By 1900, Charles M. Bair was ranching more sheep in Montana than anyone else in the world. However, rather than stay the course, Bair chose to sell out and invest in a machine designed to thaw permafrost which in turn would extend gold mining into the winter months. At the height of the Alaskan Gold Rush, Bair traveled to the Yukon to sell these machines and while he was there, he bought up a few claims and turned a profit. By the end of this venture, Bair was a very wealthy man and he settled in Billings with his wife, Mary (Jacobs), and their two children, Marguerite and Alberta.
Although the Bairs had amassed a large fortune, they were relatively frugal spenders. When Charles and Mary passed away, their daughters were left with the estate. Marguerite and Alberta used their riches to travel Europe, collecting art and antiques. The sisters then returned home to Montana to “Europeanize” their family ranch house. Marguerite used her artistic talents to redesign old rooms and add new ones, incorporating decorative features such as ornate windows and elaborate molding. By the time the sisters were done building onto the ranch house, it covered over 11,000 square feet.
Neither Marguerite nor Alberta had children, and without an heir to the family estate, the sisters decided to share it with Montana in the form of scholarships, philanthropic grants, and a museum.
The Charles M. Bair Museum comprises the Bair family ranch house and their collection of antiques, artifacts, and art. Although there are strong European influences throughout the home, it is apparent that the Bair sisters had a strong respect for their roots as a frontier family as well.
“The Bair ladies loved to dress up and travel and show off their antiques but they were equally proud that it all started on a sheep ranch,” says Elizabeth Guheen, director and chief curator at the Charles M. Bair Family Museum. “I believe this juxtaposition of gentility and authenticity is what makes the Bair Museum so unique and surprises and interests our visitors.”
The Bair Family Museum is located at 2759 MT-294 in Martinsdale. For more information, call 406-572-3314 or visit bairfamilymuseum.org.