Miracle on Highway 93
December 10, 2008
By DAVE REESE
There's a little bit of collector in all of us.
Gil Mangels has just taken it a little bit farther.
But to say Mangels, the proprietor of the Miracle of America Museum in Polson, is a collector, is an understatement. He is a collector's collector. His collections spread out through 26 buildings on five acres south of Polson, housing everything from World War II nostalgia, cameras to antique cars, and perhaps the world's most eclectic collection of mousetraps. There's not much that has avoided the collective grasp of Mangels.
The 10,000-square foot main Museum building houses everything from Weasels (snow coaches used by the 10th Mountain Division in World War II) to antique Harley Davidsons and a bizarre collection of mouse traps that electrocuted, strangled or shot their victims.
In one year, visitors from 23 states and three countries toured the Miracle of America Museum . "We should be drawing more, but the building is a bit generic looking," he says. "It's a million dollar collection in a thousand dollar museum."
While much of the museum's displays is simply bizarre or collected for nostalgia's sake (there's a collection of barbed wire that's probably the largest in the world), Mangels and his wife, Joann, have tried to put a message behind the menageries. They try to get this message across to the dozens of school children who come through the museum each year.
Take John Clarke, for instance. Born around the turn of the 20th century, he contracted scarlet fever and was left severely disabled. Clarke went on to become a great carver, and one of his pieces, a wooden grizzly bear charging a man, sits in a museum display. The point, Mangels says, is that no matter how down on your luck you are, it's important to persevere. "When you're on your back, there's nowhere to look but up. We try to teach principles that will make a better society," Gil says.
In another section of the museum, the Mangels have placed an antique car display next to a display with a horse-drawn hearse, baby coffin and photos of people who have been killed by drunk drivers. "Every freedom carries responsibility," says Mangels, a third-generation Polson native.
Mangels has collected other items simply for his fascination of them. He has one of the first-ever snowmobiles built (a 1943 Eliason Motor Toboggan), a gas cow milker, and a two-headed calf that Mangels said elicits many comments from youngsters. "They ask how it died," he said. "I tell them they starved to death. "There's a lesson there in family relations."
Some of the war posters and memorabilia reflect an epoch in America quite different from today. "Buy War Bonds. Our Boys are Depending on You!" one of the posters reads, while a letter from the head of the Navy offers condolences to a local family whose son was killed in combat. Mangels loves his country and his displays attest to his patriotism. "I was born with a love for America. That's why we call it the Miracle of America," he says. "The miracle at Philadelphia was about the signing of the constitution. We try to talk about the good things of America, the blessings that a lot of people don't know about."
The war displays tend to evoke strong reactions from people who endured the Great War. The displays also keep people from that generation coming back to the museum to rekindle old times. "I grew up with my father during the war, and he never talked about it. Now I can understand it," Mangels says.
The war displays often lead to memorable reunions of old friends. Mangels remembers a woman who had met a man near one of the World War II displays. She had overheard him talking about an A-20, a type of plane that her brother had flown in. Turns out, the man was the last person to have seen her brother alive before he bailed out of his A-20 over the English Channel, never to be seen again. "Miracles continue to happen here," Mangels says. "Some people say this museum has a life of its own."
Gil has always had a hard time throwing things away, and he owns a machine shop, so the museum was a natural outgrowth of his hobbies. The Mangels opened the museum 18 years ago. Since then, Gil continues to search around the country for things to fill gaps in the museum displays. Right now he's trying to find a wing part for a fighter jet. " With a few exceptions, the whole museum is a work in progress. You're never done."
Out in the blacksmith barn, there's an antique wood lathe built by two Whitefish brothers; in another barn are farm implements from Wild Horse Island, and next to his outdoor auto collection there's a prototype turbine from a submarine. Though there are tens of thousands of items at the Miracle of America, Mangels knows exactly where each one came from and what he paid for it - if anything. "Some things just show up in a box at the door," he says.
Many of the museum's items came from other museums around the Flathead Valley that have closed down, like the Huffine museum in Creston. He admits he was born a generation too late, and he's fascinated by antiques. "The things that the old timers accomplished with what they had to work with is truly amazing," he says. "It's so intriguing to see some of these things that were invented, the work that went into them."
There is so much to look at in the museum, that sometimes it's overwhelming to the eye. It would take days to truly take in each section of the museum. If you look hard at a pile of metal and iron, something like a Model T tractor might emerge from beneath the hodgepodge.
So with thousands of items begging for his attention, he often finds his time spread thin. "I would rather be working in the museum. Often times the machine-shop customers have to chase me down over here," Mangels says during a break at the museum's 50s-style soda fountain. Opposite the fountain is a diorama with a life-sized buffalo mountain and Indian slinging an arrow into it.
The museum would not be where it is without grants and help from friends of the museum. Friends like the late Ambrose Measure, who was Montana's oldest practicing lawyer until his death three years ago. Measure liked to help out the museum, and there's a photo in a display that attests to Measure's early work in law. The photo shows police breaking up gambling machines in Kalispell in 1940. Measure was the prosecuting attorney on those cases. "I'm going to miss him," Mangels says wistfully. Looking down the road, Gil is concerned about the future of the museum. It is set up as a non-profit organization, and money brought in by visitors pays only for maintenance. The Mangels have set up an endowment to try to keep the museum going "after our demise," he says.
Mangels has a unique sense of humor, although his humorous creations don't always make it into the museum, which is probably good. Like his "Montana Unabomber alarm clock," a wind-up clock taped to red tubes that resemble dynamite.
Mangels has always got some project cooking. Fix that. Reorganize this. A true collector, he's still looking for that one 1934 Montana highway map that will complete his map collection.
"I'm constantly adding, always restoring. I stay awake at nights trying to decide what I'm going to work on the next day."