Museum of the Fur Trade
Along the frigid fringes of Civilization, before the era of Thinsulate™ and two-zone heating, native peoples and pioneers knew how to stay warm. They "borrowed" the hides and fur of cold-weather mammals, and what they didn't need for themselves, they traded and bartered to others. The Museum of the Fur Trade celebrates and chronicles North America's first continent-wide economy -- the business of furs, involving trappers, fur traders, and Indians.
The museum is on the site of a trading post and warehouse built along the Bordeauz Creek in 1833, surrounded by the only hilly, forested region in Nebraska. The post was operated until 1876, when it was shut down after US soldiers confiscated ammunition being sold to the Indians.
The museum opened adjacent to the site in 1949 -- the only museum for a hundred miles. The old trading post site was excavated in 1955, the buildings reconstructed a year later. The trading post, a sod and wood hut buried in the ground -- near a teepee and Indian garden -- is too tiny to house the artifacts in the museum's collection. The museum is in long, one-story building, and with a $1.7 million plan to expand over the next few years, should be the undisputed fur trade museum of the world.
The collection includes all the trappings of the fur trade lifestyle -- weapons, clothing, the goods and materials traded in establishments like this across the continent. There are William Clark fabric samples, Greer Garson's bells, the earliest "point blanket." Kit Carson's shotgun is a highlight, but nearly lost in a rack of other guns and weapons. The displays are a sometimes confusing mix for those of us who like our history unconfused -- there are Indian ceremonial garments fashioned from British buttons and cloth from Europe.
A few unusual exhibits stand out, such as the Buffalo Tongue, a northern plains delicacy back in pioneer days. Also of note: a parka made from seal intestines.
But there are things to learn here. The first white man to cross the North American continent? Not Lewis or Clark, but Alexander Mackenzie, a Canadian fur trader.
Today the fur trade continues around the world, albeit at a much smaller scale and without the naked exploitation of the natives. Every year, about three busloads of Italians visit the museum, and others come from the wolfy regions of Romania and Bulgaria.
Chadron's Fur Trade Days, started in 1977, features a fur trade reenactment involving some 60 camps set up in the vicinity. FTD also hosts an annual World Championship Buffalo Chip Throw. Wonder what the folks at Beaver Oklahoma's Cow Chip Throw think of that?
The gift shop is subdued -- no need for furverts to detour here. But visitors can buy pelts: raccoon - $40., bobcat $200, wolverine $500. "It's a world market," the curator said. "The price is set all over the place."
The Museum of the Fur Trade takes itself somewhat seriously -- its scholarly journal, Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly, presents articles on the importance of ostrich plumes to fur trade feather merchants, or the market for a good ice chisel north of the 50th parallel. The Museum of the Fur Trade Story notes: "It may surprise you to learn that no animal has ever become extinct due to being overhunted for its fur."