Today we would like to invite you to join us on a tour of a very interesting (and unusual) museum located in north-western Montana. Fellow Woody Boater Don Hardy from McCall Boat Works in McCall, Idaho has this unique ability to find rare wooden boats in all kinds of out-of-the-way places, and over the years we have had the opportunity to experience some of Don’s rare wooden boat finds here on Woody Boater.
In late December we received an e-mail from Don to inform us that he located a rare Gar Wood 19′ Runabout at the Miracle of America Museum in Polson, Montana – which is about an hour south of Kalispell, Montana. There’s a lot of miles and mountain ranges throughout the great Pacific Northwest (I think you can still call north-western Montana the Pacific Northwest) and a portion of the museum’s collection is located outdoors, so we decided to wait until spring to make trip over to Polson to check this out.
Our original plan was to simply make the 6 hour drive over to Montana, see the Gar Wood in person, take some photographs of the boat and drive home. After all, it’s not every day you get to see an original Gar Wood and Don mentioned that the museum was well worth the drive.
To our surprise, what we experienced at the Miracle of America Museum was a treasure trove of Americana – Everything from old cars, motorcycles, buildings, military vehicles and artifacts, snowmobiles, chain saw collections, fiddles, washing machine collections and almost everything you could ever imagine in one location… and some boats.
In today’s world, museums represent many different things to many different people, they can stimulate our senses, educate us about history and take us back to another time and place to remember. This museum did all that and more…
By the time we left (3 hours later) we had snapped over 325 photos, and today we have managed to condense that down to 30 photos, retracing our steps through this amazing museum just as it unfolded for us. We will let the images do most of the talking with some commentary. So here we go…
You know you have arrived at the Miracle of America Museum when the first thing you see is a giant wooden 1926 Logging Tow Boat which was made just up the road in Somers, Montana near where ther original Stancraft factory was located on Flathead Lake. There is a ton of history throughout the Flathead Lake area, and Polson is located on the south end of the lake, so for many, boating is a way of life in the area.
Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River in the contiguous United States, taking Red Lake (Minnesota) and Lake of the Woods to be north of the Mississippi River, rather than west of the river. With a surface area of between 191.5 sq mi (496 km2) and 197 sq mi (510 km2), Flathead Lake is slightly larger than Lake Tahoe. (Source Wikipedia)
Beside the old wooden tow boat is this sign which describes the history of “Paul Bunyan”. It is listed in both the National and International Registers of Historic Large Vessels.
From the parking lot, behind the fence you quickly notice a Vought Corsiar A7D Vietnam era attack bomber. The thing that makes this museum different, is that almost everything in the museum looks like someone just drove it, flew it, paddled it, or rode it there and then just parked it and threw the keys to Gil Mangels who with his late wife Joanne, founded the museum in the mid 1980’s. Many of the pieces on display at the museum have been donated since then and remain untouched.
At the main entrance you pay 5.00 and pick up a map of the property which consists of many out buildings, sheds, warehouses featuring specific collections. At some point I am sure I stayed in this cabin during a college road trip to Montana in the late 70’s… but the memories are blurry.
Following the map, en route to the find the Gar Wood, we pass buy a stockpile of old galvanized boats which reminded me of those Mullens boats that the National Parks once used. The historic Glacier National Park is just over an hour north towards the Canadian border, and we know that the park rangers used these type of boats to access the ranger stations in the park. Fellow Woody Boater Paul Harrison has one similar to this.
This takes us past the vintage fire trucks, which as mentioned earlier look like they have not changed since they were in service, just a bit more weathered. Notice the orignial wooden axes still in place.
Then past the huge vintage snowmobile collection, which is to be expected in this area of Montana. Beside the vintage Evinrude snowmobile is an old car hood with a sign that reads – “Hooding was a fun wintertime activity by the kids of yesteryear. This 1940’s Ford hood was ideal for a load of youth being pulled by a vehicle on a smooth field, or better yet a snow packed country road.”
Then along the way I noticed this old garage with a rare Packard inside, protected by page wire. The photos don’t do it justice, as this car was in incredible, original condition. I kind of felt sorry for the old girl trapped in there behind the wire fence… The stories she could tell.
And as we rounded the corner toward the Gar Wood – wooden boat building, this is what it first looked like. The orange monster is a Tucker Sno-Cat manufactured in Medford, Oregon. On the door it read: “For Official Use Only – U.S. Government Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service.
This is a Nash Airflyte Ambassador Super that, and other than some minor damage on the trunk lid, was in amazing unrestored condition. Not the most beautiful design ever produced (to my eye) but a wonderful example of styling from back in the day.
The chrome and trim was unbelievable on this old Nash. In today’s hot rod world, builders are simply clear coating the slightly rusted cars, installing modern suspensions and power trains and running them to look like this from the outside.
After World War II, hot rodders raced the dry lakes of California to set new land speed records. War surplus drop tanks were plentiful and aerodynamically neutral, and it didn’t take long to make one into a car, dubbed a “Lakester.” According to GM historians, Bill Burke of the So-Cal Speed Shop first attempted to convert a 168-gallon P51 Mustang belly tank, before switching to the larger 305-gallon P38 Lightning tank.
The first streamliner powered by a Flathead Ford to go over 200 mph (320 km/h) was the now famous Edelbrock-equipped Bachelor-Xydias SoCal Special.
Even now, “Lakesters” still compete at the Bonneville Salt Flats annually using these belly tank designs, but they are rare. And guess what, they have one at the museum… Note the aerodymnamic hand-formed aluminum fenders on the trailer… Typical talented hot rodders.
With the help of our friend and fellow Woody Boater Brian Robinson from Robinson Restoration in Southern California, we have determined this particular Gar Wood 19′ Deluxe Runabout (Hull #6679) is actually a 1941 model, one of only 27 produced by Gar Wood for that model year.
As much as I wanted to get in the boat and crawl around, I didn’t feel comfortable doing that without the folks from the museum present, so I did my best to take these shots from outside the boat. Note the discolored steering wheel.
Based on my limited knowledge of these Gar Woods, it appeared to have the original upholstery, gauges and Chrylser Crown engine. As you can see, the boat was crowded on all sides by other boating related stuff, which made it difficult to get any clear shots of the boat, and we had to rely on the limted lighting and camera’s flash to capture these images.
And from what I could tell, the hardware appeared to be original as well. The 1941 models were actually called 19’6″ Deluxe Runabouts because of the raked transom which added 6″ to the overall length of the boat.
Beside the Gar Wood was a very original Lee Craft Sedan… I believe these boats were also manufactured up the road in Somers, Montana. Lee Craft boats often show up at boat shows around the Pacific Northwest.
This is something I have never seen before, can anybody identify it? (Update: Today fellow Woody Boater Rob identified this as a Ski Craft Ski Tow built in the mid 1960’s as an unmanned ski tow boat, which was capable of 28 MPH. You can Click Here to see the description on the Fiberglassics website. Nice work Rob!)
It’s important to note the huge collection of vintage motorcycles on display at the Miracle of America Museum, as I understand this is what started the original museum collection. Names like Harley-Davidson, Indian, Ariel, Triumph, etc are all represented – all just like they were dropped off by the owners. Simply amazing to see these.
Thanks for joining us on our tour today, we hope you experienced something interesting. Thanks to Don Hardy from McCall Boat Works for sharing this “museum find” Gar Wood Runabout with us.