Searching for a Stillwater lumberman’s wild collection

February 25, 2019
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In this Friday, Feb. 8, 2019 photo, from left, Bryce Montpetit, Brock Montpetit, and Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Museum, talk about the stuffed polar bear stored at the Montpetit's mechanic shop, Spartan Quick Service, in Somerset, Wis. In the past, the polar bear was in the private museum of Stillwater lumber baron George Atwood. (Jean Pieri/Pioneer Press via AP)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — George Atwood’s collection of exotic taxidermied animals, weapons, rugs, musical instruments, books and sporting equipment was so extensive that the Stillwater lumber magnate built a museum to house it.

The Atwood Museum, in a 35,000-square-foot building behind his house, contained the “greatest private collection in the Northwest,” according to a 1933 article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

“He has Spanish blunderbusses and Turkish scimitars; two-, three- and four-barreled guns; tomahawks; dueling pistols, and everything else short of heavy artillery,” the newspaper reported.

The collection also included swordfish, lizards, Rocky Mountain rattlesnakes, mountain lions, mountain goats and Egyptian lizards.

“There are 25 huge pelt rugs, all made from the finest specimens of the respective animals Mr. Atwood could obtain,” the paper stated.

After Atwood died in 1938, the 2 1/2-story, block long museum was razed and the collection sold.

Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, is on a mission to find out what happened to it.

He recently had some luck.

Recently, Peterson visited one of the museum’s signature items — a polar bear displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis — in the back of an auto-repair shop in Somerset, Wis.

Now he’s trying to track down other museum items, including a revolver allegedly used by notorious Northfield bank robber Cole Younger, a collection of weapons made by convicts at the old Stillwater Prison and the world’s first air rifle.

“Some of the items he had were unbelievable,” Peterson said to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “Where did this stuff go?”

Peterson’s quest started when he was looking through the historical society’s file on Atwood. He found the Pioneer Press article reprinted in the Stillwater Post-Messenger, complete with several black-and-white photos. Also tucked in the file was the May 12, 1936, edition of the Stillwater Daily Gazette. The lead article was: “La Crosse Man Buys Atwood Museum.”

Otto Mueller, the brewmeister for G. Heileman Brewing in La Crosse, Wis., planned to buy the Atwood collection and build his own museum on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. “But the city wouldn’t let him,” Peterson said.

After Atwood died, his widow, Aurilla, “disposed of the collections and emptied the museum of nearly all its contents,” according to a 1940 article in the Post-Messenger. “Many of the animals which once looked down on guests at Mr. Atwood’s parties now are exhibited in a Somerset resort, other equipment has been resold and scattered.”

Peterson, who grew up in Stillwater, remembered seeing one of those animals — the polar bear — on display at a bar in Somerset when he was 18.

“In my day, when we got old enough, we would drive over the river to Ben’s, the Rendezvous, Archie’s,” he said. “It was always in my mind that Archie’s had a polar bear. When I saw the pictures of (Atwood’s) polar bear, I thought it might be the same bear. Then I thought, ‘If they have the polar bear, what else might they have?’ ”

Archie’s Bar was owned for years by members of the Montpetit family, purveyors of the Float-Rite Park on the Apple River.

The bear, mounted in a fighting stance with teeth bared, was located near the front of the bar and served as the bar’s mascot, said John Montpetit, 53, who believes his paternal grandfather, Archie Montpetit, bought the bear from the Atwood estate.

“Somerset was a small town back in those days,” Montpetit said. “There were 600 to 700 people here, and all the kids came in to see the bear. It was known everywhere, especially with the Apple River tubing. Everybody from Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Madison, Milwaukee — I mean, everybody knew that bear. It was a tourist attraction.”

When the bar was sold in 2006, the new owners didn’t want the polar bear, so it was returned to the Montpetit family, John Montpetit said.

It ended up atop a makeshift office at Spartan Quick Service and Auto Repair in Somerset, which is owned by Bryce and Brooke Montpetit, John Montpetit’s son and daughter-in-law. The bear’s head nearly grazes the shop’s ceiling, and he appears to be guarding a stack of tires and orange traffic cones.

Moving it wasn’t easy, John Montpetit said. “We needed 15 guys to put it on the trailer and bring it down here,” he said. “It’s not that bad; it’s just awkward. One of the articles said it weighed 1,800 pounds when it was alive.”

Years of bar life weren’t kind to the stuffed animal. It has a broken tooth, it’s missing some claws, and its white fur is now yellow from cigarette smoke.

“If they would have had it in a glass case, it would have been fine,” John Montpetit said. “Everybody smoked in the bars back then, and it’s a crying shame. I mean, it’s an absolute shame.”

But Montpetit plans to have it fixed up this summer and displayed in a glass case at his family’s General Sam’s Bar & Grill at Float-Rite.

“We’re going to have it re-caped with the fur from another polar bear,” he said. “We’re dealing with a guy up in Alaska. They’ll send the fur down here, and we’ll have it re-caped down here.”

The estimated cost: $14,000.

“It’s a pretty neat piece of history,” he said. “People come down all the time to see it. The older people remember it very well.”

Peterson was recently invited to take a look at the bear.

“I’m thrilled,” he said. “There’s no question about it. It looks just like the pictures from 1933. This is exciting because it’s the first piece that we know of from that museum.”

He believes Atwood went to the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, saw the “Esquimaux fighting polar bear in the Arctic regions exhibit,” bought it and had it shipped to Stillwater. A stereograph of the exhibit is in the Library of Congress’ collection.

Atwood’s museum also housed an observatory, which fire destroyed in 1904, and a gymnasium that featured two bowling alleys and an array of gymnastics and sporting equipment, Peterson said.

“A doctor told him he had been working too hard and recommended some diversion,” Peterson said. “The building was said to house ‘every mechanical device known to athletics.’ ”

Diversions also included a yacht, which Atwood kept on the St. Croix River and sailed to Palm Beach, Fla., and a huge cabin called the Anchorage built on piers in the St. Croix River at Lake St. Croix Beach. The Anchorage was later sold to the St. Paul Automobile Club, which used it as its clubhouse, Peterson said.

Peterson hopes other items from the Atwood collection will surface and that some may become part of the historical society’s collection.

“You just never know where these things end up,” he said. “People might not know what they have.”


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com