Life on the Plains: The Museum of the Northern Great Plains

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My favorite thing to do in fort Benton is to stroll along the levee eating ice cream from the Freeze. Unfortunately, weather doesn’t always cooperate. The weekend we went was muggy, windless and clinging on the verge of 90 degrees. On such days, the best policy is to visit one of the town’s five museums. Of these, I can’t choose a favorite, but the Agricultural Museum of the Northern Plains is a serious contender, not just because the cool, dim interior offers such welcome relief. The story of the Museum is the story of agriculture. The story of using the latest technology to eke out an existence on the forbidding landscape of Montana. Montana was one of the last places to get farmed, after all really good ground had been claimed. The Great Northern Railway, in need of customers for it trains, promoted northern Montana as a paradise. The GN convinced the farmers that Montana would make great farmland, and it did. For a while. For about the first 10 years everything was great. Then the good years stopped. For entire summers rain didn’t fall. The wind blew crops away. The Great Depression came to Montana a decade early. People sold their farms, or foreclosed, or just packed up their few meager belongings and disappeared. Throughout it all, however, a few remained. Resilient or just plain stubborn, a remnant managed to eke out an existence on the land. And they found that the good years were good enough that if you prepare right, you can survive the bad. The Ag Museum tells their story. From the wooden water pipes and hand plows to the five millionth tractor sold by International Harvester, the Ag Museum contains the implements used by over three generations of Montana farmers. In addition, it has an excellent domestic section, with quilts and sewing machines and refrigerators in beautiful wooden boxes.

I love the Ag Museum because it manages to tell such a compelling story by relying almost entirely on displays of farm equipment. The twisting path through the Museum holds all sort of implements, from huge industrial machines to handmade tools, adding personality and texture to the story of Montana at the turn of the 20th century.

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