Every instinct in my body said, “Don’t do it.” I had just started a new job, and I had been invited to go on a bus trip with 40 people I did not know, through the icy wastes of north central Montana in late October. First of all, I don’t take buses. The last time I was on a bus was in New York City in 1982, when pub crawls were the order of the day and we had to save cab fare for the forthcoming libations. Second, as the new guy in the gang, I would be the object of intense scrutiny and would have nowhere to hide. Plus, what could there possibly be to see in Fort Benton? I am here in the most beautiful valley of all of Montana, and they want to take me. . . where?
The 40 people in question were the deciding factor. A few months earlier, my mother-in-law came to town. I had been meaning to take a tour of the Daly Mansion for years, and this was the perfect opportunity. I called to see what the hours were and when we should arrive. The brightest, cheeriest voice you could imagine was on the other end of the line, and so we determined to head on down. There were additional phone calls, and more questions before we finally made it to the Mansion, and each time, the various people answering the phone had this quiet joie de vivre that was really unusual. We arrived for our tour and our ticketseller was again, cheerful and professional. The tour guide we were assigned, all dressed in period garb and beckoning to us to come inside as we walked down the leafy lane, was the most marvelous interpreter and story teller that I had encountered in a very long time – we were enthralled and hanging on her every word, such an interesting tale of the many generations of Dalys ensued.
Months later, I found myself taking on the Executive Director position at this marvelous place, and I knew that the reason it was so incredible to visit was the existence of these 40 people and their fellows (about 80 total) – the Daly Mansion Volunteers. If they wanted me to come along on a journey, I would go.
The bus shimmied and rocked over craggy passes and through windswept valleys, but I took no notice – I was having fun! This was the perfect way to get to know a whole busload of people dedicated to making history live for others and to have fun doing it. These were my kind of people.
And, I must say, they really know how to plan a sightseeing trip. We stayed in an amazing hotel called the Grand Union in Fort Benton, and Fort Benton turned out to be full of really interesting stuff. Here I am with the Hornaday Buffalo, the actual animal used as the model for the emblem of the US Department of the Interior:He has been on display in the Smithsonian since Teddy Roosevelt’s time, and only recently returned home to the Fort Benton museum just miles from where he roamed the plains.
And I must briefly describe one more thing about this fantastic trip without giving away too much, for a visit to the Bair Family Museum is almost as marvelous as the Daly and I do not want to wreck it for anyone planning a visit. The best part about it for me was watching our Daly Mansion Volunteers absorbing and analyzing the technique of the skilled docents at the Bair house. This is why our tours are so good – the tour guides really work hard at it.
Charles Bair struck gold in Alaska sometime in the late 19th Century. He settled near Harlowton in Montana, literally in the middle of nowhere. He had a vast holding of land with 300,000 head of sheep at one point, and the family built a lovely home there. It is an unassuming structure that you might see on a cul-de-sac in my native Pasadena, albeit extra jaunty with bright tourquoise trim on white shingle exterior.
The two daughters of Charles Bair lived a very comfortable life, touring Europe and filling the home with an impressive collection of antiques, never weighed down by the demands of a typical farmstead existence. They sponsored the fine arts in nearby Billings, and were close friends of Charles Russell, local legend and probably the greatest cowboy artist of all time. You could easily picture them together in the wood paneled sitting room with adjoining bar. Some of the most charming and intimate details on display were Russell’s hand-jotted notes with one-of-a-kind illustrations thanking the girls for dinner. But those things anyone can see in the Russell Museum in Great Falls. The Bair house is full of surprises that you won’t see anywhere else, like a gold-plated commode in the powder room. These were mighty interesting people, the Bairs. My two favorite things were 1.) that they saved Alberta Bair’s rig, a Coupe de Ville, and 2.) that one of their favorite lambs had a place in her heart:
Couldn’t you just feel the leather on the steering wheel, and the plush velour on the headrest as you roar through the countryside with Alberta on the way to the opera in Billings, or over to the Russells’ place for cocktails?
And this little fellow, he stole my heart, too.