Photo Credit | By JOE NICKELL of the Missoulian
Timothy Gordon | My Writings
It was a very cold morning in January, 2004 when he called. His number was displayed on the caller id. I had contemplated not answering, before I finally hit the “on” button. A call from him generally meant hours of talking, or that he had some “urgent” need for an intense favor, about nothing important at all. He was a lot of work, as friends go and he could be a real Jekyll and Hyde…one minute he was brilliant and charming … and the next, too impossible to deal with.
He had inherited millions of dollars, so he had never had to work. To compound this personal dilemma, he had also been involved in an accident in his twenties, which had put him into a wheelchair. The stories about the accident ranged from a motorcycle wreck, to something more mysterious. However it happened, he had time on his hands; so he liked to sit up through the night and into the daylight of morning, drinking and talking to friends about everything…about nothing. It could not be called “idle chit-chat”, as the level and the topics were intense, witty, maudlin charming, dangerous. It was a draining experience, unless you yourself uncorked a bottle to get you through it, then it became more of a defining conversation.
His collecting interests lie in Harleys, fast cars and firearms. His friends included your one-legged bikers, fallen away hippies, the burnt out variety of Vietnam vets, oddball collectors and musicians….and any and all bright or interesting people who lived on the edge of life or society. I valued his friendship and I liked to think of myself as one of his more upstanding friends. But maybe I flatter myself.
As an antique appraiser’s client, he was a dream come true. He had inherited millions of dollars worth of collections! His father, Robert Crane had been the son of a wealthy Industrialist and had begun amassing large collections as early as 1918. He had an insatiable appetite for early automobiles, fine paintings, rare historical objects and fascinating old mechanical music machines.
The father had been a visionary collector. By the 1950’s his collecting habit had become a raging fire – it had become his life. While on a trip to the Yellowstone Park area, he had stumbled upon two sleepy little 1860’s ghost towns and had begun reconstructing them for his own private hobby. He systematically filled the 150 antique buildings with over a million artifacts in just 10 years!
His collections were carefully selected to portray the various flavors of life in an Old West mining town – a wild one. He scoured the state of its old buildings and treasures, hoarding everything needed for a full representation of the place. He collected rare and authentic artifacts to fill Chinese miners’ cabins, dressmakers’ shops, soda fountains, toy stores, blacksmith shops, stage stations and several saloons and whorehouses!
People of the time thought he was insane. He was collecting large piles of 1880-1920 items during the 1950s! Many items were only 30 years old at the time. This would be akin to a modern day person filling 150 buildings full of day to day 1975 era possessions of no particular significance….bell bottom pants, Farah Fawcett posters, stingray bikes, tennis shoes, Tupperware eating utensils, whatever.
He created quite a sideshow for the small-town Montana residents who watched him pull into sleepy little mining towns and load trucks up with “junk”. Often he had to save history despite the local population. One town heard he was going to try to save Montana’s oldest building and so the angry city fathers gave him one day to get it moved out of town, or they would have it burned. Overnight he assembled trucks and a crew so he could jerk the 1849 building out of town by 6:00 A.M.
Robert had passed away in 1978 leaving the collections to his wife, Shirley. It was no mere coincidence that I had read of her death three months earlier and now Lee was calling. I suspected that this call from my friend might be different from the others.
I brought the phone up to my face and said, “Hello”. Lee’s telephone voice always sounded like that of a young boy’s. It was low, but youthful and excited. You wouldn’t picture the bearded-grizzled-tattooed man at the other end of the line, if you didn’t know him.
“Hi, Tim, it’s Lee… I’m really glad you are there, I need some help, he began…”
The drive from Missoula to Great Falls was always daunting in January. The Blackfoot Highway could leave a pit in a veteran truck driver’s stomach. With 150 miles of forest and icy roads, it winds dangerously along the Blackfoot River. Looking like a steaming hot tub, you realize what you are witnessing is evaporation into subzero weather. The only reason the river was not frozen solid was that it was running fast and dangerous. Despite the slippery conditions, the only way to keep your car on the road was to drive at least 60 mph. If you drove slower, the soft, high snow on the lonely road bogged you down into a trap. If you got stuck on the hills, you were unable to proceed. The road was teeming with deer and elk that popped out in front of your vehicle like aliens in a video game. If you hit a deer at 60 mph, they are dead. If you hit an elk at 60, you are dead.
After the first 20 miles, the beauty made the tense driving more bearable. The soft snow sat on the trees and the roofs of distant barns provide a dreamy effect against the gray sky.
If you narrowed your eyes you became lost in a world of cloudy softness; it was cotton candy and Novocain to your nerves… but soon you remembered the roads again. As your vehicle slipped ever so slightly on the corners, your hands gripped the wheel tightly once more.
The previous morning Lee had asked me to drive the distance to his family ranch to inspect and to photograph … of all things, an antique carousel.
“My mother left in her will that it is to be sold to Mr. X,” he said. “I just want you to look at it, Tim. I would like to know what you think it might really be worth and was wondering if you could photograph it for me before it leaves the ranch.”
He had explained to me that no one but the family and their ranch hands had ever seen what I was about to experience, not since it was brought home to the Ranch in the late 1940’s.
The very existence of the carousel had been a closely held secret. Many collections owned by the Cranes were of this nature. The window displays in the two towns were open to the public, but only four or five trusted people in forty years had been allowed to see the hordes of treasures in the back rooms of the ghost towns. Some might think they were paranoid, others greedy, like Midas playing in piles of gold.
Robert had met Shirley in the 1920’s. She was the beautiful daughter of one of the wealthiest bankers in Montana. He had wooed her while posing as a poor farmhand, not revealing his true identity. They shocked the community by shacking up before the marriage.
On their wedding day, Robert presented Shirley with the keys to the enormous Sunnydale Ranch outside of Great Falls. She had married an enormously wealthy man, and had not suspected that he was anything but a poor field worker. Theirs was indeed a marriage for love.
…After three grueling hours of driving, I pulled into a service station to fill up and to get some coffee. It was freezing outside, but my fleece sweater was wet from the tense driving. As I continued on, I was getting close. It was only another 30 minute drive past the city until I noticed a sign pointing down a narrow dirt road heading back into the mountains. It was very small and weathered and sat back from the road. I nearly missed its white on brown letters – “Sunnydale”.
I turned my truck down the road and began the slow drive into the ranch. There were no tire tracks on the road as it seemed no one had been there for months. The sun had come out now and the light had become an odd solarized white over the snow-covered wheat fields. I put on my shades and scanned the beauty of the place with its neatly assembled rock piles, and weathered antique wagons. Magpies and ravens sat on the fence line asking me what the hell I was doing there.
It was about ten minutes later that I began passing small ranch buildings, cow sheds and packrat infested cabins. I knew from the directions that I had been given by Lee that I must be getting very close to the Carousel. Lee had described the Carousel to me as being housed in a very large metal building. As I climbed over a hill and began descending down the other side, I saw the enormous steel building sitting off in the distance beyond acres of cut wheat stubble, poking up through the snow.
As I got closer to my destination it became pronounced. The building covered an area about the size of a football field. On the way, I had expected that I was going to see a fine little “merry-go-round”, but now I wondered what other treasures might be housed inside this enormous and mysterious building. I knew he had vehicle collections, both horse-drawn and early auto, but Lee had not mentioned these.
I pulled my truck up in front of a shack about forty feet away. It looked like some kind of an office with power and phone lines going to it. I got out into the subzero weather and pushed the door open, thinking to call Lee at his home on Flathead Lake and tell him that I had arrived.
The phone was dead but sitting on a shelf nearby was a 1/2 full bottle of Chivas Regal. It must have been forty years old and I looked into it to see if it held any scum, but it looked clean so I took a swig. It burnt very nicely as it went down and when I put the bottle down, my breath steamed in the cold air.
I grabbed my work bag which held my cameras, some tools, a light and notebooks.
The area surrounding the building was covered in gravel with a skiff of snow. My boots crunched on the rock as I walked toward the door of the enormous building.
I took the keys out of my pocket and fumbled with the lock until it finally turned hard to the left and the door opened. I pushed the door in…
The inside was pitch black. I looked down to see that the floor was dirt and not cement. I reached for my flashlight flipping the switch. Raising my head, I waited for my eyes and the light to come together. I looked to the ceiling, first searching for light fixtures. To my shock, rising before me were two gigantic painted horses rearing up thirty feet tall with gilded Roman centurion riders! What the hell? As I shined my light on them, I could see that these guards were merely placed at the entry of a huge Pavilion building to alert visitors to what may lie beyond. I walked under the ominous statues toward what looked like a large paneled ticket booth that acted as the gateway to a giant stained glass building. This behemoth housed the carousel. It was so large, that it was slightly alarming.
I had a sense of unreality, as I tried to put it all into proportion and place…to figure out what was sitting before me in the darkness.
My legs moved forward as I examined the centurions closely. “Holy Shit”, I muttered. I am over 6’2” tall and my head did not even reach the foot of the rearing horse.
The rider towered above and was beautifully decorated. He wore a gilded Roman helmet with his right arm raising a sword higher than my flashlight light could illuminate. He was covered in drippings cobwebs. In this area of Montana that meant hobo spiders and black widows. I brushed at my hair in reaction. One had bitten my hand the summer before and left me a large lump of scar tissue from the incident.
I slowly moved my light behind the figures to discover a giant Art Nouveau stained-glass butterfly window! It was magnificent and measured taller than the centurions.
I raised my head back and now could see how the entire carousel building was constructed by the colored windows set into wooden panels forming walls, which were then bolted and cabled together to form an enormous hexagon.
By now my eyes were beginning to adjust more to the poor lighting. There was no electricity in the building, but there were dark green, murky fiberglass roof panels in the ceiling which allowed low sunlight to filter in. I looked at what was before me. To my shock and delight, I could see that it was an enormous Art Nouveau pavilion building made up of these wonderful stained-glass butterfly windows and ornamented with wedding cake style carved and molded walls with painted panels and gilt over plaster decorations. I drew a deep breath and stood silently in wonderment at what lay before me. “My god, I thought. Why is this here?”
Unable to completely process what I was viewing, my legs took me toward the paneled ticket booth area behind the centurions. Every surface of this area was encrusted and festooned with carved ladies heads, angels, painted landscapes, nudes.
I walked beyond into the carousel room. Inside was no merry-go-round, no mere carousel, this was a Palace! The room before me was over a hundred feet wide, the ceiling was open, but I could tell that the room was not square, it was a six-sided hex! I brushed through the cobwebs and went toward a corner to observe slowly. From this place I could see that it was a mahogany champagne bar. I looked beyond the edge of the carousel to see that each corner before me, three that I could see, had mahogany champagne bars!
From my place in the corner, I moved the light ever so slowly forward toward the center of the room. There was so much to see that my arm began to get tired as I scanned the thousands of details before me.
I had entered into a time and a place of wonderment that I could never have imagined. I wasn’t in Montana in 2004, I was transported…I was in Paris of 1895… Paris, sitting on a frozen star.
Slowly emerging from the shadows, I was soon to discover that this thing before me was not a “merry-go-round, but was actually the finest and largest carousel ever built.
Before me were not merely horses on brass poles. Instead I beheld elaborate enclosed coaches, Louis XVI style with rounded tops, gilded decorations and oil painted panels of nudes, nymphs and satyrs and cherubs. The side windows were floral painted screens. Before and aft of each coach were six of the world’s finest carved and painted white horses, leaping in different positions, most with expressions of rage or fury carved into their brows.
Their manes waved back, their heads raised and turned and reigned in, as if they were in a whirling, spinning, raging race. This was no mere carousel. It was a carousel for drunken Parisians, plastered on champagne and locking themselves into screened off coaches with their lovers. I could only imagine.
The coaches and horses rolled around a very wide diameter on platforms which rode on rails, as if they were a train. Behind the horses and coaches, my light revealed full, voluptuous, finely-carved, plump, nude women, resting on top of large band organ calliopes. There were six different calliopes and nude women capping the entire scene.
I sat there for another fifteen minutes, with my mouth hanging open, trying to take it all in. On the floor were tickets and old champagne bottles, wire and oak tables and crystal glasses lying about, as if the party were the evening before or maybe 100 years ago, in that very spot. Everything had an inch of dust on it, but the beauty before me on every surface was that of a fine jewelry store interior. It all had a timeless ring to it, as if champagne slowly dripped onto the floor from nearly emptied bottles.
Upon further inspection, I noticed that the machine was driven by a gigantic boiler powered steam power plant which drove the coaches around on railroad tracks. When fired up, the cacophony of the steam engine and the wheels on the rails and the calliopes and the revelers must have been overwhelming to the senses.
Over the course of the next few hours, I remained in the room with my imagination racing; I carefully set up my camera and battery-powered lights and silently shot the numerous angles and images of this treasure. I explored the coaches, smoothed my hands over the carvings, turned the mechanisms of the calliopes, sat on the horses, and climbed behind the bars.
I have traveled the world, worked in palaces, the Louvre, the Prada, and The British Museum. I have had professional access to the basements of the best museums in the world, I have seen the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel and yet, I had never seen anything before or since as beautiful, as exciting and as lost to the world, as this massive treasure sitting in the frozen wheat fields of Montana, the least populated state in America. It had been enjoyed privately by only three or four people over a half of a century. To the day of my writing, this was by far the most fabulous single object that I had ever encountered.
As daylight began to fade, I gathered my gear. I went back out to the Chivas bottle, put it in my truck and drove into Great Falls to get a room. As I slept in my hotel room, the coaches went round and round all evening. The beautiful Parisian women blew kisses to me from their spinning horses as their gentlemen sat in the shadows and blew cigar smoke from the screens of the coaches.
One day in 2006, about the same time of year, I received the call informing me of Lee’s death.
For the next eight months, I would spend my days carefully unwrapping, photographing and examining the amazing collections which the Crane family had gathered. It was all intermingled in warehouses and antique buildings along with Lee’s personal possession, the boxes of biker ashes, 1980′s saloon signs, expensive outdated electronics and rock albums and yet Lee had added significantly to the family collections with rare firearms, collector cars, and a fine vintage motorcycle collection.
At the end of my work, the State of Montana was to purchase the towns and their historical contents at my appraisal price. All of their collections are now a State Park and Montana’s third largest tourist attraction.
The Carousel went east to Chicago, where a wealthy collector spent millions restoring it. Once again it is in private hands, locked away from the public’s grasp, spinning for the amusement of one owner only.