PHILIPSBURG – The town with the state’s oldest continuously operating jail has emerged as the front runner to become home to the Montana Law Enforcement Museum, at least on a temporary basis.
“I think that gives us a unique advantage,” said town clerk and treasurer Gena Berry of the 1896 jail’s distinction.
“Philipsburg has approached the museum with a very generous and nice offer,” said Dan Smith, chairman of the museum. “We are seriously considering moving the museum there on a temporary basis at least. I would say it’s only a formality.”
The state’s law enforcement museum was established in 1987 at the Old Prison in Deer Lodge. It was moved to the Holiday Village Mall in Great Falls in 2006 to attract more visitors, but closed down five years later when the rent of $100 a month was increased 12-fold.
Since then, items such as a John Dillinger wanted-in-five-states reward poster, handcuffs and leg shackles from the 1880s, a confiscated “one-armed bandit” slot machine and a vintage 1954 Montana Highway Patrol car have been in storage. Shelved as well has been a memorial to the state’s fallen peace officers.
Last fall, state Attorney General Tim Fox and past AG’s Steve Bullock, Marc Racicot and Mike Greeley wrote a letter that appeared in Montana newspapers urging cities across the state to consider giving the museum a permanent home. Best-case scenario would be one that has 5,000 square feet of space, a good volunteer base and attracts “an adequate number of tourists each year.”
The reaction was underwhelming, Smith said Monday.
“I anticipated more of a response from cities and towns, places like Missoula or Billings and some of the bigger cities,” said Smith, a detective on the Great Falls police force.
Meanwhile little ol’ Philipsburg was already hatching a plan. The historic mining and agricultural hub in Granite County is busy reinventing itself into a tourism-based burg.
“We had been talking to them a little bit before the AGs’ letter,” Berry said. “We’d heard about it from our current sheriff (Scott Dunkerson) and a few people from the office here at town hall had made calls. Then when it came out publicized like that we thought, ‘Oh, dear, we’d better get something going if we really want to have it here.’ ”
The town offered its “retired” fire hall next to town hall. At 2,500 square feet it’s half the size the museum board is looking for. The Granite County Museum down the street has said overflow items can be stored on its second floor.
A committee from the museum board visited late last year and came away encouraged.
“Most everything I heard from every member who went to Philipsburg came back impressed with the town, and impressed with the leadership of the town as well,” Smith said. “They were very helpful and they understand our limitations. So I’m kind of excited about having it in Philipsburg for a while.”
The museum board is putting together a list of questions to present to the town council. Items such as insurance and when the building will be ready for occupancy are still up in the air.
“We have so much time in which to answer those questions, and I think it’ll go back and forth a couple of times until everybody’s satisfied with what it’s going to look like and how it’s going to work,” Berry said.
A list of volunteers to staff the museum is under construction. Most of them are retired law enforcement officers living in the area.
The goal, all agree, is to open the museum by the summer tourist season.
“It’s looking pretty good at this point,” said Berry, who with Mayor Craig Sorenson is leading the effort.
“I really appreciation them stepping up and helping us out at this time,” Smith said.
While there’s no specific goal for visitors, Smith said the Great Falls mall museum drew 15,000 to 20,000 visitors a year.
“That wouldn't be bad” if Philipsburg could match that, he said.
“If it takes off in the next year or two, or even five years, and starts drawing in visitors, our board would have to get back together and seriously consider just leaving it in Philipsburg and looking at some place in Philipsburg to make it the permanent home.”