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Bitterroot Icons: Ravalli County Courthouse

The Ravalli County Courthouse was built in 1900. Today it house the Bitter Root Valley Historical Society's Ravalli County Museum.

Photo courtesy of Ravalli County

History was made Tuesday for one of the keepers of Ravalli County history.

By a vote of 7,728 to 5,233, voters approved a 1-mill levy that will raise about $74,000 a year for the Ravalli County Museum.

“We were very, very pleased,” said Tamar Stanley, the museum’s executive director. “It was life affirming to have people of the county vote for us.”

It couldn’t have come at a better time for the nonprofit organization that operates the 60-year-old museum which has never received county funding to pay for operational costs.

The museum is housed in the 1900-era former Ravalli County Courthouse that was designed by famed architect, A.J. Gibson.

While the county remains the owner of the building under an agreement approved by voters in the 1970s, the Bitter Root Historical Society operates the museum. Up until now, the society has been totally dependent on fundraisers, admission fees, membership dues, grants and bequests to pay for operating expenses.

Those expenses run about $195,000 a year. Over the last few years, the society has come up about $40,000 short annually in its fundraising efforts. That shortfall forced it to dip into its reserves to keep the doors open.

Stanley said the levy will help the museum’s quest toward sustainability.

“We will remain the thrifty and prudent organization that we have always been,” she said. “We will still depend on fundraisers, donation, sponsorships and continue to write grants.”

The levy monies will account for about a third of the museum’s overall funding package. Stanley said most of that money will be earmarked for the museum’s growing educational programming piece.

“We will still have the rest of the museum’s business to fund,” she said.

For the employees, board members and volunteers who care deeply about the museum and its mission, Stanley said Tuesday’s election was gratifying.

“I feel like when the county voted to pass our levy, it was says the legacy of this place was important to them,” she said. “The museum has value in their eyes and they wanted to be able to pass off that legacy and bond to our historical landscape to future generations.”

Brett Calder, the society’s board president, believed that the time was right for the museum to reach out to county residents and ask for help.

“I was very hesitant to the go out to the voters, but we were at a make-it-or-break-it time,” Calder said. “All the hard work of so many people has made a difference at the museum. People could see how far we’ve come over the last few years and see how this has become a happening place.”

“I don’t know if it would have passed a few years ago,” he said. “The momentum, the growth in programs and all the great things we’ve been able to do with kids. It’s neat stuff and it’s very gratifying to see that the community has noticed.”

Stanley said the museum has taken a very direct approach in ensuring that its programming is diverse enough to attract people with all sorts of different interests.

For instance, there’s Bitter Root Days this Saturday that’s all about the culture of the Salish. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s cowboy poetry happening later this year, which may be interesting to a whole different group of people.

“We plan to continue to change things up to keep topics interesting, but relevant for people in our community,” Stanley said. “We want to offer things that are interesting to people in Hamilton and the outlying communities. Maybe now that people have voted on it, they’ll stop by more often for a visit.”

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.