Dinosaurs, Toy Trucks, and a Wild Goose Chase
By Emily Standley
About 40 miles north of Lewistown lies the small community of Winifred. Most people don’t visit this little town without specifically intending to do so, because as far as paved roads are concerned, there’s only one way in and one way out. The Winifred Highway comes into town from the south, but the roads heading north, east, or west out of Winifred are all dirt and gravel. And while there are certainly some gems at the end of those dirt roads (e.g. The Stafford Ferry), they make for slow travel and can be treacherous in the winter.
Although Winifred may be a geographical cul-de-sac of sorts, the town has a rich history, and that history is on grand display at the Winifred Museum.
On a wintry Saturday morning, my husband and I decided to make the 40-mile drive to view some of that history for ourselves. Outside of the summer months, the museum is only open by appointment, so we called the number listed on their website (406-462-5425) to see if we’d be able to schedule a tour. The local librarian answered, since the library and museum are housed in the same building, and said she’d be there until 3 p.m., so if we showed up before then, she could unlock the doors for us.
We pulled in front of the Museum/Town Hall/Library/Post Office/Community Center at 1 p.m., and headed toward the front door. We made it through the entryway into the post office, but discovered that the door to both the library and the museum were locked, with no sign of the librarian. After a long bout of phone tag (custodial staff calls the local restaurant calls the local grocery store visits the curator’s house), we were finally greeted by a smiling face who apologized profusely that the librarian forgot about our appointment. She unlocked the door, then told us to take our time exploring.
We were not disappointed. The museum is filled with clothing, household goods, newspapers, furniture, and nearly anything you could imagine from the homestead era. There are antique guns and tools, old cigarette cartons, outdated maps, saddles, and soldiers’ uniforms. The coolest part is that so many of these treasures have been given to the museum by local families. Every once in a while, the gal who let us in (who I assume is a curator), would grab our attention to show us a new set of donations. Not only did she explain the items’ significance, but she could also tell us when the donating family first arrived in Winifred, who their children married, and what they did for a living.
We found more than just recent history though. Dinosaurs have always fascinated me, so I was especially excited to see a specimen they call “Judith” proudly displayed in the Winifred Museum. This big beauty, who looks similar to a triceratops, is a replica of the skull found just north of town in the Judith River formation. Even more exciting, Judith was the first of her species to be discovered anywhere, and she was excavated right here in Central Montana! Surrounding Judith is a collection of smaller fossils, which may not be as eye-catching as the giant horned skull, but are still interesting to look at if you dig ancient history (pun totally intended).
But if dinosaurs aren’t your gig, there are plenty of other unique exhibits in the museum. One of my favorites is the display of over 400 salt and pepper shakers that once belonged to the “town grandma,” as the curator described her. This woman was so loved that folks who knew her would bring back shakers as a souvenir, and her collection just kept growing. Some of my favorite pairs are the kangaroo/joey and male/female pheasants. The picture below doesn’t even capture half of this unusual exhibit.
Finally, we come to my husband’s favorite part of the museum: the Tonkas. According to the museum’s website, Winifred boasts the largest collection of Tonka toys in the world. Now, there are one or two other places who make the same claim, and it’s difficult to verify, but even if Winifred’s museum doesn’t hold the Guinness World Record, this is still an impressive collection by any standard. There are fire engines, tractors, military vehicles, racecars, and of course, a huge variety of the yellow dump trucks that typify Tonka. But this collection involves more than just wheeled vehicles. There are Tonka airplanes, Tonka farm play-sets, Tonka lunchboxes, Tonka clothing, all stacked on shelves that reach to the ceilings. Even for someone like myself, who was never very interested in things that go vroom, I could have spent hours examining the detail and history of this massive collection.
If you have a lazy weekend day, take time to visit the little town of Winifred, and definitely find time to explore the museum. Call ahead first of course, especially in the fall and winter months. Admission is free, but that’s only possible with donations, so if you have some spare change, please drop it in the basket. This Central Montana treasure is worth it.