MONTANA COWBOY HALL OF FAME & WESTERN HERITAGE

Miracle of America Museum (Est. 1985)

“Everywhere I look, I am speechless!” That was a comment that a visitor wrote in the “Comments and Suggestions” book as she toured the Miracle of America Museum in Polson, Montana.

Although the Miracle of America did not become an actual physical place until 1985, it could be said that its gestation period began as long ago as 1945, when founder Gil Mangels was about four years old and found an arrowhead in the Mission Valley where he grew up. His mother told him it was special and he should keep it. As a young child, Gil became fascinated with his grandparents’ Model A Sedan and their horse drawn machinery, and thus, the collection began.

After high school graduation, Gil went to basic training, Military Police training, and a year’s duty as MP at West Point where he became well acquainted with the Military Museum, the big guns and area monuments. Then he spent two years at Frankfurt, Germany, which gave him opportunities to visit the Berlin Wall and famous sites such as Checkpoint Charlie. It became clear to him that the United States was blessed with freedoms that were not available anywhere else, and Gil witnessed firsthand the benefits of freedom over totalitarianism. The day Gil left the Army was the day President Kennedy was assassinated. These experiences developed a patriotism in Gil that is demonstrated throughout the museum.

Gil collected and amassed antiques for years simply because he liked them. It became a natural next step to share his growing collection with others in hopes of preserving and keeping America’s history alive. In the early 1970’s, Gil and his wife Joanne, first shared their growing collection in a small building just off the highway on the East Shore of Flathead Lake. In 1985 they were able to purchase a 5-acre parcel of land on the outskirts of Polson fronting Highway 93, which has become the permanent location of the Miracle of American Museum, with easy access to both travelers and locals.

Joanne worked alongside Gil for 47½ years until she passed away from COPD. In 2016, Gil married Helen Horner, thus keeping the woman’s soft touch throughout the character of the Museum.

As a visitor walks through the front door of the museum, they will quickly see that much planning and care has been used in every detail of its presentation. The displays are described with clarity. What will we see? Well, there is a display of over 100 different mousetraps! There is a collection of over 70 antique and vintage motorcycles, motorbikes, and motorwheels, with over 3,500 pieces of memorabilia, photos. But that’s not all. There is a room that houses more motorcycles and motorcycle related winter vehicles including a rare Eliason snow toboggan. There are many Native American artifacts which have been donated to the Museum for safekeeping and preservation. There is a section devoted to a Veterans’ Tribute Wall and displays that help viewers to understand that freedom isn’t free. Thousands of items, ranging in size from a “Buy War Bonds” match book to an A7D Corsair Jet attack bomber, that capture just about every aspect and emotion related to war and the price of freedom on the battle front and on the home front. The Multipurpose Meeting Room was built in 1998-99 and in it is a 1925 soda fountain which was originally in a Ronan, Montana, drugstore. All the scenes described in this paragraph are only a small example of what you will see in this awesome building. But now it is time to exit through the backdoor and step into an area of over 40 vintage buildings, each filled with relics that were necessary, time saving, tools used by hardworking farmers, ranchers, townspeople, homesteaders, our ancestors and forefathers. As another visitor noted in our “Comments and Suggestions” book: “Awesome experience. Thank you for the love and time spent in putting this all together. America is wonderful.” And another comment: “Thank you for preserving our past. It seems to fade so quickly.”

Many of the buildings, like the 1912 schoolhouse, 1938 log cabin gas station, and blacksmith shop were moved in. Others, like the Jack Welch saddle shop, 1912 bank, and general store were recreated using salvage lumber. As you wander around the village of over 40 buildings, you will note that most of them span from 1890 to 1950. The general store was often the first commercial building in a pioneer town. This one, as did the early ones, houses the Post Office and an assortment of whatever basics the pioneers might have needed for farming, cooking and general day-to-day life. Another 2500 square foot building houses vintage vehicles, including a 1929 Franklin, 1937 Ford, and a 1941 Packard. Stop by the 1890’s sod-roofed log cabin. There is only a few pieces of furniture and only one room for everyone. Privacy was non-existent and children had to learn to “get along” as they did not even have their own beds. There is a blacksmith shop, well equipped with tools most folks have never seen. Dianne wrote: “Wow! I’m in tears because this is the single most amazing museum I’ve seen and I’ve seen the Smithsonian, The Louvre and countless others in Europe and the U.S.!”

The Museum displays many pieces of military items including vehicles, helicopters, airplanes from World War I to the Vietnam War. Gil was fortunate to have access to government surplus because of the Museum’s non-profit status. An entry in Comments and Suggestions: “Hi. My name is Gracie. I am 11 years old. My favorite part was the hellocopter (sic). This is a really cool museum. Thank you” There are humorous displays as well as interactive stations throughout the Museum.

The Miracle of America Museum’s purpose is to teach through history and preservation. Quote from the book: “Don’t change a thing! This place is amazing!” Many school children have visited the Museum on field trips with Gil as their tour guide. Quote from the book: “Keep educating America’s young people.” Also, “It’s the funnest time I’ve had in my life! Edgar – age 9.”

The Miracle of America Museum is becoming known around the world. In 2021, the museum hosted over 17,300 people by early October, including visitors from 35 others countries. By founding the Miracle of America Museum at Polson, Montana, Gil has left a legacy for the generations.

Resources: Pamphlet: The Story of the Miracle of America Museum by Gil Mangels. Personal knowledge gained from volunteering at the museum by Afton Moss.