Owen Robinson points to a pink square labeled International Harvester Co. in an old map book used for insurance purposes now housed in the history museum’s research facility.
“This is the building we’re in right now,” Robinson said.
The more than 47,000 square foot building was once where tractors were sold, after they arrived by train and were put on a freight elevator to a showroom on the third floor. Now this space is used as overflow storage for the museum.
The museum doesn’t just function to present exhibits, explained the executive director of the History Museum, Kristi Scott.
“We are the primary center for archival research in this part of the state, so we protect the archives of all of central Montana and beyond,” Scott said. “We’ve outgrown our spaces, and we need to overflow things.”
The museum hopes to raise between $500,000 and $550,000 for the “Environmental/Storage Improvement and Education Center Expansion Project.” The project offers:
- add environmental controls,
- upgrading storage in the archives and collections space to high-density mobile storage
- the creation of a visible vault where members of the public can see the work carried out by the archivists to preserve the region’s historical objects and documents
“I have a vision that by our 50th, we have improved environmental storage, we have collapsible shelving, and then we have an expanded education center,” Scott said. The 50th anniversary of the Cascade County Historical Society will be in 2026.
The range reflects the need for contingencies surrounding factors such as rising construction material costs.
Collapsible shelves would allow more items to be stored on the second floor which has more environmental controls and would allow items currently overflow stored to be better protected, such as files recently donated by the Tribune.
The Great Falls Tribune Archives were donated to the History Museum after the Tribune building was sold
Documents and photos require special storage like acid-free archival boxes and a special type of polyurethane in which we place the individual images.
“We really want the public and especially young people to realize how important research centers are and where they have primary resources like Tribune files,” Scott said.
She said that by expanding the space, it could be accessible to larger groups of students or researchers.
Resources already in the archive include city and county records; city and business directories dating back to 1887; farm records; naturalization records and more. The second floor alone has a section with over 100,000 artifacts, including everything from vintage Pepsi-Cola bottles to a fire hose donated by the Great Falls Fire Department, which Scott says had one of the first unions formed in the county.
“How can you run out of space in such a large building? Because history just keeps getting made,” Scott said.
Scott said she applied for the state’s Historic Preservation Grant Program which requires a 20% match and is administered by the Legislature.
The vice chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, Peter Johnson, spoke in January about the project before the county commission to make the case for acquiring funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. The county has received over $15 million in ARPA funds.
“There are very generous people in Great Falls and when they understand what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to preserve, hopefully some of them will step up and help with that,” Robinson said.