HARDIN — After the ceremonial pictures were taken and the speeches concluded Monday afternoon, four 60-year-old earth-moving machines dug into the sod on the southeast end of Hardin, breaking ground for a new Big Horn County Historical Museum building.
A crowd estimated at 200 to 300 people stood against a biting spring wind as the perfectly restored engines sputtered to life on a flat piece of ground just west of the existing museum building. Their aged blades scraped a few inches into the earth where, in less than a year, a 13,690-square-foot building will stand.
The new climate- and light-controlled facility will dwarf the old 3,300-square-foot museum building.
“It will have a 3,400-square-foot gallery, which is larger than the existing building,” said Glennine Schoen, speaking on behalf of Bob Whiting, the fundraising committee chairman.
When it’s complete, the building will have a library and research room, more restrooms to accommodate bus tours and student groups and an enlarged gift shop.
It will be landscaped with historic street lights from Center Avenue and a garden of native plants used by American Indians.
Among the stars of the event was Margaret Ping of Billings, one of the museum’s founders. She donated her father’s old truck farm where the museum was established in 1978. She has worked from the beginning on expanding the original farmhouse exhibit into one of the most impressive museum complexes in the state.
Although the museum has always had a wide constituency, fundraising for the new buildings, which began in 2006, faltered when recession hit the next year.
Asked if she thought she’d ever see the museum built, she replied: “I’m going to be 99 next month, and they have 300 days to build the museum. It will be a close call.”
Her friends have no doubt that she’ll be helping Big Horn County celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2013.
The museum board raised $2.3 million with the help of a $1 million grant from the county commissioners. The commissioners set aside funds from royalties on coalbed methane production.
One of the treasures of the museum is a barn packed with fully restored and functioning farm equipment. Volunteers Jerry Miller and Larry Kiefer work five days a week keeping the machines in working order.
Three of the machines doing the honors at the groundbreaking were donated to the museum. The fourth was brought from Billings by Ed Orser, a museum supporter. Orser drove his yellow John Deere dozer in the ceremony.
Miller said all of the machines were from the 1950s. Drivers included Larry Torske and Bob Kukes, who had donated the equipment they drove, and County Commissioner John Pretty On Top.
“This is an amazing day,” said Diane Scheidt, director of the museum.
Most of the time, groundbreaking ceremonies draw only a handful of people, she noted. But the huge crowd on Monday was reflective of all the people who have had a hand in building the museum.