Richard Fike: Historian has dedicated his life to preserving the American west
Portrait 2011 — Volume 1: Leaving a legacy
MONTROSE — Two miles east of downtown Montrose is an Old West town exhibit of some of the oldest buildings from the Uncompahgre Valley.
The Museum of the Mountain West, founded in 2002 by longtime archeologist Richard Fike, is a marvel of historic restoration and period display containing nearly 500,000 artifacts, some dating back to the 1400s.
Fike, 70, has dedicated his life to preserving the “once was” of the American West.
“I want to be remembered as an archeologist and preservationist who saved for future generations remnants of Colorado history, such as historical buildings that would have been lost to the elements or destroyed, and for a repository for donated artifacts that may have continued to be lost in someone’s attic or shed and of little benefit to anyone,” Fike said.
Most of the items are from Fike’s personal collection.
“It represents the kind of passion he has for what he’s doing,” said C.J. Brafford, director of the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose.
“He possesses a unique vision and dedication,” she added.
The museum property contains 18 historic structures and 10 period exhibits inside the museum’s main facility.
Outside buildings were moved from their original locations and restored, board by board, to near-original condition.
The museum’s most identifiable structure is the 1895 Carriage Works building where legendary boxer and Montrose native Jack Dempsey trained in an upstairs loft.
Elsewhere on the property, the 1882 Montrose train depot sits near the first structure built in Olathe, a train house and post office. There is an old wooden cabin ordered from a Montgomery Ward catalog in 1909, a schoolhouse and a church.
“We’ve saved buildings that otherwise would have demolished,” Fike said.
Fike started collecting when he was 4 years old, growing up in Nebraska.
As a boy he read his father’s college geology textbooks. It was in those books that Fike found his calling: He wanted to be involved with studying and preserving the natural and cultural history of his world.
He spent hours at the natural history museum on the campus of the University of Nebraska educating himself on fossils and studying the university’s skeleton collections.
Inspired by those collections, Fike spent days searching the mud along the Platte River, not fishing as many young boys did, but hunting for fossils with a pitchfork.
“I was reading about how to identify fossils, and I went down to the Platte River and found vertebrae sticking out of the river bank. It turned out that they hadn’t fossilized yet,” Fike said.
Fike was 13 years old when he sent those vertebrae to the University of Nebraska for examination. The results showed Fike had unearthed the bones of a large bison some 50,000 years in age.
Two years earlier Fike found the bones of an eohippus, a three-toed descendent of the modern-day horse.
“I still have those bones,” Fike said.
“All through that time I still collected — collecting, collecting, collecting,” Fike said.
It clearly shows.
Inside the museum’s main building the 10 period exhibits are constructed with rich detail including a saloon, doctor’s office and general store.
Fike completed graduate work in archeology at the University of Arizona and moved to Montrose in 1993 after living in Ridgway and working as the lead archeologist for the State of Colorado’s Bureau of Land Management office.
“I’m more of a historic archeologist rather than a prehistoric archeologist,” Fike said.
A rifle owned by former Tombstone, Ariz., resident Bat Masterson hangs with dozens of others in a massive gun collection. Some of the handguns are encased in rust. Fike said they were found at the bottom of outhouses, often used by outlaws to hide evidence.
A saddle and chaps used by iconic western outlaw Butch Cassidy are on display along with a biography written by Cassidy’s sister. Cassidy robbed a bank in Telluride in 1889.
“You look at the different eras of history and he has something from those eras,” Brafford said. “He has something like 500,000 artifacts, and amazingly he can tell you the history of each of those pieces.”
An original signature of Sitting Bull, the leader of the Sioux Indian Nation, hangs on the wall near Cassidy’s chaps.
“This is so future generations can enjoy their heritage in perpetuity,” Fike said.
In the summer of 2008, Fike was visited randomly by traveling photographers who were working on a project called American Character: A Photographic Journey. Fike was photographed at his museum for the book, and excerpts were published in a special section in Vanity Fair magazine in 2009.
Fike was told over the phone that his portrait was on a massive billboard overlooking a section of downtown Manhattan in New York.
“I was very surprised,” Fike said.
In addition to giving tours to schoolchildren, Fike recently finished a non-traditional Western novel called “Long Ride South,” a story set in the Southwest. The book will be available this summer through online retailers.
In addition, the Museum of the Mountain West will hold its second annual Tribute to Western Movie Days on June 18 and 19.
Fike said the cast of “The Virginian” will be on hand to sign autographs. Country music star Lynn Anderson will perform June 19 at the Montrose Pavilion in conjunction with the event.
The museum, 68169 Miami Road in Montrose, is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information call 970-240-3400 or go to http://www.mountainwestmuseum.com.