The Carbon County Historical Society Museum in Red Lodge, Montana is a slice of western history not to be missed. 

If you think small town museums are hokey or not well-curated, you’ll happily discover you’re wrong visiting this one. Step into the former Labor Temple Built in 1909 by local miners and learn. This nicely appointed building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The historical society’s mission, “…to preserve and communicate the history of the Cabin County area.”

Certain family names are recognizable even to a newcomer to Red Lodge. The Greenoughs, Waples, and Linderman have a long history of rodeo and ranching. The area was once heavily mined for coal—my first home in Red Lodge was a transplanted miner’s shack. It was the right size for one person, but I don’t know how a whole family lived in it.

There are rotating exhibits changing at least annually. The traveling exhibit while we toured was “Parading Through History, the Crow People.” (On loan from the Western Heritage Center in Billings). 

Jeremiah Johnson–a Slice of Western History

The original John “Liver Eating” Johnston’s cabin is located at the north entrance to Red Lodge alongside the Chamber of Commerce. There is a perfect replica in miniature inside the museum. For fans of the Robert Redford movie, Jeremiah Johnson, know it was fiction. The real Johnston was Red Lodge’s first constable and never a mountain man. Maybe—or not—a man who got his wicked reputation by eating a dead warrior’s liver. At six feet tall and 220 pounds, he was a mountain of a man for the 1880s. Perhaps Johnston’s size is where the poetic license stems from.

John "Liver Eating" Johnston
The real Liver Eatin Johnston

Liver Eatin’ was known to tipple a brew with Buffalo Bill Cody at the then Spofford, now Pollard, Hotel. If you want four-star accommodation in the center of town, this is the place to check out (or check in!). If nothing else, make reservations for an elegant dining experience. Or opt for the more casual pub side and perhaps enjoy a live local band. Guaranteed to get your boots stomping.

Back to the Historical Society 

It was a eerie to go into the basement and walk through the simulated coal mine. It’s dark and there is equipment that the miners would have used. There are remnants from nearby Washoe’s Smith Mine. In 1943, 74 out of 77 working miners were killed in an explosion. The disaster was the largest mining loss of life in Montana and the mine was never re-opened.

An exhibit we enjoyed was the home-country attire of folks who settled in the area. The Red Lodge Festival of Nations was once an amazing week-long event celebrating every nationality. Events included dancing, traditional attire, and classic games from those countries. Sadly, 2016 was the last year for it due to lack of volunteers. With that event ending, it was nice to see some of the clothing on hand.

If you want to see a huge fire arms display, head to Cody and visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum. An entire wing of this vast facility devoted to munitions. In the meantime, enjoy several vintage rifles and revolvers on display.

When You Go

The museum is on Broadway—Red Lodge’s main street—and can’t be missed.

Winter days are limited, so check the site before you go. Summer hours are Tuesday-Saturday from Memorial through Labor Day weekends.

Hours are 10:00 – 4:00 and allow at least one hour.

Cost is minimal for adults with many discounts—making adding a donation a breeze.

The adjoining gift shop—The Mercantile—puts you in mind of packages wrapped in brown paper and bound with twine. If you don’t know the reference, get to watching some Westerns. You’re sure to find some cowboy-themed items to pop into your luggage as tidbits for remembering your visit.

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