In the early 1980s the Bair Ranch outside of Martinsdale, Montana, was almost a mythical place. Curators and historians told me of wonders to be found inside, of an outstanding western art collection surrounded by the most eclectic mix of European antiques and decorative arts imaginable, especially for such an isolated spot. When I visited the area for the historic preservation plan in 1984, locals again repeated the stories of the wonders inside, but they were wondering what would happen to it all once Mrs. Alberta Bair passed–she was in her eighties then.
The Bair Ranch was a landmark for not just what was alleged to be insider–and the compelling, striking Colonial Revival design of the ranch house–but for the man whose empire it represented, Charley Bair, who first showed the stockmen of eastern Montana
that wealth could be gained from sheep–hundreds of thousands on ranches both on the Musselshell River valley near Lavina and along the Big Horn River near Hardin–but also by translating that agricultural wealth into investments in banks and industry. Bair was a stockman but his wife and daughters were more urbanities–and their Martinsdale home, with its irrigation ditch just outside the front windows, was proof. This house belonged more on Summit Avenue in St. Paul than it did on the plains of central Montana.
When Alberta Bair, the last of the daughters, died in the early 1990s, she confounded many by leaving the ranch house and its contents not to the state museum but to a local foundation. When I visited the place almost 15 years after her death in 2007 it was obvious that the foundation had maintained the property–it looked much as it did when I had been there in the late 1990s–but its hours of operation were sorta unknown and it was just there–still a powerful physical statement but little interpretation available.
In 2011 and 2013 it was a different world. Rather than gathering people at the historic stock barn, there was a visitor center and a museum that could properly light and preserve not only key pieces of art and decorative arts from the collection but also serve as a place for small traveling exhibits, giving local residents a reason aways to return.
The Bair Ranch was no longer just a mythic place–it was a destination. And from talking with the educators and volunteers who were working there in those years, the obvious pride of place was apparent, but they also took great delight in seeing how outsiders reacted to this touch of elegance, in the middle of nowhere.
Here was one of those places transformed between 1984 and 2014–and transformed into a huge heritage asset not only for residents but for heritage tourism throughout central Montana. Certainly Alberta Bair left money–but it took some time for the foundation to find its legs and actually change the place from a preservation project into an education venue that could generate sustainable tourism. By making a visit unique and special, the foundation has helped secure the future of the Bair Ranch and its story that sheep could pay, and pay big–for this century. Just one of several stereotypes about the West and ranches smashed at this place outside of Martinsdale.