Behind bars: Ex-prison houses Montana Auto Museum

M ontana’s Valley of the White Tail Deer has always been a route and resting place for men and animals. Nestled within the sheltered valley, the town of Deer Lodge offered prospectors, ranchers and settlers the opportunity for a good life. With game abounding, plentiful water and good fishing, people were drawn to the area. Today, old mining camps and ghost towns reflect the past.

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Ed Towe’s Model A phaeton proudly shows its age.

    Downtown Deer Lodge lies midway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. It is just far enough off the freeway to avoid the noise of passing traffic. If you hop off I-90 to visit, you’re sure to see the Old Prison Museum complex. Many veteran old-car lovers remember this structure as the home of the Towe Ford Museum, where the legendary Ed Towe collected an example of nearly one of every early Ford model built.

    The castle-like brick prison is Montana’s oldest and largest historic structure. It was built in the 1870s and saw 110 years of use as Montana’s only prison. It opened to the public in 1979 and today it houses the Montana Auto Museum, which is one of several museums that make up the Old Prison Museum. The 120-plus cars on display include some leftover cars from the Ed Towe era, and others on loan from private parties across the United States.

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The Deer Lodge Collection is adding newer models, like this row of Mustangs.

    For instance, a 1917 Oakland touring car belongs to Kim Hansen of Southbury, Conn., while a 1936 Road Home trailer is part of the David S. Woodworth collection of antique recreational vehicles from Tehachapi, Calif.

    Director of Museums John O’Donnell has done a good job building a fine display of vehicles, and Ford buffs won’t be disappointed. There are still plenty of early Fords on display, as well as newer Ford collectibles like a retractable ’59 Skyliner and a healthy lineup of Mustangs.

    There are many variants of both the Model T and the Model A Ford, including open and closed passenger cars and several types of commercial vehicles. In addition, the museum houses such early Ford treasures as 1903 Model A and 1908 Model S runabouts, a 1934 cabriolet and 1935 phaeton.

    The Old Prison Museum and Montana Auto Museum is trying very hard to add newer collector cars to the mix in order to attract younger visitors, but the past hasn’t been overlooked either. A black Model A phaeton that belonged to Ed Towe himself is proudly exhibited in a room it has to itself.

    If you’re starting to plan your hobby travel for the warmer weather, put a trip to Yellowstone and a stop at Deer Lodge on the agenda. You can obtain information about the Old Prison Museum by contacting the Powell County Museum and Arts Foundation, 1106 Main St., Deer Lodge, MT 59722, or by calling 406-846-3111. You can also visit the Web site for the chamber of commerce at www.powellcountymontana.com.

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