Remains of the Day 

Giving presence to the past at the Miracle of America Museum

Gil Mangels thinks like his museum. He talks like his museum. In many ways, he is his museum, a walking compendium of pretty much everything that ever happened in western Montana. The lifelong Polson resident and his wife Joanne own and curate the Miracle of America, a sprawling acre-plus of indoor and outdoor exhibits perched on a hillside along U.S. Highway 93 at the southern end of the Flathead Lake hamlet. Mangels has to consult with Joanne about his favorite part of the collection.

“The motorcyles, probably,” he says, “Wouldn’t you say—favorite thing?”

“For everybody?” Joanne asks, “No! Everybody has their own favorite!”

“No,” he clarifies, “Mine, I mean.”

“Yes,” she concurs. “Probably the motorcycles.”

Not that every cycle is part of the permanent collection. The 1916 Harley called the “White Hope” belongs to his friend Mort, who still rides it around for half the year. Mangels built a companion racer to the White Hope that he wanted to call the Black Despair, but was overruled by Mort and Joanne. In fact, Mangels’s love of vintage cycles—he has about 40 of them—is one of the reasons why the Miracle of America museum occupies its present location.

“I started with a 30-foot by 40-foot building adjoining my machine shop up the east lakeshore,” he remembers. “I had about 30 motorcycles at the time. It was full before we ever got the roof on.”

The present museum opened its doors to the public in 1984. Driving north on Highway 93, you can’t miss it. It’s not like every patriotically painted compound on the south shore of Flathead Lake appears to be cleft in two by a charging tugboat, the Paul Bunyan, which pulled log booms on Flathead Lake until 1951. When you see the Paul Bunyan, you know to pull over.

Admission is three dollars, and the perusing starts as soon as you walk in the door. The walls of the lobby are bedecked with Montana-themed sheet music. The Miracle of America is stuffed to the rafters with an incredible amount of memorabilia of every kind. Not for nothing that it’s been dubbed “The Smithsonian of the West.”

“Keep to the right or you’ll miss whole rooms,” says museum volunteer Susan Brueckman. “And you’ve also got to remember to look up. Gil’s really good about putting stuff everywhere. No matter how many times I go through, I always see something new.”

Playing the symbols
Mangels is guiding a tour today. Two tours, actually. Not for us, but for a group of some 75 fifth graders who have been studying World War II. The group has been divided to keep it manageable, with half the students sent outside to poke around in the barn, the general store, and the other open-air exhibits while Mangels conducts the indoor tour. Even at half their original numbers, the kids inside are squirrelly with nervous energy. Armed with a steel-tipped pointing stick, Mangels exudes the good-natured petulance of a grandfather or favorite great-uncle inundated with too many visiting kids to handle at once.

Much of what’s on display in the Miracle of America is grouped not chronologically or intuitively, but symbolically. The first stop along the first corridor threaded by this tour is an assortment of scales and balances. A sign in a shadow box hanging on the wall to our right reads: “We hope the symbolic use of the scales (balances) in this and the display behind you will remind you of the need for balance, both in our lives and in our government.”

“Symbolism is an easy way to teach,” Mangels tells us later. “It helps explain a principle and it’s a lasting lesson. The scales showing a balance, for example. Even when you’re a baby, you’re weighed on a scale. It might be a digital scale, but it’s still a balance. Your weight is balanced against a standard.”

Directly across the narrow corridor from the shadow box is the symbolic center of the Miracle of America: a display devoted to the Constitution. Aiming his pointer at a large white ruler on the wall, a sliding-scale representation of government with Anarchy at one end and Tyranny at the other, Mangels addresses the group.

“Remember how we talked about Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo being tyrants? Over here in the Constitution section, the scales symbolize a balanced form of government under people’s law. That was what the Constitution had established. Now, when people live an anarchist lifestyle—that means they just do whatever they want and don’t have any regard for others’ rights or for the law—that’s called anarchy. On the other hand, on the other end of the spectrum is the ruler’s law, which is rule by force and fear and dictatorship. Communism and Nazism and fascism are all tyrannical forms of government.”

The kids barely have time to review their mental notes before Mangels plunges ahead with the object lesson of scales and balances and rulers in both senses of the word. “Now,” he asks them, “Where would you like to live?

“Right there,” pipes up one student, thrusting a finger dead center between anarchy and tyranny.

“Right in the middle? All power to the people? You’d like the opportunity to make your own decisions and be responsible for them? OK, well, where do you think America is today as a whole?”

“Um,” begins the student.

“Some are living way over here on the right-hand side, aren’t they, without much regard for law,” Mangels continues. “So our government has probably become more powerful, sliding over here towards tyranny. Now, if we want to bring back to the center, where do we have to go?”

“Back,” says the student.

“We have to go back to the center, don’t we? We have to be responsible for our own actions, take care of our land and our people and respect others. OK, so it all starts with us. I think our freedom is dependent on responsibility for our own actions. OK, we’ll go into the military room next.”

Organized chaos

Not everything in the museum is arranged symbolically. In the outdoor exhibits, with their own kind of anarchy, the sheer eye-swimming amount of stuff Mangels has shoehorned into outbuildings devoted to carpentry, farming, smithing and logging defies any attempt to take it all in at once. A relocated barn, originally built in 1934 at the junction of Highways 93 and 35, has tractors, shovels, harrowers, threshers, a huge cradle-scythe, tack and saddle, cow-poke collars (“Prevents unruly cattle from destroying crops and fences,” says a period advertisement) and one wall devoted exclusively to different types of barbed wire. There’s “Fryes Twist,” “Stubb Plate Large, 1883,” “Brinkerhoff Saber,” “Alice Barbless,” “Baker Flat Barb,” “Dodge and Washburn,” “Scutt,” “Weatherton Flat Barb,” and easily a couple hundred other varieties. A barbed wire exhibit, with each variety labeled and mounted in the collector-standard 18-inch strand, makes a reassuring pattern in the rusting riot of tools and equipment bulging out of every corner.

The shelves of the General Store face a similar struggle for order with the amount of stuff heaped on them. On one wall are biscuit tins, packages of licorice wafers, Chase & Sanborn’s coffee, and hundreds of other choices for bygone shoppers. On the other side: tinctures and ointments, bottles of herbal tinctures (valerian and columbo root), castor oil, henna leaves, veterinary liniment, “Essence of Caroid,” “Chamberlain’s Colic Relief for Flatulent or Wind Colic,” and every other kind of nostrum you can think of.

There’s a logging cook shack and a Fiddler’s Hall of Fame with fiddle music blaring out of a portable CD player set on repeat. The gravel backlot of the Miracle of America also houses Mangels’ modest armada of military vehicles, especially tracked vehicles. A full-tracked, six-ton amphibious cargo carrier used primarily to haul howitzer shells in Pusan, Korea still looks ready to crush you where you stand—although, as with most of the tracked vehicles, a lot of the rubber tread has rotted away from the metal track, leaving rock-hard plugs of black gunk between the cylindrical links.

And, of course, there are the Vietnam- and Korean-era helicopters. The boys from the half of the group turned loose outside are swarming around the cockpit—it’s one of the museum’s hands-on exhibits—pounding the controls and hollering orders to each other in piping voices. War machines are like boy magnets, as you might remember from field trips in your own school days. When Gil Mangels was in fifth grade, little boys playing war still fought the Germans and the Japanese. Today there’s too many kids piled into this Huey, all yelling and making shooting noises, to make out who they’re fighting.

It’s great being a kid at an outdoor museum with things to climb on and more questions than the guide has time for answers. When you’re not a little kid anymore, though, it’s easy to feel caught between the era of your own life and the daily life of a time when more people were farmers and loggers and blacksmiths. One of the best ways to appreciate the Miracle of America is to hear how the guide explains it to kids. It’s still comforting to have someone take you by the proverbial hand and tell you where everything belongs and how it works. In a museum like this, you need an old guy to make sense of it all.

To the shores of Tripoli

Back inside the museum, the second tour has made its way into the military room. Having arranged them himself, Mangels naturally serves as an excellent interpreter of the exhibits. The tour pauses at a moving tribute to Ernie Pyle, the U.S. frontline correspondent killed by a Japanese sniper in 1945 on the Pacific island of Ie Shima, while Mangels tells the kids they might find some of their relatives on the muster roll of World War II veterans from the Polson area. There’s a porous chunk of black volcanic rock from Iwo Jima, and above it a maxim by Calvin Coolidge, soberly lettered on a white-painted slab of plywood: “The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.”

It’s kind of funny, though, because Mangels has obviously given the tour so many times that his explanations have assumed an absentminded polish. At times he seems to forget that he’s talking to a group of fifth graders in 2002, as opposed to the same kids 40 or 50 years earlier, or a tour group of veterans or fellow military history enthusiasts. His explanations of things past occasionally linger in the present tense just long enough to make you wonder. Mangels points his stick at a poster from the early ’40s encouraging children to help recycle cans and scrap metal for the war materials drive.

“OK,” he says, “Here we see a young man who just dreams of the day when he’s old enough to become a pilot so he can shoot down Zeros or Messerschmidts. So he’s studying hard in school, keeping his body healthy, exercising good and not doing drugs so that when he’s old enough he can join the Air Corps.”

“Over here on the other board,” Mangels continues, wheeling around to face an exhibit of Pacific Theater memorabilia, “We see a ‘meatball’ flag from World War II, a Japanese soldier’s personal flag, and he’s gotten his relatives to autograph it. It’s also called a signature flag. It’s supposed to bring him good luck. OK, there we see a very harsh poster: ‘Stay on the Job Until Every Murdering Jap is Wiped Out.’ That wouldn’t be very politically correct today, would it?”

“Nooooo,” the kids all chime in, answering in that predetermined pitch, as students in a group always seem to do.

“But remember,” Mangels continues, “They’re talking about the Bataan Death March, in which over 5,200 Yank prisoners were killed by the Japanese. They were very brutal, and thought nothing of torturing civilians and military alike. If it was an aviator, espec-ially, that got shot down, they were especially brutal to them.”

Strength in diversity

Another thing about museums: You can love museums and still succumb to a certain malaise peculiar to them, a kind of distracted crankiness that you get in places where you’re expected to walk around for hours peering at things that are roped off or behind glass. The more you see, the more you realize you have still to see, and for some reason it makes you hungry or thirsty, or both. This is why the best museums have a canteen or a coffee shop of some kind.

“Would you like an ice cream sandwich?” Mangels asks us. “Susan, would you get us some ice cream sandwiches, please.”

We slide into a booth by the museum’s reconstruction of a vintage soda fountain, stocked with seltzer bottles and antique glasses and presided over by a pallid mannequin with spidery department-store fingers and cheekbones that could slice a tomato. The mannequin is modeling the brown velveteen dirndl that was the “typical waitress uniform worn in Glacier Park between 1915 and 1940.” This one, the sign indicates, is from 1920.

“Diversity, I think, is our strength,” says Mangels. “You can find museums here and there across the country that have more tractors, or more military or more motorcycles than we have, but not too many that have the diversity that we do.”

“We have a basic tour,” says Joanne Mangels, “Where we talk about the freedoms we have and how acting responsibly is something we can do to retain our freedoms. If you want to drive, you have to act responsibly or you lose your license or you get in a car wreck. If you want to have the right to keep and bear arms, you have to be responsible with your guns. Freedom of religion, you have to be tolerant of other people’s religions. Et cetera, et cetera. All freedoms have responsibilities that go hand-in-hand. And that’s sort of what our usual basic tour goes into.”

“We’ve also had agricultural students that come to see the agricultural stuff,” she continues. “We do tours for Cub Scout and Boy Scout groups. We’ve done tours on clothing styles for some classes. Head Start classes. Senior citizens’ groups. It depends on what each group wants to see or wants to understand the most about. We’ve done a lot of “Little House on the Prairie” type stuff, because we have a sod-roofed log cabin and things like that. We tailor the tour for the interests of each group, and as you look around, you get a much better idea of where we can go with anything people are interested in.”

So where does it all come from? All over the place, according to Mangels. He first began collecting arrowheads around the Polson bridge as a boy and eventually moved on to vehicles.

“His parents wouldn’t let him have a car,” Joanne tells us, “And they finally talked him into getting a car that didn’t run.”

“No,” Gil corrects her. “They didn’t even give me permission for that, but the guy gave it to me. Oh, I wish I had that car back. It was a ’33 Ford two-door sedan.”

Families have donated private collections, but most of the time, Mangels says, he just goes out looking at estate sales and auctions and antique sales to find what he’s looking for.

“For the most part, I just have to scrounge for it,” he says, “Being a non-profit museum, we’ve had access to certain government surplus items, but now since the terrorists hit, some items like vehicles and airplanes have dried up. They’re worried about anything getting into enemy hands, terrorists’ hands.”

Mangels had mentioned earlier to the fifth graders that all weapons and ordnance in the museum have been disabled—and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms paid him a visit to make sure of it. Some of the .50-caliber machine guns mounted on the military vehicles are replicas Mangels made himself in his machine shop. “It’s kind of a satisfaction,” he admits, “And if anybody stole it, they couldn’t hurt anybody with it.” Have the military collections commanded any federal attention since Sept. 11?

“Physically, I haven’t seen anyone,” says Mangels, “But the day after the attacks the State Department called to make sure our airplanes and helicopters weren’t serviceable. I can understand their paranoia and their concern, although I found it rather strange that they called me. But I don’t want anything in the area of things that still work because of the liability—if somebody stole it.”

A significant portion of the artifacts in the museum are of Native American origin. Just to the right of the front door as you walk in, a collection of arrowheads, spearheads, stone knives and hide scrapers spells out a saying attributed to the Sioux. One of the first display cases on the guided tour contains an eagle-headed dancing stick, a white doeskin dress with a beaded star pattern, a parfleche pack, a curved coup-stick and similar items from Plains tribes. Do disputes over rightful ownership ever arise between tribal authorities and the museum?

“No, no, we’ve been very cautious about that,” Mangels says. “When we first received a full collection from another museum, there were some items in there that we thought were sacred, and we contacted the Browning tribe and told them that we had them and that we would like them to come down and pick them up. And they appreciated that. We’re not in this for conflict. We’re in it to preserve and restore and exhibit local history.”

“We’ve had a few people, though,” he chuckles, “Who say, ‘Hey, my grandfather gave that to you and now I want it back.’”

A carving in the museum’s collection by Native American carver John Clarke is another of Mangels’s special favorites. Clarke lost his hearing and speech after an attack of scarlet fever. Apart from just being a nice piece of art, it also illustrates the kind of lesson Mangels wants the Miracle of America museum to stand for.

“People might think of being deaf and mute as a handicap, but he didn’t let it hold him back. He went on to develop a world-class carving ability. I tell the kids they might develop a handicap or even have one now, maybe it’s just that they’re bashful or don’t feel good about themselves, but I tell them just remember this carving, this beautiful carving, and that if John could do it, you can do it.”

And the name of the museum itself? Depending on your interpretation of the syntax, you can also interpret the museum, in the estimation of its owners, to be the country’s primary thaumaturgical attraction—that is, America’s biggest miracle. Or you can interpret it to mean that America itself is the miracle. Definitely the latter, says Mangels.

“In one of our displays,” he says, “We explain that for thousands of years, mankind had to work with primitive tools—like the ones in the display. But since the Constitution of the United States was established—and of course the Constitution itself was kind of a miracle, when you consider that 56 men could agree on something and sign it—in less than 200 years we’ve gone from the walking plow to walking on the moon. When you think about that contrast, it’s just a miracle.”

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