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Ninepipes Museum struggling for survival

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NINEPIPE — Your next visit to the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana may be your last, as the economy takes its toll on another local entity. The notice on the Ninepipes Lodge’s reader board now reads “For sale” instead of the more hopeful “Closed ‘til spring” — evidence of the pending foreclosure that museum founder Bud Cheff, Jr., and his wife Laurel learned of “the day before Christmas,” Bud said.

While the museum is a nonprofit organization separate from the Cheff’s lodge, its fate is tied to that of the lodge since the museum leases the building and accompanying 3.5 acres from Ninepipes Lodge, LLC. Bud and Laurel had planned to donate the museum building to the Ninepipes Museum, but the economic recession hit the lodge hard, making keeping up with the note payments impossible. And now the museum is also on the brink of closure. 

One glimmer of hope remains, Bud said — since he and Laurel received notice on Christmas Eve that foreclosure on the lodge was imminent, they and the rest of the Ninepipes Museum’s 13 board members have been inundated with supportive phone calls and e-mails from people around the country asking how they can help.

“We get emails and letters, several a day, from people wanting to know what they can do to help,” Bud said. “We had so many positive calls and such, the board members decided maybe something could be done.”

The overwhelming response from supporters prompted the board to set up a “Save the Museum Fund” at Community Bank in Ronan and send out e-mails asking for donations.

“We’re trying to raise funds to buy the building,” Bud said. “Otherwise the museum would have to disperse itself.”

It would take at least $500,000 to buy the building, Bud estimated, and so far donations have reached just a few thousand. 

“We’re really just barely getting started,” he said.

While donations continue trickling in, board members are looking for grants and contacting foundations in search of help, board chairman Rod Wamsley said. On top of the already bleak situation, there’s no way to know how much time the museum has left, he explained — the final ax could fall in 20 days or a year.

“I don’t know exactly what we’re gonna have to do — we’re between a rock and a hard place,” Wamsley said. “These things just don’t play out where you have a lot of information.”

So while the board waits, the museum will open early in an attempt to both share its treasures with those that haven’t experienced the museum yet, and to draw more attention that could lead to more donations. Starting March 4, the Ninepipes Museum will be open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with group tours available upon request for other times.

“So many people in the area have never been in (the museum),” Bud said. “It’ll give them a chance to see what’s in it before it closes.”

For Bud, watching the museum fade away must be like caring for a sick child. He’s been collecting the museum’s contents since age 10, when he found his first artifact, a war club, in a cave during a family trip. 

“That (find) really triggered his imagination and got him started collecting,” Laurel said. 

Bud lost that war club when the family home burned around 1960, Laurel explained, leading to his dream of one day building a safe home for his collection — a place as fire-proof and theft-proof as possible. In 1997, that dream was realized when the Ninepipes Museum opened. Today, the museum has more than 200 members and an extensive collection that uniquely chronicles the history of Western Montana.

“Price would be really hard to come up with, but (the artifacts) are irreplaceable,” Laurel said.

Much of the collection is on loan, and if the museum closes, all of the loan items will be returned to their owners, Laurel explained. As a nonprofit, the museum can sell whatever it owns to pay any debts, and donate whatever is left to other nonprofits of the board’s choice.

“It’ll go back mostly to the donors,” Wamsley said.

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