On The Road – Red Lodge

Last week, we headed off to Big Timber, about an hour west of here. It’s always been a quick stop on the way to other places, and I’ve never had it as a destination; never really spent a lot of time there. We found a large antique store on the outskirts of town we’d never been to before- “Country Crossroads”, with a sign saying “gifts and crafts” and a front parking lot full of wrought iron patio furniture. It looked like the kind of place we generally pass up, the type of place which deals in scented candles, reproductions and those tack-welded metal letters you see everywhere now. But we were determined to really do Big Timber this time around, so we stopped. Not a craft or gift-shop tchotchke in sight. All good vintage and antiques, all organized by type, size and color. It killed me to pass on a set of large Halliburton aluminum cases, but with the big trip coming up, the less large things like that I buy, the less I have to put into storage.
We swung through Livingston on the way back home, hitting and striking out at my favorite thrift shops. While Alex was out getting some more shots for an upcoming photo series. I popped into Mountain West Mercantile, to visit with its owner and my friend, Tamara Mason. After some shop talk, she showed me a couple of western suits that had just come into her shop. Oddly, the market for that style is much stronger in Europe than it is in the US. It’s easier for me to sell them online to someone in the UK or Germany than it is for her to sell that particular shade of vintage westernwear at a shop specializing in vintage westernwear in the American west. The vintage market is bizarre sometimes. I somehow left a pair of pants from one of the suits behind in the shuffle and in a typically Montana act, she drove over the mountain the next day to hand deliver them. Again, I can’t recommend her store enough- if you’re here, you have to stop.

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Yesterday’s trip was to Red Lodge, MT. Red Lodge boomed in the early part of the century following a coal strike in the 1890s. The mines largely closed during the depression. Tourism bolstered the town’s economy in the 1930s following the construction of the Beartooth Highway and it now straddles the fine line between upscale ski-town and down on its luck Montana mining town. The “antique mall” in town turned out to be a relatively small storefront shop dealing in old-west reproductions and rifles, and the thrift shop inside a senior center, while clean and organized, didn’t have much stock older than the 1990s. The antique shop and thrift shop on the way back, in Columbus, Montana were both closed in that typically small town way that makes you wonder if it means closed for the day or closed for good. So 300-some miles on the car and a tank and a half of gas and nothing for the shop to show for it.

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But, as you can see, an interesting town. We were struck by the herds of deer and especially by the dozens of wild turkeys roaming the downtown. Deer on the steps of the courthouse. Turkeys at city hall!

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On the Road in Billings, MT

One of the most common questions I get, right after, “how did you get into all this?”, is “where do you find all your stuff?”. It’s one of those questions that can be hard to answer. “Oh, you know, here and there” usually suffices and avoids the long story.  But the truth is, I drive a lot.

This weekend was a casual overnight excursion to Billings, Montana. For those of you not familiar with the area, the drive from Bozeman to Billings is just under 150 miles, and usually I make it as a day trip. So that’s a 300 mile round trip, hours on the road and a tank of gas, for the hope that maybe, just maybe, there will be some old ties or a couple of vintage hats waiting to be found. There are no guarantees in this business.

But I’ve had good luck in Billings in the past. There are a number of antique shops, thrift stores, secondhand stores and the like, and I usually get lucky at at least one or two.  This past weekend, one of the larger antique malls was having an outdoor antique fair, with its craigslist ad touting 70 vendors.  It was enough to hopefully tip the odds in my favor.

My girlfriend, Alex, and I drove out Friday night so that we could get an early start so we could be back in Bozeman before the sun started to set. We stayed at a charming 1950s motor court, the Dude Rancher Lodge. Neon, knotty pine and exposed beam ceilings combined with recent western themed carpets and brand wall hangings courtesy an appearance on “Hotel Impossible” several years ago, made for a charming place to stay. Full of character, it was way more fun than a chain motel, and just the right kind of place for vintage people like us.

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We made it to the fair a little later than we had hoped, it turned out that in Billings on a Saturday morning, everyone goes out for breakfast, and lined stretched out the door of everyplace good or interesting. I went against every fiber of my being and went to the practically deserted Denny’s for a generic breakfast. I think that might have cancelled out the “shop local” cred the Dude Rancher got me. Oh well.  There was a lot of re-purposed, re-painted, hand-made, shabby chic type of antiques at the fair, but also a few gems to be had. Afterward, we hit up the aforementioned antique shops in downtown Billings and a few of the thrifts. Here are a few of the neat things I spotted, but didn’t buy.  It seemed like I was tripping over vintage hats and vintage neckties at every step, but I have to be selective.  The market is really down on the more mundane patterns of 1940s ties, so even at the reasonable $6 a piece that one vendor was asking, there’s no way for me to make any money from that, so I let probably 30-some of them sit. Same with hats- below a certain size or a certain brim length, there’s such limited demand.
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Things survive in Billings. It’s a good town for lovers of vintage. Neon signs, ghost signs, architecture.
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After a long day of hunting, I managed to find a good sized cache of vintage hats, most of which were originally sold within a few miles of where I found them. But for me, the real treat was that leather jacket.  They’re all over the internet, but it’s getting harder and harder to find “out in the wild”. And this one’s a real beauty. Great patina and a rare model.  I’d love to know who wore it some 60 odd years ago, but I can say that it’s pretty likely they rode a Harley in Billings.
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Here’s the full haul all cleaned up and photographed. For those of you who are interested, you can check out the whole batch HERE
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