Museum of Northwest Colorado: The big one that didn’t get away
September 5, 2014
Smarting over the loss of a mammoth skull and tusks, found near Craig but given to the Utah Field House Museum at Vernal in 1961, Craig residents began to think about starting a museum of their own in the early 1960s. No one in the county had any expertise in museum work, much less experience in starting one. Those facts did not deter Louise Miller, stalwart ranch wife and tireless campaigner for any cause she felt deserving of her efforts. Within a couple of months after the heart-wrenching loss of the "Colorado elephant" to the out-of-state museum, Louise began a letter-writing siege that claimed the attention of many museum directors and curators, and probably much to their chagrin, did not end with just one or two missives.
Louise was a determined letter writer, and her efforts produced copious amounts of correspondence as she arduously campaigned to start a museum that would safely house local collections. She might secretly have hoped that someday the community might recoup the loss of the mammoth skull by gaining some other collection of equal significance. The Museum of Northwest Colorado, which started out as the Moffat County Museum, has a file containing some of Louise's letters during this time. They reveal how little she knew about the museum world, and they demonstrate how, in spite of her ignorance on the subject, she doggedly pursued her dream.
In one letter dated in November 1961, just three months after the mammoth artifact was taken away, Field House Director Ernest Untermann (who had performed the archaeological dig of the skull) responded to a letter of inquiry from Louise. Untermann's letter would have discouraged even the most stalwart of museum hopefuls, but that obviously did not include Louise. Untermann stated in no uncertain terms that to attempt to start a museum with no collection base, and with no foreseeable financial support, was utterly foolhardy and doomed to failure. He further stated that as most museums were in constant impecunious circumstances, she could most certainly not expect help from other museum entities. It is obvious that Untermann did not know the stuff of which Louise was made.
Louise continued her letter-writing and her research on museum management, and in 1964, with the support of other equally determined Moffat County residents, opened the first museum in the county. The collection was small and varied widely in quality and in presentation. But the tenacious volunteers that manned the two little museum rooms in the middle of the courthouse, kept at their work: recording, documenting, collecting and believing in their goals as they studied best practices for museums on their own.
By the mid-1980s, the museum hadn't gotten too far, but the staff was still insistent in their conviction that they could capture the essence of the area and preserve the history of the isolated region. Their lucky break came in the form of a home-grown college graduate returning to his hometown upon completion of his degree. Dan Davidson, third-generation child of early Moffat County homesteaders, had always been interested in history. He had grown up loving his home county and the people in it. Starting as a volunteer, Davidson combined his college education with his own knowledge of local history to expand the horizons of the museum in new ways by bringing a fresh energy to the small group.
In 1992, the "big one" finally came into sight in the form of a savvy collector who happened along with his outstanding gun and cowboy gear collection. The collector, Bill Mackin, approached Davidson with the idea of temporarily housing his collection in the newly acquired armory, which now served as the museum building. The museum board agreed, and the collection proved to be one of the best things that could have happened to them.
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The museum is 50 years old this year, and due to the diligence and foresight of director Davidson and the dedication of his staff, has earned a reputation for excellence that stretches across all state lines. The "big one," in the shape of the Cowboy & Gunfighter Collection, now forms the cornerstone of the museum and enhances its far-reaching reputation. Purchased by the county in 1999, the collection attracts visitors from all over the world. The sting of losing the mammoth skull quickly receded before the gleam and luster of Western accoutrements and gear.
From that sense of loss and the fierce determination of a ranch woman, grew a museum that a large city would be proud of. The museum houses impressive local collections and exhibits, thousands of regional photographs, and extensive family and area history files. Moffat County residents can be proud of this county-owned entity, as well as the two other museums in our town — The Marcia Car and Wyman's Living History Museum. But above all, the county residents can be thankful for their own resilient, determined attitudes that help them fight through the adverse circumstances and inopportune losses that inevitably come to any locale. Happy 50th birthday to the Museum of Northwest Colorado and many thanks to Louise Miller, whose unflagging energy was the seed that brought about a museum that we can indeed be proud of.
The Museum of Northwest Colorado, in downtown Craig, is open Monday through Saturday with free admission. Call 970-824-6360 for more information.