Bob Weber's Main Street antique shop is more museum than retail store. Tucked away next to the home he shares with his wife Virginia, Weber has been doing more buying than selling since the economy tanked a few years ago.
"This business did really good for four or five years until the economy chopped the legs off local spending," he said. "I haven't sold much, but I've made some great purchases."
Visitors include serious collectors, people doing historical research and those wanting to sell antique or unique treasures.
"That's the best part, when people come to sell me stuff," he said.
His shop is home to the Hamilton Café sign that graced the space above the Ford's Department Store women's section. The towering treasure was the first neon sign in Hamilton and inspired frequent customer Hank Williams Jr. to write an album by the same name. The front cover of the album, also hanging in Weber's shop, features Hamilton's earliest neon lights.
Weber is very proud of his corner dedicated to Hamilton police and sheriff's memorabilia including historic photos of marshals, criminals and evidence of the evolution of peacekeeping. His display includes billy clubs, handcuffs, badges, patches and Montana code books.
"Most of this stuff was thrown out," Weber said. "When you make room for the new, the old gets tossed, but I had the chance to salvage some great things."
Weber said he's always been a collector. Growing up in Jackson, Wyo., he followed his parents along their adventures to dig for arrowheads. At 12, he rode his bike two miles every day to his job at a gift shop on Jackson's Main Street and along the way always found interesting whisky bottles - his first personal collection.
"I come by it naturally," he said of his collecting and preserving prowess.
After his military service in Vietnam, Weber came to Montana in 1969 to attend the University of Montana and he simultaneously took a job as a night marshal in Stevensville. Three years later, he transferred to Hamilton's force and retired in 2002 after a 30-plus-year career in law enforcement.
In 1994, he published a history of the Hamilton police department for the town's centennial celebration. The project took 10 years to complete and really fueled his thirst for local history and memorabilia.
"I've always dreamed of having my own little store and it finally happened after I retired," he said.
He named the place "Burnt Forty Collectibles" after another Hamilton historical story that makes him chuckle.
"Way back in the Marcus Daly days in the late 1800s when the sawmill was booming near the West Bridge and more than 300 guys were working there, the brothels were pretty busy," he said. "Several brothels were built next to each other over where the Ravalli County Bank is now. So the townsfolk, the wives and the church people were all pretty upset and decided they were going to burn the brothels to the ground - which they did. They rebuilt the brothel using brick, this time right about where Bitterroot Furniture is now, and ever since then the old-timers always called that area of town the ‘Burnt Forty.' So I thought I'd name my shop that since it has a historical tie."
The walls of Weber's shop are covered with historic signs, calendars, canvas banners and one-of-a-kind remnants of the Bitterroot's vibrant agricultural past.
He has framed pictures of famous residents that used to hang in the Banque, including a picture of H.L. Robinson who Weber said was the first man in Hamilton to own a car.
"He bought that first car from Sears, but everybody in town hated it because it jumped and sparked and spooked the horses," he said. "So one day, some guys at the saloon decided they had had enough and went to the woodshed behind his house where he stored the car. They dynamited the garage and blew the car to hell. But Robinson hired a few people who helped him pick up the pieces. He sent them back to Sears to put back together again which they did and sent it right back to him."
Most of stories behind Weber's wares are also featured in the series of history books about the valley called "Bitterroot Trails." He is a lifetime member of the historical society and has plans to donate much of his collection to the Ravalli County museum someday.
He is most proud of his extensive collection of historic post cards of local places and people which he stores in plastic sleeves as well as his mother's arrow head collection that he framed for her before her death.
"I love this place," he said. "It's a great place to hang out and enjoy my retirement."
Stacie Duce is a Bitterroot writer who contributes to the Ravalli Republic.