If ever the phrase “something for everyone” were truly apropos, it would belong to the Miracle of America Museum in Polson.
The museum is actually a virtual village, with 40 buildings packed with memorabilia from almost every American genre. Visitors get a map to help them navigate the museum’s extensive and diverse collection of 340,000 treasures.
You’ll find antique Americana, including a replicated soda fountain from the late 1930s, and displays celebrating America’s agricultural heritage.
Kids can ride in a 1914 Model T, one of several — and mostly unique — vehicles in the collection, and numerous interactive displays are kid-friendly.
A military section represents and honors virtually all branches of service and wars in which the United States was involved.
Visitors marvel at the antique gun collection and two rooms full of ancient motorcycles. The village includes re-created doctor and dentist offices, numerous old-time shops, fire equipment, and a trapper’s cabin.
“It’s a very fun museum for families,” said Gil Mangels, founder, collector, restorer, builder, and president of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit museum. “The thing that warms my heart the most is to see the intergenerational bonding that takes place. The artifacts get people talking.”
Mangels noted that individuals who may not typically open up when asked about their past may feel compelled to share bits of their own history when surrounded by artifacts that remind them of their past.
“They come through the museum, and they recognize things from their childhood, and then they share with their kids,” he said.
According to Mangels, visitors see a strong patriotic theme running throughout the massive collection. He noted part of the museum’s name is based on the “miracle” that 56 men could agree on something—the U.S. Constitution, to which an entire display of artifacts is devoted.
“That made us the most successful and freest nation on Earth,” said Mangels. He added that the main mission of the museum is to re-instill a belief in America.
“All of the items you see are the result of the free enterprise system. If you built a better product, the world would beat a path to your door,” he said. “Sometimes we forget the blessings of America.”
Mangels served as a military policeman in Frankfurt, Germany in 1962 and 63 in the 109th MP Platoon as part of USAER, the U.S. Army in Europe.
“I just took freedom for granted,” he said. “I took the oath when I joined the military to protect and defend the Constitution, but the importance of freedom was brought home to me when I visited Berlin when the wall was up.”
Mangels said the western sector was free, controlled by the allies, and there was rebuilding, laughter and families.
“But when I went through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, it was like a graveyard,” he said. “It was very depressing to see that difference, like the darkness of night and the brightness of day. It affected me the rest of my life.”
He added the museum stresses the importance of our freedom and its dependence on responsibility. “When we give a school tour, the big ‘R’ word—responsibility—comes out,” he said.
Mangels’s interest in antiquity began when he was 3-1/2 years old, when he found an arrowhead on the beach at Skidoo Bay on Flathead Lake.
“It’s not just an interest in historical things,” he said. “I’d drag home stuff from my grandparents’ farm. There were horseshoes and wrenches and doodads and old tools that I just took an interest in because they had an intrigue.”
Mangels said he was impressed by the artistic form of functional objects. “I like the Serpentine type wrenches, the decorative portion of the foundry work and tools, and other things.”
Those tools appear in a large display of their own.
Mangels said he created the current museum officially in 1985 but started a smaller museum in 1981. His collection soon outgrew the site near Yellow Bay. He found a “real deal” on the 4-1/2 acre property in Polson, formerly run by a homebuilder.
“There was just one small building, and we’ve since made that into a dental shop as part of the 40 buildings in the village. There were about four acres of bare land, and we filled that up.”
A barn on the property burned in an accidental fire last year, but Mangels applied for a grant to try and rehabilitate the barn and several pieces within it.
“We didn’t lose any tractors or vehicles, but we lost some very nice farm equipment,” he said. “We were very fortunate that we didn’t lose more buildings.”
Mangels acquired new collections and individual items from donations and purchases, and some were bequeathed to the museum. Some items came from as far away as upstate New York and the eastern seaboard, Louisiana, Southern California, even from up in Calgary.
A few large items rolled in as well.
“We had a man donate a Stanley steamer engine and boiler,” said Mangels. “I wanted to show the difference of a steam engine versus regular automobile combustion engine.”
Mangels said someone in Southern Oregon donated a John Deere ‘L’ tractor, built around 1937, which Mangels has restored.
“A lot of people who come in say they appreciate what we’re doing, and they’ll donate to see it preserved,” Mangels said. “Other people will see us on their way to the transfer station and have us check their load. Sometimes there’s some very nice things that they’re just cleaning out. Maybe it’s a property that has been purchased, or maybe the folks have passed away and the grandkids are cleaning it out. Some things we paid very top dollar for.”
Mangels just chuckled when asked about his favorite item.
“I have a collection of over 70 motorcycles that I started over 50 years ago,” he said. “One of them I started about 50 years ago. I first was able to ride it about five years ago, because it took me that long to find the correct parts to restore it.”
But perhaps his most favorite item in the whole display is a John Clarke woodcarving.
“He was a Native American from East Glacier that had scarlet fever when he was two years old, but he became a world-class woodcarver and sold his smaller things to the tourists.”
The carving is of a mama bear with its foot caught in a trap, accompanied by two cubs, with a hunter advancing with a Winchester carbine. Mangels enhanced the accuracy of the carving by adding information that included the correct style of Winchester Carbine, grizzly trap, and grizzly skull in the background, as well as the hunter’s shell belt and hat.
Mangels has done his very best to keep history alive. For his efforts, he was inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame in April 2022.
And, at 79, he’s still on the lookout for more items to add to his collection. MSN