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LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff The Charles M. Bair Family Museum is shown in a file photo from Sept. 14, 1995, in Martinsdale.

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS (AP) — Supporters of the Charles M. Bair Family Museum in Martinsdale urged trustees Wednesday night to search for ways to reopen the museum.

However, trustee chairman Jim Roscoe said the decision to stay closed for this summer's tourist season is final.

"Candidly, I will have to say that we are not in a negotiating body here tonight," he said.

He said the museum can't be reopened until trustees devise a business plan for continued funding, and they're looking for a consultant to help them develop such a plan.

A dispute over the museum's future began earlier this year when trustees decided to close the museum — at least for this tourist season — because of financial worries.

Visits to the 26-room house, lavishly decorated with European artwork, antiques and Indian artifacts Alberta Bair and her sister collected, have fallen while costs continue to rise.

The museum, which opened in 1996, drew fewer than 5,000 visitors last year.

About 150 people attended the meeting Wednesday night, and comments directed toward the trustees were pointed at times.

"That is our culture, heritage and our art and I want to know why you want to take it away from us," asked Russell VanLieshout of White Sulphur Springs.

Jaime Doggett, a Meagher County commissioner, asked for a show of hands from the crowd of people willing to donate time and money to reopen the museum this summer. Many raised their hands.

Roscoe said it wouldn't be easy to open the museum this summer. He said parts of the collection already had been sent to storage and trustees had not spent any money to advertise the museum this year.

"I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's going to be a really difficult move."

The February decision to close the museum incensed local leaders, who say the museum — essentially in the middle of nowhere — is a much-needed draw to the rural ranching towns.

To many of them, closing the museum is not an option.

Some helped incite a letter-writing campaign that flooded editorial pages of papers around the state.

The museum once was the Bair family home, and the clan's roots run deep in Montana.

Charles M. Bair came to the state in 1883 as a conductor on the Northern Pacific Railroad. He made a fortune in the Alaskan Gold Rush and invested in oil, mining and real estate interests and once ran more than 300,000 sheep, filling an entire train with wool bound for the Midwest.

He counted among his friends artists such as Charlie Russell, Crow Indian leader Chief Plenty Coups and several U.S. presidents.

Works from Russell and artist Joseph Henry Sharp and J.K. Ralston have been among the displays at the museum. Bair also was fond of displaying personal gifts from Plenty Coups and antiques purchased in Europe by his daughters, Marguerite and Alberta.

When Alberta Bair died in 1993, there were no heirs. She set up a trust to keep the home open to the public for at least five years after her death.

According to a copy of a trust agreement Bair signed in 1990, the board was authorized "sell, transfer, relocate the museum or otherwise dispose of all of the property" if it determined — at least five years after Bair's death — the museum no longer served its purposes and that it was "inadvisable to continue the museum for public and educational purposes."

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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