Jefferson Valley Museum showcases area history
WHITEHALL - Ron Hunt was born in 1936. As a child, he helped out his mom and dad with their dairy business in Waterloo, a few miles north of Silver Star. They would freeze blocks of ice in their 1940s refrigerator in order to pack their cream and butter and get it—nice and cold—to markets 40 miles away in Butte. That same refrigerator now sits in the Jefferson Valley Museum.
Janice Carmody was born in Cardwell, to Cardwell-native parents, in 1942 and has loved it and the Jefferson Valley ever since. Her mother was a member of one of the last graduating classes in Cardwell in the 1930s before all the area’s surrounding students started coming to the high school in Whitehall, where a failed beet factory’s staff dormitory was used to house students instead. She and Hunt love their home so much, they’ve been devoting their lives to preserving its history an making it come alive for visitors for nearly 30 years.
The Jefferson Valley Museum first opened in 1996 in the renovated Brooke Barn just south of Whitehall’s main street. But for four years before that, volunteers donated every hour of work to make the barn suitable as a museum: painting, rebuilding portions, adding rooms and updating fixtures. Carmody and Hunt were both there helping and have been ever since.
The museum is organized into a variety of themed rooms: a doctor’s office, a music room, a railroad room and even a retro-style kitchen, where Hunt’s childhood fridge sits next to an old-fashioned pea-shelling device.
There are countless artifacts from as far back as the Civil War era (a rather suspicious shotgun whose origins remain a mystery) telling the story of how Whitehall, Cardwell and their surrounding area came to be. There are some firsts, some lasts and everything in between, plus an air of nostalgia, a yearning for the way things used to be in small-town Montana.
The town of Whitehall itself grew up around the Northern Pacific Railway, which used the spot to house three reserve “helper” engines, which used to assist trains heading over the area’s passes toward Butte. The first railway passenger went through in 1889, while Montana was still a territory.
Later on, in 1919, a sugar beet processing factory was built in the new town, the bastion of a new industry and a beacon of Whitehall’s bright future. But built that year, it was demolished the next, having never processed a single beet. Reasons why are numerous, from the unwillingness of local farmers to pledge their land to the expense and difficulty of processing beets. But the only evidence the factory ever existed, however briefly, is the smokestack, a shorter, skinnier and cleaner twin of the one that stands over Anaconda. Even the old dormitory is now gone.
In the doctor’s office inside the museum hangs the diploma of Dr. Lawrence Packard, a physician in Whitehall who practiced for over five decades and owned Whitehall’s first automobile. But Hunt personally remembers Packard’s successor, Dr. Hill, for a very personal reason.
Sometime around 1950—Hunt doesn’t recall the exact date—Dr. Hill performed brain surgery on Hunt’s cousin after the boy had been hit by a car while chasing a ball into the street. The boy’s skull was embedded with gravel and dirt from the street, and it’s a miracle he survived at all. But the most extraordinary detail? Hill was walked through the surgery by a colleague on the East Coast—over the phone, during a time when even the most reliable local connections were sketchy at best. Hunt’s cousin went on to live a long and normal life, passing away just a couple of years ago.
Not far from the model doctor’s office hangs the noose that hung the last man executed in Jefferson County: Roy Walsh, who was hanged in 1924 after allegedly robbing a store and shooting its owner. His guilt was never fully established. From that same year hangs nearby the dress worn by Whitehall High School’s very first prom queen.
In another room hangs a copy of Montana’s first highway map, printed in 1914. On it, only 40 counties are represented—16 fewer than exist today—and only five Native American reservations, of which the state now has seven.
Speaking of numeric discrepancies, the flag that hangs on the wall in the war room bears further scrutiny, says Hunt. It holds 42 stars, making it a flag that technically shouldn’t exist. New flags became official on July 4th of each year that one or more new states joined the union. In 1890, the year Montana’s star would have joined the flag, there were 38 stars. But since Montana joined the union along with Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington, the updated flag jumped directly to one with 43 stars, and no official 42-star version was ever released. It’s possible the one that hangs in the Jefferson Valley Museum is the only one of its kind.
Some of the things on display are items you may never have thought you’d find interesting. But even a collection of 286 irons (yes, the kind you use to press your clothes) is fascinating. Each one is different, and upon lifting one or two, you’ll be counting your blessings to have an electric one at home that weighs less than five pounds.
One of the area’s most famous natives is also honored, legendary news anchor Chet Huntley. Born in Cardwell in 1911, Huntley participated in about every activity at the local high school, from athletics to debate, before going on to an illustrious career with NBC News.
The number of artifacts is almost overwhelming, and that’s just inside the barn. There’s a whole other building and an outdoor courtyard left to explore. Everything on display is either donated or on loan, Hunt says.
“We never have enough room for everything,” Hunt says. “Never a week goes by that someone doesn’t come in with something to donate.”
That’s a good problem to have, one that shows just how much Whitehall’s residents love their town and want to see it preserved.
Outside the barn, there’s more to be seen. From old-fashioned gas pumps to farm equipment, a three-person outhouse and even an entire blacksmith’s shop, moved log by log from its home in the South Boulder to be rebuilt at the museum.
This is just a sampling of all the fascinating things to be seen at the Jefferson Valley Museum. Newly facelifted due to grants, donations and a fundraiser screening of “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” organized by actor Bill Pullman and director Jared Moshe, the museum is open from 12 noon until 4 p.m. every day except Mondays, through the rest of the summer until September 15.
The museum has drawn international visitors as well as people from all 50 states. Group tours are welcome, and appointments can be made by calling (406) 287-7813 or visiting them at 303 S. Division Street in Whitehall.
Admission is free and donations—of money, time or bits of local history—are always welcome.