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Montana Auto Museum, Deer Lodge

Housed in the Old Montana Prison complex, you’ll find the Montana Auto Museum, a uniquely fun and intriguing collection of antique and vintage vehicles. The museum was listed as one of the top ten auto museums in the country, and it’s great fun for all ages, whether you’re super into cars or have a passing interest in history.

What is there to do and see at the Montana Auto Museum?

auto museum
Image: JOHN LLOYD

While you’re here at the Montana Auto Museum, you can peruse through nearly a century of intriguing cars and vehicles, using both literal and figurative horsepower, from the 1890s to the 1980s.
The museum has over 160 vehicles on display, ranging from classic Chevys to unique one-off cars, muscle cars, antique autos, and horse-drawn vehicles of yesterday’s way past.
Some of the things you’ll see include the 1886 Benz Replica, the first successful internal combustion engine motor vehicle. The engine was developed in 1886 and used to convert a carriage, with Benz’s petrol (gasoline) engine added. Eventually, this company became the well-known Mercedes-Benz car brand we know today.
You’ll also see unique automobile “add-ons” like the Thermador Car Cooler, a former “air conditioner” for cars that could actually include them in their basic design. The reservoir held a gallon of water to cool the car for up to 150 miles of driving between the 1930s and 1960s.
Learn about Aqua-scooting, a precursor (sort of) to jet skis, camping pop-up trailers, Model Ts, V-8 Fords, Chevy Bel-Airs, the Ford Mustang GT500 fastback “Eleanor” and a 1915 Seagrave Fire Truck – and so much more.
The vehicles here range from the practical old working-class models like a Diamond T logging truck to the extravagant 1964 Chevrolet Corvette Show Car customized in 1989.

What’s the History of the Old Montana Prison Complex?

history of the old montana prison complex
Image: Tanankyo

The Old Montana Prison – formerly known as Montana’s State Penitentiary – was established in Deer Lodge, Montana, in 1871 as an attempt at “taming” the wild west.
The building was primarily constructed using convict labor and remained active from its completion in the 1870s until its decommissioning in 1979 when the inmates moved to a new facility four miles away.
Over the years, there were some famous inmates at the Old Montana Prison. Paul “Turkey Pete” Eitner, for example, was housed here.
He gained the nickname because of being a model prisoner and was given the responsibility of raising the turkeys at the prison. And while he wasn’t famous, necessarily, outside the prison so much, he was notorious within prison walls for his quirky ways and views of the world.
After the inmates were relocated, the buildings were taken over by the organization currently running the museum, the Powell County Museum, and the Arts Foundation, and converted into the space it is today.
The museum doesn’t shy away from the hard history of the location or those who once occupied its chilling cells. You can take a guided or self-guided tour of the Cell House.
The rest of the complex has been divided among other historical museums that feature Montana and American history.

How do I find out What’s going on at the Montana Auto Museum?

The Montana Auto Museum is one of five museums housed within the Old Montana Prison museum complex. To see what’s going on here or at any of the other museums, check out the website below or call ford for details.
Take a virtual tour before heading over, or just check out the displays when you arrive.

What are the Other Museums in the Complex?

Within the complex, you’ll find the Old Montana Prison Museum and the Montana Auto Museum, as mentioned above, as well as two other museums.

Frontier Museum

The Frontier Museum features collections of handguns, spurs, chaps, and a host of other cowboy memorabilia of the Old West. The museum is housed in the Old Montana Prison Mule Barn.
Additionally, you’ll see equipment and artifacts used by the Plains Indians, Sioux and other Native Americans, frontiersmen and women, ranchers, cowboys, and others of the era who impacted the growth of the American West between 1829 and 1900.

Yesterday’s Playthings

Deer Lodge was once an important railroad town in the Westward Expansion days, serving as the division headquarters for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad.
This museum focuses on that past through model trains, as well as the dolls and toys from the Harriet Free collection of antique Jumeaus and reproduction dolls and mohair teddy bears, Jeri dolls, and the dolls of Lee Middleton.
You’ll see much more, as well – if it’s toy-related! The collection has pieces as old as 1835 and accessories made for these toys.

Montana Auto Museum–Conclusion

If you’re looking for a trip into the past, the Montana Auto Museum is a delightful way to spend the day.
Roam the antique and vintage car collection for an hour or two, then meander over to the Old Montana Prison, Yesterday’s Playthings, or the Frontier Museum. There’s enough here to keep you busy for the whole day – a great rainy-day activity for the whole family.
Be sure to check the website for any updates on events, special closings, or special tours – or just pop in for the afternoon and enjoy a step back into the history of the Wild West.

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