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Beacon Senior News

Montrose museums are a window into local history

Aug 01, 2017 01:41PM ● By Bob Cox

Leaders from the Ute Mountain, Southern Ute and the Ouray Uintah Utes on the day of the museum’s rededication. Photo courtesy of the Ute Indian Museum.

Almost every town has a museum filled with artifacts attempting to make local history interesting to the casual observer.

But Montrose museums take historical interest to a new level. The area boasts three quality museums, each offering a take on history. To visit one to the exclusion of the others, or worse yet, to not visit any, is to miss valuable insight into our heritage.

Ute Indian Museum

Until recently, the Ute Indian Museum, located at 17253 Chipeta Road, focused on times past. The museum first opened in 1956 on land where Ouray, the famous Ute chief, once lived. His wife, Chipeta, is interred on the site. The facility went through a remodel in the late 1990s, but its exhibits remained substantially the same, focusing on what many thought to be a long-lost tribe.

After its recent remodel, completed in June, the museum is now a bridge that connects bygone days to our contemporary world.

Representatives of the Ute Mountain Tribe, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservations have endorsed the museum’s changes. It recognizes the past, but also explores modern Ute society.

The panorama displays have been replaced, some with large, touchscreen televisions. A touch of the finger reveals not artifacts, but actual tribe leaders, who tell the story of the Ute people.

The Museum of the Mountain West

On Montrose’s eastern edge is a collection of buildings that may appear to be the remnants of a small Western town. It’s actually a collection matched by few museums in the country.

Richard Fike is the founder and director of The Museum of the Mountain West, located at 68169 Miami Road. The museum is a culmination of dreams he’s had since he was just 4 years old.

Fike became a collector when he found an old clock while his father was working on the Alaska Highway. An inscription scratched into it indicated that it had been used during the Klondike Gold Rush. By age 8, Fike had turned a good part of his parents’ home into a museum.

In theory, the Museum of the Mountain West focuses on the 75 years between 1880 and 1930. But when selection butts up against collection, some things just can’t be ignored. Such is the case with the Mills Converter, an electronic violin that plays tunes on its own. The violin is displayed in a recreated saloon from the 1890s, but is a product of the early 1900s.

Fike is quick to note the slight inaccuracy, but asked rhetorically, “Where else were we going to put it? It’s too good a thing to just leave out.”

Visitors are guided through numerous recreations and displays, each with its own history lesson. There are dental and medical offices, a general store and all the artifacts of a drug store displayed much as they were when Delta-area residents shopped there. Relocated buildings provide many more lessons in local history.

More than 30 volunteers work at the museum, many as guides through the various displays, teaching visitors about the events and lifestyle of a time gone by.

“These volunteers are what makes this whole thing work,” Fike said. “Each of them gives a different perspective to what we have here, and that’s what makes us stand out.”

Montrose County Historical Museum

The Montrose County Historical Museum, located at 21 N. Rio Grande Ave., is a true treasure, situated in the heart of the city. It’s housed in the old Denver and Rio Grande Western (DRGW) Railroad Depot, beside the tracks that had much to do with Montrose’s birth. The building was erected in 1912, when area train travel was at its peak. When DRGW ended its passenger service in the 1950s, the building saw less use and began to fall into a state of disrepair. In 1972, enthusiastic citizens convinced the railroad company to donate the property to the City for use as a museum.

Many will argue that the Montrose County Historical Museum is more of a resource to local citizens than it is a tourist attraction.

The museum houses artifacts, and contains some of the best research opportunities available for amateur (and even professional) historians.

Director Sally Johnson said her staff received 45 requests for assistance in research projects last year. One of the most common requests is determining the history of certain houses in and around Montrose.

“Someone will move here, buy a house and discover that the house has a history. They come to us wanting to find out more,” she said.

Tourists may not fully appreciate the museum’s wood-burning art, created by local artist John Wilkes, who passed away in 2014. For many locals, however, his artwork on the bartop of the Stockmen’s Cafe is a source of pride. The artwork includes mountain and wildlife scenes, a brief history of the cafe and the names of many famous—and infamous—people who patronized the business. When the cafe closed, the bartop wound up in the museum.

To schedule research, call 249-2085.

Learn more about Montrose’s history

Ute Indian Museum 249-3098, Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Members are free; admission for adults is $6, seniors $5.

Montrose County Historical Museum 249-2085, Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday; May through October. Adult admission is $6.

Museum of the Mountain West 240-3400, Open 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Adult admission is $10. To get the most out of your experience, tours are guided by docents.