POLSON – Inside the Miracle of America Museum, you are invited to observe the splendor of human curiosity.
What was once someone’s old toolkit is now part of an era’s story. What used to be a defunct John Deere tractor rotting in a field is now a tribute to early agriculturalists.
For Gil Mangels, nothing is too mundane to be considered for his museum’s display. It’s all part of the miracle of America to him. But if you’re not paying attention, you could easily drive past all of this on U.S. Highway 93 just south of Polson.
“A lot of people have no idea what’s behind the façade,” Mangels said. “They have no idea there’s 35 buildings full of things out back.”
Mangels began collecting when he was 3 years old: arrowheads, interesting rocks, possible artifacts. At first he stored the findings under his bed, in closets or anywhere he could where his parents wouldn’t find the “junk” laying around and throw it away.
Decades later he claims to have the biggest collection available to the public in the state. Anybody who has been to the Miracle of America Museum would have a hard time disputing his claim. He has operated Miracle – which has been referred to as the “Smithsonian of the West” – with his wife since 1985.
The museum has 35 buildings all with different themes, ranging from sewing to fur trapping to military weaponry. The real prizes, aside from miscellaneous tidbits that suit different people’s particular fancies, are the military and farming vehicles. Mangels runs a welding and repair shop adjacent to the museum, so he takes pride in maintaining the appearance of his machinery.
Not to mention, some of it still runs.
Mangels takes visitors for rides in several of the old vehicles. In fact, his car of choice when traveling around the country to pick up artifacts is a 1937 van. He has relics from all 50 states.
The museum has Vietnam-era bomber planes, World War II rescue snow tractors and a 1917 Harley Davidson flat track racing motorcycle. Helicopters and jeeps also dot the property, along with an array of old tractors. Every once in awhile he fires up his Model TT car from 1920 and takes it for a spin.
Mangels is primarily interested in human creation and ingenuity. Little of his collection is natural history. He’s fascinated with the things humans use, whether they come from World War II or the Colonial Period or the Civil War era. He doesn’t discriminate and gladly accepts items from the kitchen, the shed or the dustiest of attics.
“It’s a link with the past,” he said. “It’s the quality that man puts into their products – the ingenuity, the inventiveness.”
There’s no simple answer to where Mangels gets all of his stuff. Today some of it comes from eBay and other Web sources, but he still relies strongly on old-fashioned word of mouth. Farmers and collectors hear about Mangels and contact him. Sometimes people bring him things, sometimes he goes and gets them right away or other times he waits until they’re willed to him, which happens frequently. And the museum is always growing.
Mangels doesn’t make a cent off the museum. It’s a nonprofit organization that relies on the dedication of Mangels and his wife, along with volunteers. Mangels has made his living from the repair shop and he lives in a humble apartment connected to the museum.
“I repair everything from eyeglasses to D8 Caterpillars,” he said of his shop.
Visitors likely can’t get through the whole collection in fewer than several hours, but even a quick stop is worthwhile. The entrance fee for adults is $4 and for kids it’s $1. Seniors get a discount and annual memberships are also available. The phone number for the museum is (406) 883-6804 and its Web site is www.miracleofamericamuseum.org. On July 19 and 20, the museum will hold its annual “Live History Days” with music and demonstrations by local craftsmen.
“It’s really neat to see four or five generations come in and have an item prompt a memory that they relate to,” Mangels said. “The diversity is probably our strong point.”
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