By Ron VandenBoom
The Russell Dining Room and lobby at Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park once again has the wild and rustic decor of the great outdoors thanks to a donation from Havre storyteller and amateur historian Robert Lucke.
The lodge, a frequent vacation spot for Lucke, lost many of its decorative stuffed animal displays in a burglary two winters ago.
Lucke, the grandson of Lou Lucke, who owned a large clothing store in the early days of Havre, decided to donate his grandfather's collection of stuffed animals to the lodge to help compensate for the loss.
The first installment, or about half of the collection, consisting of eight deer and antelope, as well as various ducks and geese mounts, was transferred to the lodge about a year ago. About 25 Indian artifacts were also given to the lodge.
The second half of the collection, which according to Lucke contains the better and more valuable pieces, will be sent to the lodge early next year.
The only thing Lucke asked was that some kind of a plaque be mounted in the lodge telling where the collection came from.
Most of the mounts were of animals taken by Lucke's grandfather or by one of Havre's most notorious figures, "Shorty" Young, Lucke said.
Lucke's grandfather was known to be an avid sportsman who for years displayed the trophies in his downtown clothing store alongside a large collection of antique guns, knives and swords. Standing mounts where placed on an overhanging ledge extending around the inside of the building and mounted heads were suspended from walls and display racks.
The store, according to the book "Grit, Guts, and Gusto," served as an unofficial museum for more than 30 years as word of the displays spread. Some of the weapons were said to predate the Mexican War of the 1840s and even the War of 1812.
Local celebrities like rodeo star Long George Francis shopped in the store, where it is said he always selected the latest in Western fashion.
But perhaps the most famous personality to patronize Lucke's was international radio personality and movie star Jack Benny. Benny is supposed to have created quite a sensation when he dropped in unexpectedly with an entourage of friends and radio writers. As Lou's son Al told the story, Benny was looking to buy a pair of men's shorts and did not expect to be recognized in a place he considered to be the "edge of civilization." Crowds gathered inside and outside the store to get a glimpse of the star.
Lucke eventually inherited the store's trophies and family heirlooms and has cared for them for what he said has been 50 years. The collection consisted of as many as 70 stuffed animals and 150 Indian artifacts. He also acquired two dear heads that were mounted on each side of the fireplace in the historic Young/Almas home on Fourth Avenue.
"Maybe I've read too much Stephen King," he said. "But I swear, when I got them mounted on my fireplace, their expressions had changed they looked sad."
Their expressions have changed back to joy over time, he said.
Lucke said he has many memories of the mounts from when he was a child.
"I used to walk down to my father's store," said Lucke, who writes for the Havre Daily News. "The animals were all on a ledge that went around the store."
At Christmas time his grandfather would bring as many as 100 pine trees into the store and place them along the ledge between the animals, he said. It gave the whole store the scent of Christmas.
A recent battle with cancer made Lucke realize his time might not be unlimited and that the time had come to do something with the mounts to insure their survival.
Lucke first tried to donate them to the H. Earl Clack Museum and was told by the curator they weren't interested, he said. He also tried to give them to the Blaine County Wildlife Museum, but again was turned down, he said.
"At the time I was heartbroken," Lucke said.
Robert Lucke's brother, Lou Lucke, who is now chairman of the H. Earl Clack Museum Board, said he was unaware of the offer to the museum when it was originally made, but if the offer were made today, depending on the condition of the mounts, the museum would probably take them.
Lou Lucke said that several pieces in the collection were done by artist Bob Scriver and could be quite valuable.
Robert's dilemma about what to do with the animals at that time was solved when he contacted Steve Frye, the chief ranger at Glacier National Park. He had gotten to know Frye years before when he was wondering what to do with a piece of land he had at Lake McDonald.
Representatives of the lodge soon came to Lucke's home to look at the display and agreed to give the mounts a new home.