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Home closed for summer after board decides it's a financial drain

Planning a trip to the Charles M. Bair Family Museum this summer? Better strike the journey off that "to do" list.

Citing money woes, the board managing the $40 million trust doyenne Alberta Bair left upon her death in 1993 has decided not to reopen - not this year, anyway - the Martinsdale ranch home stuffed with European antiquities, Western paintings and American Indian beadwork.

"When you can only spend a dollar in one place, it's got to be responsibly done," trustee Jim Roscoe of Billings says. Bair's legacy, he says, funds not only the museum but also a host of philanthropic causes, including thousands of dollars in four-year, full-ride scholarships to local students. With its dwindling attendance numbers - about 5,000 people paid the $3 admission fee last summer, down from 15,000 the first year it was open, in 1994 - the museum has become a drain on the trust, Roscoe says. He estimates a cost of about $30 per visitor to keep the place running.

"I'd be surprised to see it open for the 2003 tourist season," Roscoe says.

If the closure is bad news for Montanans who'd hoped to tour the eclectic collection this year, it's even worse tidings for the businesspeople of Meagher and Wheatland counties, who say the loss of tourist dollars could be devastating in an area where "hardship" almost always follows the word "economic." The average annual income in Meagher County, a ranching community, is $18,000, county commissioner Jamie Doggett says.

"These are two struggling communities economically trying to hold onto this," Doggett says. "This is important to us. It brings people through."

Losing that traffic for one season will be hard enough on the region, but folks fear the museum will never reopen, she says. "By closing it this summer, then the momentum is gone - and I am firmly convinced that they will not open it ever again."

To Dorothy Spracklen, a tour guide at the museum and caretaker to Alberta Bair until she died, closing the museum threatens not just the local economy but a valuable part of the state's heritage as well. Charles M. Bair, who died in 1943, at one point ran more sheep than any other rancher in North America, boasting more than 300,000 head in his heyday. The ranch home, where his family continued to live, became the repository for exotic Chippendale, Louis XV, Paul Storr and Asian artifacts daughters Marguerite and Alberta collected on their many journeys to Europe, as well as paintings by Charles M. Russell and Joseph Henry Sharp and beaded moccasins and leggings given to the Bairs by Crow Indian Chief Plenty Coups.

Dispersing the collection would remove the pieces from their context as commentary on the sisters' lives, Spracklen asserts.

"If you take the Russells to the Russell Museum and the silver to the Yellowstone Art Museum, then what do you have? You just have some Russells, some silver," she says.

Their fears may be unfounded. Roscoe says closing the museum for a season simply is a way for the trustees to take a breath, examine the situation, and decide what to do next. Re-opening the museum is a possibility, he says, one of several a consultant will consider for the trustees.

"It's a wonderful asset," he says of the museum; several times as a child he accompanied his grandfather, an acquaintance of Alberta Bair's, to the Martinsdale ranch to fish the Musselshell River, he says.

The trustees have agreed to meet with locals to answer questions about the museum closing: "We're determined to do all we can to get them to change their minds," Doggett says.

Roscoe seems doubtful such a change will happen - this year, at least.

"Most of the board is really energized and motivated by telling the Bair story, by trying to keep the collection together and not letting it leave the state of Montana," he says.

"But this museum cannot be a commercial development opportunity for certain counties. Its main reason for existing is because the founders wanted to get the family story out, but they were also wise enough to write their trust in such a way that said if things were not exactly clicking the way they should be, to advise the board to take action."

Alberta Bair stipulated the museum be open five years before assessing its viability; the trustees gave it eight, Roscoe points out.

As anyone who knew her will attest, Alberta Bair was extremely frugal.

"She was tight," Roscoe says. "I loved her for that, though."

Sherry Jones can be reached at sjones@missoulian.com or by calling 523-5299.

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