We drove a hundred of miles out of our way during the summer of 1997 to visit Virginia City, Montana, the place where my great grandfather, J.E. Thompson, and his brother William Boyce Thompson were born. There’s a museum there that celebrates the history of the mining town of Alder Gulch. I was fascinated by the history of the place, but my kids had never been so bored in their lives. We had to leave. Unfortunately, when we came out to look for the car, my wife had left in it. She, too, was unimpressed.
I did my best to try to engage interest in the museum. Once inside, I came up with the idea for a game — Let’s look for daddy’s name. Unfortunately, there was very little inside the museum that belonged to William Boyce Thompson. Most of the items were donated by three other families. The elderly curator inside, who didn’t seem at all interested in the fact that Boyce Thompson was my namesake, couldn’t identify anything that belonged to him either.
The many old rifles inside the museum interested the kids somewhat. But the kitschy petrified wedding cake, promoted heavy in brochures, failed to excite at all. The walls were covered with faded old photographs, but my kids didn’t recognize anyone in those. The one thing that did momentarily capture my their imagination was what’s been described as the severed limb of “Club Foot” George Lane. It was chopped off by vigilantes before he was thrown in an unmarked grave. Now the relic, swaddled in burlap, is displayed within a glass dome.
For me, the highlight of the memorabilia was a petrified cat, which laid prostrate on a shelf, its fangs bared. Petrified cats, of course, are rarely seen in museums. This one, according to an accompanying sign, had “crawled under a house being built in 1868 and was found there some years later by Mrs. Emslie.”
After visiting the preserved historic structures town, tourists like to head up to Boot Hill for a nice view of the landscape and the graveyard. It was Virginia City’s first cemetery. The “Dalton” markers are those of a local family, not the notorious Dalton gang. We didn’t get to do that. My kids were more interested in finding an ice cream shop.
During our scant time in the museum, we learned that William Boyce Thompson provided the money to build this fireproof building in 1916 to 1921. The building was intended to be a tribute to his father, William Thompson, and his wife’s father, Richard O. Hickson, according to the Montana Historical Society. William Thompson built many of the buildings in Virginia City. William Boyce Thompson grew up in the small home around back.
There’s a library upstairs that was started by the Virginia City Women’s Club in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, it was closed the day we visited. A carpenter, Jim Elmsie, started the collection of artifacts early in the 1900s. It is currently maintained by the Vigilante Club of Virginia City, which was founded in 1938, when there was a movement to divide up Madison County.