Just inside Far West Gallery on Montana Avenue, where it will catch the eye of the passer-by, is a mouth-blown neon sign from 1950s, the head of an American Indian chief.
It’s a fitting symbol for the emporium, a cornucopia of everything western. Art, memorabilia, American Indian arts and crafts, cowboy collectibles, and more, fill the old storefront.
“We get a little bit of everything,” said store manager Sondra Daly. The gallery grew out of a need to sort and resell items taken in at Western Pawn and never redeemed.
“I worked across the street at the Western Heritage Center,” said Ms. Daly. “Western Pawn asked me to try and sort through some of the piles of stuff that their customers had abandoned over the years.”
In 1995, that small beginning became Far West Gallery. The retail space appears small when you glance through the street window. Step inside and you discover that, like many very old buildings in the original town site, it stretches back all the way to the alley, about 100 feet.
John D. Losekamp built the building around 1900 to house his outfitting business. It later became the Fuller Hotel, the U.S. post office, and the Rio Theatre.
“When we began developing the gallery, we found old movie posters from the 1930’s stacked in the basement,” said Ms. Daly.
The space is a treasure hunter’s dream come true. Kachina dolls from the Hope pueblos of the Southwest are just across the aisle from an electric bass viol, a work of art that can also make music. Western cowboy collectibles include chaps, spurs and a swell-worn custom saddle from Connolly’s Saddlery.
A letter typed and signed by Will James is priced at $1,500. A mountain lion pelt with a benevolent face sells for $1,500.
All of the store’s goods, from the beautiful to the outré, are legally available to be purchased.
“We can’t buy or sell eagle feathers. Otherwise, as long as something has been sold to us, we can resell it.” There are several headdresses, but they’re all made of pretend eagle feathers, actually from chickens or turkeys. All other Indian items have clear title, with nothing removed illegally from a historic site or an Indian burial ground.
Montana law also requires every pawn shop to submit a list of purchases to the local police department. If it shows up on a list of missing or stolen goods, the pawn shop has to turn it over.
“Then we may lose out on it,” said Ms. Daly.
Ms. Daly’s knowledge of the art and crafts she sells has grown over the years. “I learn a lot from my customers.” While the gallery does make purchases, most of its stock still comes from the attached pawn shop.
“We don’t appraise anything,” she said. “We can only give them a ballpark figure.”
The gallery has a stunning collection of beaded regalia for both men and women: purses, heavy buckskin cuffs, headbands, belts, even two buckskin dresses. Mary Lou Big Day sells her nationally acclaimed dolls and doll cradle boards through the gallery. They’re something you would buy for a cherished little girl to mark a special day.
Western Pawn is a favorite shop for both the Crow and Cheyenne peoples and so is the gallery.
The day I visited, three Indian men came in. A father, son and grandson? They were men on a mission, quickly toured the gallery, and not finding what they were looking for, left. The gallery is a source of dance wear and also giveaway gifts, including genuine Pendleton throws, blankets and outerwear.
“We always do a good deal for them when they come in. It’s a constant circle,” said Ms. Daly.
She walked over to an odd, silver-colored machine. “We smash pennies,” she said. “This is a penny smasher from the 1930s.” There are three motifs to choose from: the gallery logo, one of Lewis and Clark, and a logo for Western Pawn.
She placed a die or mold in the machine, inserted a penny, and pulled down on the lever. Out came a copper oval engraved with, in this case, a replica of the gallery’s neon sign.
“They’re cool. Children love this, and it’s only 50 cents. We get people from all over the world who collect these.”
Yes, really cool. And only 50 cents! Even more fun if you can remember penny candy. No children available? No problem. Take your inner child by the hand and treat yourself.
Far West Gallery, open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, is located on Montana Avenue directly across the street from the Western Heritage Center.