. The all-Ford showcase has been replaced by an array of various makes and models from the early days of motoring up through and even beyond the muscle-car era.

Bonuses include an old blacksmith shop and an informative display on the Yellowstone Trail, which was sort of the Route 66 of the north. The trail, which predated the Mother Road, was proclaimed “A Good Road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound,” extending from Boston to Seattle via Chicago.

You travel back in time as you enter the museum. As you walk through the museum with its various ramps and galleries, you travel forward with the evolution of the automobile.

You enter the auto museum through a door in the gift shop it shares with the prison museum. Your admission to the prison museum also covers your visit to the automotive collection, as well as other local museums. The prison and auto museums are just two of the facilities overseen by the Powell County Museum & Arts Foundation. Another one just across the street from the prison is Yesterday’s Playthings, a doll and toy museum.

At least that’s what the red building houses today. Back when I was a kid, it was where my grandparents lived for a couple of years.

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