Historian Displays the American West in Montrose Museum

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Story and Photo by Lisa McIntyre

The smell of musty leather and aged wood hung in the air of Richard Fike’s office.

The 78-year-old founder and director of the Museum of the Mountain West welcomed European tourists to his Montrose-based replica of an 1880s western town, his life-long ambition accomplished.

Fike’s journey to opening the multi-building museum and his fascination with historic artifacts began at age 4. He was captivated by an 1898 clock he found while living with his family in Skagway, Alaska. They moved to Valparaiso, Neb., a few years later, where his father was a paleontologist with the University of Nebraska. He remembers packing the clock and dragging it to Nebraska.

His early intrigue with excavation ultimately led him to a career in archaeology. “We had a pet rabbit,” he chuckled. “I couldn’t wait for the rabbit to die.” When it finally died, his mother buried it in the backyard. He dug it up against his mother’s wishes, then took every bone and tried to put it together like his father, the paleontologist, would have done.

His deep curiosity with historic and unusual pieces continued, and by age 8, Fike had opened his first “museum” in the guest room of their home, featuring the catalogued items he had collected. Those items and many more are currently on display at the Museum of the Mountain West, just east of Montrose on U.S. Highway 50.

It was during a family vacation to see the ancient ruins at Mesa Verde National Park that Fike, at the ripe old age of 12, would make a big decision that he would fulfill over a lifetime. “That was it,” he said. “I wanted to be an archaeologist.”

He pursued his passion through college and wound up working in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Institution. His career eventually brought him back to the western U.S. where he served 29 years before retiring as state archeologist for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for both the states of Utah and Colorado.

With more free time, Fike set out to create his museum, which began with a false start in Ridgway. He purchased seven historic buildings but his struggle with the town officials forced him to relocate the buildings to Montrose. It turned out to be a good move.

According to TripAdvisor, the Museum of the Mountain West is now the number one tourist destination in Montrose County, bringing people in from all 50 states and 41 countries.

The museum is set up like a fictitious Old West town, complete with preserved buildings from ghost towns, such as a barber shop and a saloon. Thousands of artifacts, including a pair of Butch Cassidy’s chaps, are part of the collection.

The museum is now a non-profit, supported by the City of Montrose, volunteers and donors. However, like he’s done since childhood, Fike continues to collect and donate items to the museum in order to help preserve the history of the mountain west. For more information, check out the museumofthemountainwest.org.

Lisa McIntyre is a recent graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver with a Bachelor’s in Journalism and Social Documentary. She seeks to illuminate the human experience through oral, written and photographic storytelling.