Montana, US National Parks

Montana road trip, part IV: cowboys, old cars, & the prison museum

Next up on our Montana history tour: Deer Lodge, a small town with a surprising amount of history! We arrived mid-morning and our first stop was Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site. This is an old cattle ranch that’s still semi-active. They have horses and cattle on site and park workers give tours, talks, and demonstrations of life in the Little Blackfoot River Valley in the late 1800s.

From the parking lot, it’s a short walk out to the ranch buildings. This includes stables, barns, a bunkhouse for the cowboys, and the old ranch house built by John Francis Grant. At this time in US history, white settlers were migrating west in increasing numbers seeking land and riches through homesteading, ranching, or mining. Deer Lodge was over 1000 miles (1600 km) from the starting point of their journey. Grant made a name for himself by trading these settlers one healthy cow for two travel-weary cows. He would then bring the cows back to full strength over the winter and start the next season with nearly double the amount of cattle. At one point he owned well over 1000 cattle.

Ranch house built by Grant

Eventually, Grant grew tired of the increasingly unscrupulous cattle industry (easterners were coming west to ranch and get rich, and were doing so by not fulfilling promised business transactions and lying about how many cattle they owned in order to attract investors). Grant sold the ranch to a man named Conrad Kohrs and moved with his family to Canada.

Kohrs was a business-savvy fellow who realized it would be more profitable for him to not only raise the cattle but also butcher the cattle, thus controlling the supply and therefore prices. He sold to local miners and shipped the meat as far east as Chicago. This proved to be a fairly successful strategy and gave him enough financial stability to survive the Hard Winter of 1886-1887, in which especially severe weather caused the loss of more than 40% of all cattle in Montana.

That winter also brought about changes to ranching, as it proved that turning cattle loose on the open range and not caring for them could be catastrophic. Ranchers therefore begin erecting fences to confine their cattle to certain areas. Arriving homesteaders also began building fences around their properties to keep cattle out, essentially bringing an end to the open range. To care for their cattle, ranchers also began growing hay to feed the animals during the winter.

We learned all of this and more from park rangers and exhibits at Grant-Kohrs. It was a really interesting place to visit and a nice depiction of what life was actually like out here back then (in contrast to movie depictions of the ranching and cowboy life, which are greatly exaggerated in many ways while neglecting to mention the skills and hard work involved).

Old farming equipment
Quarter horse
Blacksmith shop
A park worker made us some “cowboy coffee” (it was unfiltered and very strong)

Next, we jumped forward a few years to learn about life in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Lacking any real system of law enforcement in territorial Montana, vigilantes were taking it upon themselves to deal with an increasing population of lawless settlers. Eventually, the territorial legislature requested funds for the prison which was built in Deer Lodge in the 1870s.

It was used until 1979, when a new larger prison was built a few miles away. Today, the entire prison complex has been turned into a collection of museums. This includes the Prison Museum, the Montana Auto Museum, a toy museum, a pioneer museum, and the Powell County Museum. Admission to all 5 of them was $24 total for both of us… a great deal considering how much there is to see!

We began at the auto museum. I don’t know how a random museum in a small town in western Montana ended up with so many old cars, but it did. The cars ranged from 1903 through the 1970s and it was really neat to observe the gradual changes from the simplest cars that looked like little more than a buggy (they had no roof or windows, a 2 speed transmission, a hand crank starting mechanism, thin tires with spokes, and maxed out at 20 mph (32 kmh)) to the classic cars of the 1970s.

1903 Ford Model A Runabout
Ford, c. 1910
Ford, c. 1910
1914 Detroit Electric Car (I didn’t realize electric cars had existed for over 100 years!)
1915 Seagrave chemical fire truck
1929 Ford Model A station wagon
1933 Kozy Kamp pop-up trailer (also something I didn’t know had existed for so many years)
1948 Ford Super Deluxe Woodie
Sebring Vanguard electric car, c. 1970

Next up was the prison museum. This was a great self-guided tour using a pamphlet we received with admission. It walked us through the whole complex located within the 24 foot (7 m) high stone walls. We were able to step into prison cells, see the maximum security and solitary confinement areas, the yard, mess hall, showers, and even the underground tunnel system that was used by security personnel.

As is the case today, overcrowding was an almost constant issue at the prison. In 1896, the prisoners themselves constructed a new building with 256 additional cells. It’s no longer standing, as it was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1959. However, a second additional cell house which was constructed in 1912 is still fully intact. Pretty much everything I knew about prisons was based on TV shows and movies so it was interesting to see and learn what things were actually like.

Montana Prison Museum
1912 cell block
Visiting area

We also spent a few minutes in each of the other 3 museums. They involved much less reading and much more looking at collections of old items. After spending most of the day reading and listening and learning, we were happy to end the day by just doing some looking.

Toy Museum
A small outdoor exhibit

Across the street was a small outdoor railroad exhibit commemorating the driving of the last spike in the Northern Pacific Railroad which linked Lake Superior in the midwest with Portland and Seattle on the west coast. The last spike was placed about 20 miles (32 km) north of Deer Lodge in September 1883, and a massive celebration was held a couple weeks later to mark the event.

I don’t know why the sign says 1909… I double checked and the railroad was in fact completed in 1883

And that wraps up our Montana history day in Deer Lodge. We spent the night at Indian Creek RV Campground, which we really liked. It has probably the nicest campground bathrooms I’ve ever seen, a large tent area, and an excellent view of the mountains!


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: Deer Lodge is located right along I-90 in western Montana; it’s a small town and any maps app should easily get you to Grant-Kohrs and the Prison Museum
  • Grant-Kohrs fees: none
  • Prison Museum fees: admission prices are not listed online; what I do know for sure is that entry to the entire museum complex for my mom (senior rate) + me (adult rate) was a total of $24
  • Where to stay: Deer Lodge offers various hotels and a couple campgrounds; we stayed at Indian Creek and would recommend it
  • Other: Grant-Kohrs is entirely outdoors and the Prison Museum complex has outdoor sections, so come prepared for the weather of the day, bring water, and wear good walking shoes

30 thoughts on “Montana road trip, part IV: cowboys, old cars, & the prison museum”

  1. Congratulations. I still remember my first solo hike in the mountains. I did a one night backpack trip. I was very fit at the time. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The only difficulty was keeping busy, after the sun went down, because it was then too dark to read. Also I had to hike through several kilometres of berry bushes. That was when I made as much noise as possible. At the end I felt a real sense of accomplishment. It was also nice to hike at my own ideal speed, not faster and not slower. Every experienced hiker should do a solo trip at least once.

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  2. What a beautiful place! The blacksmith shop looks super cool and I’m sure the auto museum was fascinating! The outdoor exhibit really looks like a scene from a movie! Thanks for sharing and making us travel through your words and pictures 😊

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  3. Interesting dive into history, each time we learn a little more. I liked the choice of Canada by the farmer disgusted with the abusive business methods in the US, isn’t it still relevant?

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  4. The sky just looks so blue! The 5 museums in one place concept is great as it means there’s something for everyone – I love the prison bit and would find that very interesting. Really enjoying following along on your roadtrip 🙂

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  5. 5 museums in 1 – what an efficient use of space and of people’s time. That 1921 cell block looks straight out of The Shawshank Redemption. Love that early pop-up camper! Like you, I had no idea things like that went so far back. I would never want to be a rancher OR a farmer. SO MUCH WORK. Have you seen the Clarkson’s Farm limited series on Amazon Prime? That gives some sense (in an entertaining way) of what it takes (in time, effort, and cost) to farm. No thank you!

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  6. I’m not much for museums, but I will say that $12 for one person for five museums is a HUGE steal! Considering that even the least-expensive museums aren’t even that cheap (at least in the US), I’m very impressive and you really do get a bang for your buck at these unique stops. Lovely to hear about what you saw in the museums in Montana!

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  7. Wow, what a wonderful place to visit especially the Old Prison Museum Complex and the colourful Toy Museum. I am glad to see you also had great weather for exploring the site that seems to be set in a quite staggering area. I mean just look at those beautiful mountains off in the distance and gorgeous blue sky! Thanks for sharing, Diana, and have a nice day! Aiva 🙂 xx

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  8. I enjoyed this comprehensive visit to Deer Lodge Montana, Diana. It’s always transformative to steep ourselves in the past and see how life was lived in another place and time. And you did a good job of sharing this world with us, thank you.

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  9. Wow, the auto museum is quite impressive! So many cars (and in such mint condition), I’m sure they don’t have to stand back for any other big car museum! Love the look of the 1903 Ford Model and that pop-up trailer was also a surprise to see!
    I would say this certainly was a great day out! Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Yes, we were impressed by how good a condition everything was in as well! Most cars were leaking a little oil but other than that they were in top top shape.

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  10. Thanks for taking us further on your tour 🙂 The blacksmit shop looked very nice as wel as the old cars. How did the cowboy coffee taste ? It must be great to visit the prison museum, a place where you normaly seldom come. Thanks for your story and the abundance of pictures.

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    1. I’m not a fan of black coffee in general, so this might be a biased opinion… but I found it to be very strong and pretty gross. The pieces of coffee grounds floating in it didn’t help. But for someone who likes black coffee, it probably would be less objectionable

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  11. Thanks Diana. I agree that the museums are an outstanding deal. The prison and the auto museum given how much there is to see is worth that price. Sorry I didn’t see Grant-Kohrs historic site and will get that on the next road trip. I wondered the same thing you did i.e. how did all this fascinating stuff end up in a little somewhat remote town in Montana. Great pictures…

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