Prison break: A tour of the Old Montana Prison includes adjacent car museum

Some 50,000 visitors each year walk their way through the Montana Car Museum and its next-door neighbor, the historic Deer Lodge prison

Edward Towe was a rancher, banker and businessman in eastern Montana who had this thing for Ford vehicles. Asked why, he reportedly responded that when he was a teenager growing up in Iowa during the 1930s, it was “Ford or can’t afford.” He also started making some money by turning old Model T engines into powerplants for local farmers.

Towe’s “thing” for Ford led him to doing such things as three-day, cross-country races, and his collection eventually grew to include at least one example of every model from every year of Ford car production from 1903 to 1953. Sometimes, Towe would find a car he wanted in South America, would buy it and drive it back to Montana.

The collection grew so large that part of it, as I recall, was kept in California while most of the cars were housed in the huge workshop that had been part of, though located just outside the walls of, the former Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge.

Old Montana Prison complex also houses car museum | Larry Edsall photos

After that old prison was replaced by a new facility outside of town, the historic stone-walled incarceration facility became a museum — and five times provided Hollywood with an authentic location for movie making — and its huge vehicle workshop became home to the Towe Ford Museum, at least until 1997 when an auction was held to satisfy claims against Towe by the Internal Revenue Service.

Though still showing some of those Towe Fords, the car portion of the Old Montana Prison & Car Museum provides a walk through Montana and the American automotive history from a 1903 Ford Model A Runabout through a nice collection of 1950s American classics, especially Chevys, to 1960s muscle cars, and even a few imports from the 1970s.

The museum includes some fascinating photographs of the early days of driving in Montana, a huge display about traveling on the Yellowstone Trail, one of the early “highways” that carried people from “Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound” — think Boston to Seattle by way of Chicago and the Dakotas with a spur into Yellowstone National Park — from 1912-1930.

1913 Cole 60 wears Yellowstone Speed Run banner

5-mile marker

The museum also houses one of the Old Stage Road mileage markers from those Yellowstone Trail days, when the prison’s “residents” got to venture beyond the walls to do maintenance work on the portion of the roadway that went from Deer Lodge to Gold Creek.

Among the cars on display at the museum is a 1934 Chevrolet that Doug Christie owned when he was courting his future wife, Ruth. In 1999 they pulled the Chevy out of storage and began its restoration, which was completed in 2003 and debuted with their grandson Corey and great-grandson Levi driving the car in a parade. The car also carried granddaughter Angie and her groom from their wedding ceremony in 2004.

The museum also shares the story of why the numbers 3-7-77  appear on the cloth badge insignia on the uniforms of Montana Highway Patrol officers (see sidebar story).

Adult admission to the museum is $15, which covers not only a visit to the car museum and the historic prison, but to several other local museums run by the Powell County Museum & Arts Foundation and located just across the street. The museums are open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except during a mid-December to early-January winter break.

Old prison cellblock popular with movie directors

Gallery photos by Larry Edsall

 

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