- Associated Press - Friday, June 5, 2015

BIGHORN, Wyo. (AP) - A meandering, bubbling creek flows through tall grasses and weaves between the trunks of massive cottonwood trees. Flowers bloom on the hillsides, and snow sometimes dusts the nearby Bighorn Mountains, even in summer.

The Quarter Circle A Ranch, two miles southwest of Big Horn, had all the makings for a quiet, rural oasis in Wyoming’s high plains when Scottish rancher William Moncreiffe established it in 1892.

Its appeal still shone 31 years later, when eastern business tycoon and Old West devotee Bradford Brinton purchased the land from Moncreiffe in 1923.

Fast-forward another 92 years and the land still holds the same allure, though the people who cultivated it are long gone. Only the buildings they raised remain to give mute testimony to their love of the land - the buildings and the hundreds of priceless treasures the former owners had collected.

Now known as The Brinton Museum, the ranch house and outbuildings of the former Quarter Circle A Ranch contain hundreds of historic artifacts and rare art pieces to lure more visitors to the oasis that had captured the hearts and minds of the Moncreiffes and especially Brinton, whose legacy is preserved for all to experience.

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Brinton, who was born in Illinois in 1880, bought the land and original ranch house from Moncreiffe in 1923, only three years before retiring from his position as an executive of J.I. Case Corp., which he ran with his father.

“It was his kind of sanctuary away from the big city. When he wasn’t in Santa Barbara, California, or New York City, he was here,” Brinton Museum Director and Chief Curator Ken Schuster said.

Brinton first became acquainted with the ranch in 1910 while staying at the HF Bar Ranch near Buffalo on a hunting trip, and he decided to buy it as a vacation home.

“It was supposedly at that time that he decided he’d acquire property in the Bighorns if he had the chance,” Schuster said. “He was out here quite often whenever he could get away from J.I. Case.”

Brinton’s main home was a Park Avenue apartment in New York City, though he spent much time at the ranch with his family, particularly after retiring in 1926. He built expansions onto the original ranch house and also several outbuildings.

Throughout the 1920s, Brinton also made friends and connections with artists such as Frederic Remington, Edward Borein, Charlie Russell, William Gollings and Hans Kleiber. An avid art collector, Brinton bought or was gifted many pieces by these artists, including a number of original works that at the time were affordable before the artists became famous.

Brinton’s collection at the museum includes 650 original works of art, including 245 of Borein’s pieces, as well as 300 original Native American pieces.

“We think of his collection as being very valuable at this point, but Brinton was basically bargain hunting,” Schuster said.

Brinton was also interested in history, and he collected various historic artifacts, some of which he bought at auctions while others were gifted to him, including original letters from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and a 1680 Pennsylvania land indenture signed by William Penn.

“The most important historical document in our collection is the Abraham Lincoln letter, which was given to him by his sister Helen for his birthday after she bought it from a dealer,” Schuster said.

And by a technicality no one foresaw, the ranch became the Bradford Brinton Memorial Museum before anyone suspected.

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Brinton died in 1936 at age 56, sooner than anyone expected, including his older sister, Helen, to whom ownership of the property passed.

“His kids were only 9 when he died, and he and his sister had an agreement that whoever outlived the other one was supposed to open this place up to the public,” Schuster said.

Upon Helen’s death in 1960, the ranch became the Bradford Brinton Memorial Museum according to her will, funded by a trust endowment. For the next 54 years, the museum operated under that name until Feb. 5, 2013. That’s when it was rebranded as The Brinton Museum as the endowment deteriorated rapidly because of expenses and a poor stock market.

“It looked like we were actually going to cease existing, because the will called for if we ever got to the point that we couldn’t pay the museum’s expenses, everything should be sold off and money sent to state of Illinois for a charitable hospital,” Schuster said. “Of course, a lot of our local neighbors decided that wasn’t anything they wanted to see, because not only would the art go away, but the land would be sold and Sheridan (County) would lose one of its historic sites.”

Instead, the museum board created a coalition and a new nonprofit entity and got the company overseeing Helen Brinton’s original trust to transfer the trusteeship of the original museum to the new organization.

With the transference of the trust, the museum board gained the ability to pursue more ways of preserving Brinton’s legacy.

“The trusteeship transfer gave us the right to build,” Schuster said.

From there, the museum wasted no time planning and building the new Forrest E. Mars Memorial Building, which will officially open June 15.

“We’ve been hoping for it for a long time,” Schuster said.

The $15.8 million, three-story building has been built directly into the hillside on the ranch’s western flank, the top floor of which faces the Bighorns to the west.

The new building was designed by Sheridan-based architects Malone Belton Abel P.C. and entirely funded by local donations.

“We have several neighbors who got involved in it, and then we had some local foundations like the Watt Foundation help fund some things,” Schuster said, adding that the building is named for a local philanthropist who had always donated generously to the museum.

Made of angular rammed-earth walls, metal and concrete, the nearly 26,000-square-foot building features several climate-controlled exhibition spaces, a third-floor bistro and an outdoor event pad for weddings and other occasions. The exhibition space, as well as much-needed archival space, are what excite Schuster the most.

“It’s a major building, with several million dollars worth of HVAC system in here because of the delicate nature of the stuff we’ll keep in here,” Schuster said. “We can control and contain the humidity in here to about 35 percent, and that’s the optimum humidity for most of our galleries.”

Rammed-earth walls are featured throughout the building.

“We technically have the highest rammed-earth wall in the world,” Schuster said. “We didn’t set out with that intention, it just kind of happened to turn out that way.”

The building wasn’t just designed for show, as it also pays respects to Native American spiritual traditions - an important consideration, since much of the gallery space will be devoted to Native American art never before displayed in Wyoming.

The Gallatin Collection of American Indian Art was gifted to the museum in 2014 by the Foundation for the Preservation of Native American Art and Culture. Containing about 130 pieces dating back to the mid-1800s - mostly Crow with a splash of Blackfeet and Cheyenne - the collection was previously shown at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“This building is basically an offshoot of that gift,” Schuster said. “We’re going to be mounting a major exhibition of it and elements from Bradford Brinton’s collection.”

The exhibition pieces and the way they’ll be displayed pay homage to Native American culture.

“We hope to present the sacred nature of Native American art with the idea that everything that they did had a spiritual meaning to it, that there was a prayer offered up when they did it,” Schuster said.

Schuster is excited for the new building’s opening to offer visitors even more reasons to linger in the oasis.

“We’ve given this part of Wyoming a destination for people to come to,” Schuster said.

Although Schuster has always considered the location a destination, one that drew him to be its director 26 years ago - and even to have lived in the upper floor of the ranch house, as the Brintons and Moncreiffes did years ago.

“I’ve always considered us a destination, but because we didn’t have certain facilities, we weren’t a destination where people felt comfortable spending more than two or three hours,” Schuster said. “People would say, ‘What is all this doing in the middle of nowhere?’ And our contention is that this is not the middle of nowhere; this is the heart of somewhere, and this is a very important place.”

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Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, https://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

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