Fate propelled Stu Sorensen into the grip of the wild Rockies more than 100 years late.
Late, but not too late.
He ventured into the wilderness without the company of mountain men like Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, John Colter or “Liver Eatin’” Johnson. Yet Sorensen traveled thousands of miles in wild territory as a packer, guide and scout.
Sorensen did not face the same dangers from indigenous tribes attempting to repel the rapacious onslaught of white settlers in the 1800s. Yet he encountered many other hazards experienced by mountain men — grizzly bears, frozen and fractured fingers, treacherous terrain and unforgiving weather.
“I lived this life. It was a rugged life,” said Sorenson, now 74 years old. “I worked wide open all the time when I was in the mountains. And when you’re rasslin’ 1,000-pound mules, it wears on you.”
Sorensen’s fascination with history in general and the heyday of the Western fur trade more specifically started young.
This enchantment shows no signs of fading. Neither does his penchant for collecting artifacts from that era. That combination ultimately required the creation of the Bad Rock Settlement Museum to sustain harmony in an increasingly cluttered home.
“I told him, ‘I’m sick and tired of living in a museum,’” recalled Peg Sorensen, laughing.
The Bad Rock Settlement Museum rose in 2012, built just a stone’s throw from the couple’s house on the Bad Rock Ranch near Columbia Falls. Sorensen designed the building to look like a structure more than 100 years old and used timbers from an old cabin on the property to help achieve that period feel.
Two years ago, the Sorensens started offering paid tours, by appointment only, through the museum’s nine rooms — which are intended to be experienced as separate buildings.
Each has a theme: saloon, cowboy bunkhouse, livery stable, saddle shop, tribal camp, mercantile, trading post, trapper’s cabin and lumberjack cabin.
Each room displays a mix of actual artifacts from the 1800s and early 1900s and period replicas. Some items date back to the 1600s and 1700s, Sorensen says.
During a recent tour, Sorensen wore an elk and buckskin fringed coat, buckskin pants, elk-hide moccasins and a handmade linen shirt with bone buttons. He wore a beaver hat and from his belt hung a telescope, a hunting knife and a shooting pouch for his flintlock.
He looked like he could have just materialized from a fur traders’ rendezvous in 1832.
Stu was born in 1944 to Fred and Esther Sorensen. He spent his early years in the vicinity of Martin City and the South Fork of the Flathead River. Fred was employed to help build the Hungry Horse Dam.
In 1955, the family moved to property near the western foot of Columbia Mountain.
When his father ran the Thunderbird Antiques store in Columbia Falls, Sorensen often traded the value of his work time there for artifacts that fired his imagination.
He accompanied his father on journeys to Canada and Washington and throughout Montana, seeking inventory for Thunderbird Antiques.
“We went to a lot of antique stores, estate sales. My father was a picker,” Sorensen recalled.
After high school in Columbia Falls, Sorensen began a packing and guiding career that included 11 seasons in Glacier National Park and work for outfitters. He estimates he traveled about 8,000 miles in Glacier alone.
He and Peg Berner, who was born and raised near Kalispell, married in 1972 and had three children.
The couple decided they needed more job security and health insurance once they started having children.
Sorenson left the mountains to work full time as an equipment operator for the Montana Department of Transportation. He retired from that job in 2006.
Peg said every wife with a retired husband should have something like the Bad Rock Settlement Museum to occupy her spouse.
“He goes crazy in the house,” she said.
Sorensen is in his element walking through rooms housing thousands of artifacts. His knowledge of the 1800s and 1900s in the Rocky Mountain West appears to run as deep as his affection for the period.
He said tours typically last two hours but can stretch longer with an inquisitive group.
He leads visitors through rooms filled with coyote and beaver pelts, traps, buffalo robes, saddles, horse collars, neck yokes, bison skulls, tomahawks, watch fobs, powder horns, hatchets, knives, axes, cowboy hats, top hats, buffalo drums, Native American artifacts, rabbit fur mittens, crosscut saws and much, much more.
Sorensen’s brow furrowed when asked to name his most treasured artifacts.
“I’ve got so many favorite things,” he said.
He finally cited an item he purchased in a second-hand store adjacent to what was once the Oregon Trail — one half of an oxen shoe. Oxen, which have cloven hooves and require two shoes, have been described as the engine of the overland Western migration.
Sorensen said he felt thrilled by the find.
“It’s the hunt. When you find something like that, it’s exciting,” he said. “Finding something other people don’t realize has value.”
Sorensen hopes visitors to the Bad Rock Settlement Museum gain a strong sense of the historical time that appeals so much to him.
“That’s what the Settlement does. It lets people step back in time,” he said. “That’s why things aren’t in glass cases. I want people to feel like they’re stepping back in time.”
And what about that historical period appeals so much to Sorensen?
“The land was open. It was wilderness. It was untouched. It was natural, just the way God made it.
“That’s why I go into the wilderness. It’s a spiritual experience. You feel close to the Lord.”
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4407.