Like many young men of his time, Charles Bair came to Montana in 1883 from Paris, Ohio to make his fortune. He began as a conductor on the Northern Pacific Railroad. He ran sheep on a small ranch near Lavina, Montana and on the Crow Reservation in Hardin (where he became a close personal friend of the last great Crow leader, Chief Plenty Coups), but he made his fortune in the Alaskan Gold Rush – not by working a claim but by investing in a ground – thawing device. He poured his earnings into in oil, mining, banking and real estate interests and he purchased the John Grant Ranch in Martinsdale. Here he had one of the world’s largest sheep ranches, at times running 300,000 head of sheep. In addition, Bair was a key figure in oil and coal exploration, served as a director and founder of Midland Bank in Billings, was involved in many irrigation projects, and played an active role in Montana’s political scene. Bair counted among his friends artists like renowned Western painters Charles Russell. Bair and his wife, Mary, had two daughters: Marguerite, born in Helena in 1889, and Alberta, who was born in the family’s home in Billings in 1895 -where the Alberta Bair Theater for the Performing Arts now stands.
For the climate and for their daughters’ education, Mary, Marguerite and Alberta lived in Portland, Oregon from 1910 to 1934 with Mr. Bair commuting regularly. There the Bair ladies had an active social life and started to collect antiques. Marguerite attended the Cincinnati Music Conservatory, and later Alberta attended a finishing school in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. The entire family would spend Christmas in Los Angeles where artists Charlie Russell and Joseph henry Sharp had art galleries, but they returned each summer to enjoy the Montana ranch. When Charlie Bair was seventy-seven years old Mrs. Bair expressed her desire to return to Montana permanently, and the family reunited at the ranch along the Musselshell River in Martinsdale in time to celebrate Mr. and Mrs. Bair’s 50th wedding anniversary. The home was re-designed partially to house the many antiques collected during the Portland years as well as showcase the family’s Native American collection and Western paintings.
Charlie Bair lived on the ranch until his death in 1943 and Mary Bair passed away in 1952. Marguerite married ranch foreman Dave Lamb in 1939. The sisters took pride in their family home in Martinsdale and continued to fill it with an eclectic mix of art and antiques, and, starting in 1953, they made numerous trips to Europe to visit museums and search for antiques and art. Marguerite was the connoisseur and Alberta liked a bargain, but they both loved to travel. They collected silver, European paintings and George III furniture. As the collection grew, they remodeled and added on to the home until it had expanded to 11, 000 square feet and 26 rooms. During the 1960s Marguerite and Alberta began to envision the house as a museum that they planned to leave to the state of Montana for the enjoyment of its citizens.
Dave Lamb passed away in 1973, with Marguerite following in 1976. Alberta was the last of the family when she died in 1993 at the age of 97. The sisters’ dream to share their exquisite collection with the public became a reality in 1996 with the opening of the original home as the Bair Family Museum. It culminated in 2011 with the opening of the new 7,000 square foot Charles M. Bair Family Art Museum. Visitors to the site can enjoy the beautiful grounds, picnic in the courtyard, have a guided tour of the family home, and explore the unique collection of photographs and ranching memorabilia in the Bair Barn history center.. The Art Museum displays the collection’s original paintings, over 70 Native American artifacts and objects, and other rotating displays of the family’s exquisite and eclectic collection.
What makes the Bair’s home the historic site it is today is its personal and heartfelt blending of periods and family memories, of genteel aesthetics mixed with one pioneer family’s frontier birthright.