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Charles M. Bair Family Museum in Martinsdale now home to famous Sharp painting

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Posted at 6:12 PM, Sep 20, 2023

In Montana, sometimes the coolest discoveries are found in the most unlikely of places. A great example is at the Charles M. Bair Family Museum in tiny Martinsdale. It’s now home to one of Joseph Henry Sharp’s paintings, one that was the center of controversy in Billings just months ago.

From the Alberta Bair Theater in Billings to the Bair Family Museum in Martinsdale, the Bair family holds a special place in Montana history.

“Charlie Bair came out from Ohio in 1883. He wanted to seek his fortune in the west,” said the museum’s director and chief curator, Elizabeth Guheen, on Wednesday.

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That’s exactly what Bair did, although not in a traditional way. He made his fortune through sheepherding and investing in an invention that thawed permafrost off of crops. He met his wife, Mary, in Wisconsin before moving to Montana.

“They had their first of two daughters in Helena, that was Marguerite. And a few years later, they had their daughter Alberta in Billings,” Guheen said.

They chose a ranch in Martinsdale that eventually became the family’s headquarters. If you take the museum up on a tour, you’ll see what the family’s life looked like a century ago.

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“We know they entertained because they owned several sets of dishes,” said Guheen.

During the month of September, patrons can check out the gowns the Bair ladies wore in their day-to-day life.

“It was really Marguerite who spearheaded all the interior design. She was very interested in art,” Guheen said.

When it comes to art, you’ll find a lot of that at the museum, including a new addition to the collection. Joseph Henry Sharp’s 1905 painting, “The Young Chief”, was stored at the Yellowstone Art Museum until recently.

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“The newest painting, we acquired actually joined three other Joseph Henry Sharps that were all in the same exhibit in Billings in 1906,” said Guheen.

Charles Bair used to own the painting but donated it to the Billings Chamber of Commerce in 1915. The Bair Family Trust just purchased it back for $350,000 at an auction.

“I knew the story, I’ve known it for years. But never in my wildest imagination did I ever think we would actually have it hanging in the museum with his other paintings,” Guheen said.

A piece of art now back home in a museum well off the beaten path.

“It was meant to come back together as Alberta said she and Marguerite wanted it to do,” said Guheen.