Wendell Pawlowski, McCone County Museum – Circle, Mont.

posted in: Journal | 0
Wendell Pawlowski, curator of the McCone County Museum in Circle, Montana.
Wendell Pawlowski, curator of the McCone County Museum in Circle, Montana.

CIRCLE, Mont. — Wendell Pawlowski has seen the eras pass here, marked by the various energy sources used for heat and light: coal, kerosene, and gas. He remembers heating his family home with coal mined from deposits near the Pawlowski ranch.

Born in South Dakota in 1933, Wendell moved to the homestead when he was three years old  to live with his mother, father, and three brothers. Wendell sold the ten-section ranch just five years ago. Now retired, he curates the McCone County Museum.

A sign hangs above the entrance to the main area of the museum with a quote from famed Montana historian K. Ross Toole: “It seems pretty silly to proceed into the future if you don’t know where the hell you came from.”

Another sign is suspended from the ceiling of the museum that reads, “Keepsakes of the Pioneers of McCone County and Antique Collection of Leonard and Irene Pawlowski and Sons.”

In the 1950s, Wendell Pawlowski’s father, Leonard Pawlowski, began amassing out-of-use relics, combing estate sales and gathering discards from area residents. The accumulation of that effort produced some 3,000 items.

The McCone County Museum, located on the south side of Circle on Highway 200, shows visitors a history both of the area and of the Pawlowski family. Wendell has curated the museum for the past decade.

The project developed out of Leonard’s passion for history and antiques. Wendell said his father had always intended his collection to become a county museum.

Working with the county commissioner in 1982, Leonard arranged for the museum to be built. The main display area is housed in a 6,200 foot Quonset hut, which has since been expanded on in two directions.

Once the museum was built, Wendell assisted his father in emptying four sheds full of amassed antiques to put on display.

“He gave his private collection to the county, then other people gave their stuff, too,” Wendell said. Like his father, Wendell still visits estate sales to purchase pieces for the museum.

“It is easy to forget that there were no trees in Circle until someone planted them there.”

With contributions from others in the area, Leonard Pawlowski’s original collection grew to include the roughly 5,000 historical photographs, documents, mounted game animals, antique guns, military uniforms, vehicles, books, farm tools, relics of country living, and knickknacks.

Large items include a sheep wagon, dressed mannequins, and a horse-drawn buggy built in 1920. Farm and ranching tools line some walls; Native American arrowheads, tools, knives, and garments are exhibited in another area. One display case is devoted to local war heroes and antique military garb.

A doorway in the back corner leads to the extensive taxidermy section, where the collection of Orville Quick is displayed. Wildlife scenes portray hundreds of stuffed and arranged creatures behind glass in two six hundred square foot rooms—fowl, reptiles, fish, and mammals of all sorts.

Quick held the position of curator for fifteen years, from 1983 until 1999. Another curator managed the museum for about five years after that.

One length of wall is adorned with brands from nearby farms and ranches, including the Rorvik family’s brand, a circle, for the Old Circle Ranch, after which the town was named.

Many items are left over from the homesteading days, at its height between 1917 and 1928. Farmers and ranchers, many of whom were unable to make a living, left their lives, land, and possessions behind. In some ways, the museum is a tribute to this punishing way of life.

“When water, TV, and power came, people threw stuff away,” Wendell said. “For a lot of these things, they were going to throw it in the junk pile—no good for the young people. They didn’t want it.”

Some pieces, while unvalued by their owners at one time, are now collector’s items.

Take rifles, for instance. “When bolt actions came along, people didn’t want lever actions,” Wendell said. “Now some of these lever action rifles go for thousands.”

In addition to interpreting the wealth of information available at the museum, Wendell gives a personal viewpoint on local and state history.

People from big cities might think this area is the widest, most open of spaces, but it is nothing like it used to be, Wendell said. “It is easy to forget that there were no trees in Circle until someone planted them there.”

“It used to be the gas age, then the jet age, then the ‘what’ age. What age is it now? The ATV age?” Wendell asked. “Now, we go to basketball games a hundred miles away when it’s twenty below zero and think nothing of it.”

Because there was no wood to burn for warmth, let alone build a house with, coal stoves heated households. For those who could afford it, wood had to be transported fifty miles from Glendive.

Much has changed for Wendell in his 81 years.

“It used to be the gas age, then the jet age, then the ‘what’ age. What age is it now? The ATV age?” Wendell asked. “Now, we go to basketball games a hundred miles away when it’s twenty below zero and think nothing of it.”

He remembers the night of Nov. 13 1964 in particular. A loud “boom” woke him from sleep. The source of the noise was a B-52 jet bomber that crashed 12 miles outside Circle. The Circle Banner wrote that two area residents driving by reported “a terrific explosion and flames seemed to shoot into the air several thousand feet when the plane crashed.”

Wendell and other volunteers helped fight the resulting field fire until the air police arrived from Glasgow to finish the job. Of the seven crewmen aboard the Air Force plane, none survived the crash.

He remembers growing up with harsh winters that can make life difficult for residents of the area. Some mornings, he woke to pails of water left inside the house that froze overnight. Extreme cold is just something his family had to deal with, Wendell said.

And when he thinks back to the people that came here on rail and wagon, to populate the unforgiving, arid plains, he can’t think of why they left the conveniences of the East to settle in this region.

“So they was pretty hardy people, to live through a winter here,” he said.

Hard winters aside, he said he is glad he never lived anywhere else.

Loading Facebook Comments ...