Local delves into county history with new ‘Indigenous Peoples’ exhibit

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, June 15, 2022
Finishing touches

Resident and retired physician Ron Loge finalizes displays for the Beaverhead County Museum’s newest exhibit, “Indigenous Peoples of Southwest Montana.” Loge has spent the past couple of years developing the exhibit, which features artifacts and information about the people who originally inhabited the area. Casey S. Elliott photo

On display

Beaverhead County’s newest exhibit, “Indigenous Peoples of Southwest Montana,” features artifacts and information of the people who originally inhabited the area. Casey S. Elliott photo

It all began with a request by former Beaverhead County Museum trustees to catalog a 700-arrowhead collection they had in artifact storage.

The arrowheads were donated to the Museum of the Rockies by family members of Burl Stephens, who dug them up at area buffalo jump sites.

Loge’s interest was piqued – he had been reading about prehistory, and had dug up items in the past as a child. He began researching and contacted Carl Davis, the former regional archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service and a Dillon native, for guidance.

“What happened was, I read Carl Davis’ book, ‘Six Hundred Generations.’ That changed everything. It took archaeology as a science. It was more than digging. It was an understanding of the big picture that the people and the environment they lived in,” Loge said. “I thought if there was a way to translate the material we have here – like Carl did with that book – to explore not only the peopling of this area, not only for the last 13,000 to 16,000 years – but to understand what their lives were like, how they made a living, how they actually thrived....It turned out I had plenty of good material to work with.”

And so, the “Indigenous Peoples of Southwest Montana – An Archaeological History,” a new permanent exhibit at the Beaverhead County Museum, was born.

“I’m not a spokesperson for any of the ancestors of the native people – they’re the only ones who should really speak to that,” he added. “The archaeology gives a clue to who they were and how they lived. And that’s what I really want to make sure of, is that it’s the archaeological perspective.”

Loge originally thought a few displays and historical descriptions would suffice; after talking with Davis, Loge realized he would much rather tell a story with the exhibit, outlining the environment and lifestyle of the people living in the county through the artifacts.

“I said to him ‘I want to have these on display.’ (Davis) was so excited because he cut his teeth as a kid working with Burl Stephens digging out at the jump. That’s sort of what led him to become an archaeologist, and he was excited the museum was interested in doing a project like this,” he said.

Loge then fell down the rabbit hole, laughing it was “like being in grad school again.”

“I’ve got this terrible trait when I jump into something – I go in with both feet. I don’t stop until I really understand it,” he said. “You are never too old to learn. Just learning is what makes every day exciting, really. If you are gifted with curiosity it makes every day really fun.”

Two years later, the arrowhead collection and associated history is now transformed into a set of displays ranging from tools and mammoth bones found in the county to faithfully-recreated items by local historical experts. That two-display original plan now occupies a large section of the Depot Museum, in the same location as the Lewis and Clark diorama.

The effort led Loge in surprising directions,into the garage of a Lemhi rancher family who had a large mammoth tusk hanging on the wall. The tusk, dubbed “Velma’s Tusk,” is on loan to the museum for the exhibit.

“When you looked close, the surface was coated and full of this crud, you touched it and it fell apart. All these limestone concretions from exposure all these years to groundwater,” he said.

Loge consulted with the curator of the Idaho State University museum, who told him what needed to be done to restore the tusk.

“I did all the restoration,” he said. “There’s a thing called ‘paleoBOND,’ it’s like a super-thin Super Glue. You get a fine tip dispensing bottle, and – a drop at a time – go over the whole tusk until it stops absorbing it. Then it hardens everything. That takes a long time, and you go over and over it again. Then you take something like a dental scraper used to clean people’s teeth, and scrape the non-tusk material off. You touch it up with the paleoBOND when you need to, and add epoxy resins of various kinds to firm up (the tusk) where it’s cracked. Then you polish it up.

“It took a couple of months,” Loge added of the painstaking restoration work. “COVID wasn’t an issue for me, because I was busy (restoring the tusk). I was enjoying myself.”

Neighbor and retired museum executive director Lynn Giles said she would periodically see the light on in Loge’s basement during the restoration.

“I would see that light on in the basement probably over a three-week period. I knew he was working on that tusk,” she said. “He has done – not only that tusk – but he and his grandson worked and worked in the back of the museum sorting through the arrowheads, finding the ones that were native and sorting out the ones brought in from someplace else.”

Museum officials are hoping to return those non-local arrowheads to their states of residence, such as Missouri and Arizona.

Loge also discovered a personal link to a set of mammoth bones that are part of the exhibit. The bones were found on his family’s property in 1906 when they were installing a new sewer line.

The ever-expanding exhibit received lots of local volunteer reinforcement and outside help. All the display cases were donated by the Montana Historical Society, which is building a new museum and did not need them. Loge said those cases alone likely would cost $10,000.

One of the highlights in the exhibit is a lengthy timeline starting from the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago. The timeline relates the changing climate to the evolution of the species and peoples inhabiting the area, and shows how the weaponry changed and the hunting styles changed as a result. Also featured is a 10,000-yearold spearpoint displayed in a historical reproduction of a lance and an atlatl.

A grand opening celebration with free viewing of the new exhibit and Loge-guided tours will take place beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday, June 25 (see related story).

The exhibit is almost complete. Loge said he wants to set up a display of rock art from the area, which he hopes will be finished later this year. He said he did not want people to have to wait any longer to see the new exhibit.

“We were able to do it with a very limited budget, using what resources we had,” Loge said. “I volunteered my time. It was a collaboration with the state historical society, the museum, the Museum of the Rockies, local landowners. It’s been really exciting.”

For more information visit www.beaverheadcountymuseum.com.

Museum’s ‘Indigenous Peoples’ exhibit debuts June 25

The grand opening for the new “Indigenous Peoples of Southwest Montana – An Archaeological History” exhibit at the Beaverhead County Museum begins Saturday, June 25. The exhibit is inspired by the book “Six Hundred Generations: An Archaeological History of Montana” by Dillon native and former regional archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service Carl M. Davis.

The exhibit features artifacts from many areas of the county that have been donated to the museum, stretching from the end of the last Ice Age roughly 12,000 years ago, through migrations of Eurasian people into the western hemisphere.

Exhibit curator Ron Loge spent roughly two years compiling the exhibit, and has one final piece he hopes to have completed by the end of this year. The June 25 grand opening celebration includes free access to the exhibit at the Depot Museum, an atlatl talk with throwing and skill demonstrations by national champion atlatl thrower and educator Jim Ray, flintknapping by local expert Eldon Weekly, bison hide processing by Billie Maxwell, fire starting by Steve Morehouse, and other presentations. Morehouse will cook up beavertail and bison tongue to experience. Davis will discuss the archaeology of Beaverhead County. Loge will provide hourly tours of the new exhibit beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday, June 25.

Guided tours of the Wheat Bison Jump led by Davis will be offered Saturday morning and afternoon; tickets are $5 for adults, and free for children age 13 and under. Transportation to the site is covered in the ticketing fee. Make a reservation by today, June 15 to ensure a space.

For more information or tickets, call the Beaverhead County Museum at 406-683-5027.