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The Miracle of America Museum in Polson, Montana

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.

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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)

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Vintage 1926 Logging Tow Boat named Paul Bunyan

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It’s interesting to see how well the galvanized hulls have survived, in contrast to the wooden components.

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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.

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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.”

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Next to the Evinrude was this early snow machine that was in remarkable condition for it’s age.

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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.

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And across from the Packard was this old Chevrolet Panel Truck probably from the 1930’s.  Simply amazing to see…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And finally we have located the Gar Wood in the wooden boat shed on the map.  When you first enter the boat shed you flip on the lights and sure enough, there it was…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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There were literally boats hanging from the rafters at the museum, like this old outboard race boat.

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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!)

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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.

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Smaller models are also well represneted, some (like Simplex & Whizzer) are extremely rare today.

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And towards the end of our visit, I noticed this at the far end of the museums property…

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An iconic 1964 Model 204 UH-1B Huey Helicopter. All I could do was stand there and take a few minutes to appreciate what these helicopters stand for in American history…

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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.

For more information on the Miracle of America Museum you can Click Here to go to their website, and if you are ever in the Montana area, check it out.

Texx
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45 Responses to “Join Us For A Tour Of The Miracle Of America Museum In Polson, Montana”
  1. John Kadimik

    Gotta get to this place! Thanks Texx for another great story.

  2. Greg Lewandowski

    What a spot to put on the ‘bucket list”. I have seen individual scenes like some of those driving the back roads of Northern Michigan, but to think that it is all in one place is amazing. Is the collection now complete, or are they still accepting donations, so that it is still work in progress?

    • Texx

      Greg – The day I was there, the founder of the museum was on the road somewhere picking up another rare Harley-Davidson which was donated.

      But I did speak to the nice lady that helps to operate the museum, and she told me that they are still actively taking donations, and that one of the founders sons was interested in taking over the museum from his father at some point.

      She indicated that because many of the items are donated, nothing was for sale. The motorcycle collection is extremely valuable. Square 4 Indians, H-D Knuckleheads, etc.

  3. chad

    Perhaps one day we’ll see Texx on his rusty ol’ Harley, behind a chicken-wire fence.

    Great reporting Texx!

    • Texx

      Great stuff Chad, hat and everything…

      Live to Ride – Ride to Live (It’s a biker thing, ask Jim Staib he knows)

  4. donald hardy

    I have a few more finds to let out of the hat. I am glad to there is so much coverage of this place. 300+ photos?
    Good for Gil and his wife, who are so proud of what they have done.
    I wanted to buy this boat for a few yrs now, It is best right where it is at. For all to see. and More. There are Stan Crafts there to.
    Thanks Texx, I know you enjoyed that one.

    • Texx

      Thanks Don. I found that barn with a big cruiser, an old pre-war launch, a Stancraft and a very cool wooden V-8 powered hydroplane from the late 1950’s or early 1960’s.

      But it was so dark in the barn that I didn’t even try to get any photos.

  5. Randy Rush Captain Grumpy

    Love the tonka truck carrier! This place has everything I could immagine, maybe someone will donate a aircraft carrier or a sub to round it out!

  6. Texx

    I also found this contraption in one of the buildings. It’s for women to get Perms for thier hair with electricity. Hair-raising stuff!

  7. Alex

    And that, my friends, is what heaven looks like in ADD. Dying to get there.

  8. Bob Matson

    I have a customer that has this 1957 30HP Evinrude with only one hour of use! It’s been under a blanket for 55-56 years!
    Anybody know what this is worth?

    • Texx

      Not sure on the price. A few years ago I paid 2,600.00 for a fully restored 1957 Mercury 40 HP outboard.

  9. Paul H.

    I have heard of this place through local contacts there, and have driven by it a number of times. I have always wanted to stop in, and now I am going to make sure I do. The Mullins is slowly proceeding along the restoration path, and it is possible it was a livery or guide boat at Glacier Park 80 years ago. I am going to go to this place and check out the other galvanzied boats there. Although interesting, it is bittersweet to see some of these wonderful relics kind of mouldering away, not being concserved. I hope, like the Gar, that the more vulnerable of the artifacts are being protected. The elements can be quite brutal there. It looks like a challenging place within which to actually view and study the exhibits, but a wonderful trove just the same.

  10. brian t

    Please tell me that the two autos on that cool “Tonka” transport are really not just being left in the elements like that ??

    So many relics being left to rot is just sad.

  11. floyd r turbo

    WOW, an A7 Corsair with a front loader on it, had to effect the aerodynamics somewhat, lol.

    What a place, I’ve got drool all over my keyboard and you limited yourself to one day? That must have been a delight for someone afflicted with ADD, look a squirrel. Would love to get the 50 cent tour myself.

  12. rob

    The unidentified boat hanging I believe is Ski Craft Ski Tow. Built in the 60’s, this was a Wankel powered (NSU) unmanned ski tow boat. From my understanding there was not many sold hence rather rare today.

    rob

    • Texx

      Thanks for identifying this Ski Craft Ski Tow Rob. In the main story, I added a link to the informative Fiberglassics website which has documented the history of these unusual craft.

      Can you imagine how many of those orange “warning stickers” would be on one of these if they were produced today? Capable of 28 MPH, unmanned – Yikes!

  13. Jim Staib

    I left Browning, MT one morning. It was 42 degrees and raining. They hadn’t cleared the snow off the “Going to the sun” road through the park yet so I rode 2 around the south. Hit Kalispell and went south on 93. It had started to clear as I rode South. Rode right by the place!! A couple hours of 42 and rain make you real miserable. Looks like a reason to return!!

    • John Kadimik

      I see that ACBS soft cooler behind you, and yes,you look miscible .

      • Jim Staib

        One of my better purchases. Sit there all day. Doesn’t move. Doesn’t complain. Comforts you at every stop. Mine is so faded on top it looks like another color.

    • Paul H.

      Jim, the best part of that story was undoubtedly LEAVING Browning, Montana!

      • Jim Staib

        Paul,
        I rode US2 from Northern Wisconsin to Kalispell, MT
        Some weird stuff along the way. Browning was a good place to stop and a good place to leave!

  14. Cobourg-Kid

    Seriously man- WOW!- what a wicked find. It’s the Smithsonian (or should I say Picksonian) of the west. Thankfully someone had the good sense to put those rare vintage boats and cycles in a shed. It would be a real shame to see them moldering like some of the other stuff..
    Speaking of the Smithsonian, I recently toured the Museum of American History and discovered many vintage vehicles (even a very sweet 1920s) travel trailer in its America on the move exhibit. Oddly I couldn’t find any historic recreational boats on display (although the museum does have a very good commercial shipping exhibit). Got me thinking whether the Smithsonian folks have any tasty Gar Woods, Dodges, Chris Craft or Harmsworth challengers hanging out in one of their climate controlled storage warehouses.. Hmmm …..

    Re that weird pre-computer water-ski drone designed to be operated remotely by the skier using controls on the tow rope. Not suprised that there are not many of those things left.. Yah, I can see it now “Look ma, no driver, no watcher, no control! Oh #$%% . Darwin would have loved it.

  15. Bill

    Love the big indian 4 ive got one of those sitting in the family room of my house, one of the benefits of being single if i was married id never get away with that kind of nonsence

  16. Jimmuh

    Texx-on-a-Harley; living the life for the rest of us! Ride to Live!

  17. Philip Andrew

    UNBELIEVABLE ! What a find. Im too excited to look! A Vought Corsair just sat there out in the weather. Oh Mummy.
    What a fantastic story. Im going to save bits of this for later. Wow!

  18. donald hardy

    I would like everyone to know that McCall ID was a little play ground for some very well known actors, one that was at the local watering holes alot was Bing Crosby. And guess What?? He liked water, we have a lake, alot of young girls from the fields down below. Some where here, is his Chris Craft, A friends of mine’s employee had owned it for several years before I started MBW, since had been sold, where to? Help me, It Was at U-22. Blue interior.
    Share alike…………………….
    Don

  19. Dane

    Texx,
    That looks like a Fall’s Flyer under the hanging outboard. Did you tell them about the show at Alexandria?

  20. St John Han

    We passed this place on a road trip across the country a few years ago. Your post makes me really regret not stopping. I would love to take a boat trip on that beautiful old Garwood!

  21. Texx

    Dane – There is a Falls Flyer parked below the hanging boats, but unfortunately it’s in rough condition.

    • Dane

      A boat like that would look good behind your Harley. Then you’d have more room for camera and computer gear.

  22. Michael Guthrie

    Thanks Texx for the amazing story and incredible images. Also thanks to Don (and you) for making us aware of this fantastic treasure trove of a museum which we will definitely put on the plan for our next visit to the US. Cheers, Michael.
    PS. We visited McCall ID last year and called by Don’s workshop to say hello. McCall is a beautiful place and Don was kind enough to give us a tour of his workshop there. He was very welcoming and we loved seeing the various boats he was working on.

  23. Gil Mangels

    What a wonderful surprise. And a professional job. Thanks Texx and Don. I wouldn’t have known about the article, but for getting a $25 check from Dane Anderson in Minneapolis who was prompted by your story. We were just notified of our getting a CTEP grant from the county to place a protective cover over the Paul Bunyan. 2 problems- so many hoops to jump through and we need to raise$7,975 as a match. I’d love to restore the Falls Flyer as a boat show user but can’t find a restorer that is available or probably affordable. I do have all the hardware. I built and have driven both auto racers shown and if I want to use the 26 T Ford boattail as a advertising sign I guess I can. Many of the outside objects “mouldering” away were rescued usually by me rather than having them burned or crushed. If the critics would help w/ their wallets instead of criticizing, a lot more would get done. Realizing I don’t have the expertise, time, or money, I will be selling the Mullins Steelcraft which I personally bought. I don’t take money from the non-profit museum and still work my machine/welding shop. Thanks again for featuring us. Every visitors admission goes to maintain or improve the museum. By the way, the Late Ole Lee lived at Somers and built boats for years including a torpedo tail. His son has a marina North on us 93.Another by the way, anyone bringing their boat to use on beautiful Flathead Lake, needs to watch the weather as it can get rough in a hurry and has claimed several lives including a good friend who was an experienced sailor. Look forward to meeting you. Gil