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Published on Thursday, January 24, 2008.
Last modified on 1/24/2008 at 12:39 am

Custer collection, town to be auctioned off

Of The Gazette Staff

Garryowen, the tiny town that was the southern edge of Sitting Bull's camp on the Little Bighorn River in 1876 and is now home to the privately owned Custer Battlefield Museum, is for sale.

Presale price for Garryowen - including the 6,000-piece Elizabeth Bacon Custer Manuscript Archive, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a 4,000-square-foot residence, trading post, museum, office complex, bed and breakfast, post office, gas station and restaurant - is $6.5 million.

No date or place has been set, but Heritage Auction Galleries of Dallas, Texas, announced Wednesday that the sale will take place this spring.

Garryowen owner Chris Kortlander said he offered the archive and the real estate as a package deal hoping that someone with pockets deeper than his will take up his dream of building a world-class museum and research facility around the Elizabeth Custer collection.

Kortlander said he bought the Custer archive in 2006 to bring it to Montana and to keep it from being sold piecemeal to collectors. At the time, Kortlander said he mortgaged Garryowen and his businesses to pay for it.

No one has researched the archive, which contains photographs, correspondence, drawings, notes, drafts of her books and invitations to military balls. She saved everything, Kortlander said, including her 1864 wedding card and that of her husband, George Armstrong Custer, bound together with a tiny satin ribbon.

"There are at least three or four Ph.Ds in there," he said of about 10 linear feet of material he catalogued in three-ring binders.

He tried to raise funds to build a new museum for the collection and had commissioned architectural drawings of a 56,000-square-foot facility. But money for the ambitious project proved scarce.

"I've done everything possible that a person with my resources can do," he said. "Now the torch has to be passed to someone with more resources."

Kortlander said he hopes someone who shares his vision will buy the town and the archive. If the new owner asks, he said, he'd be willing to stay on and help.

It shouldn't be a hard sell, he said. Garryowen sits between Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park, and each year many thousands of people pass by Garryowen on their way to one or the other.

The town is also right across the Little Bighorn River from the National Park Service's Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, and has the distinction of being near where the first shots of the battle were fired on June 25, 1876. Visitor counts at the battlefield are usually between 300,000 and 400,000 a year.

In a letter included in the draft sales brochure, Gary Hendershott, consignment director for the auction house, writes that other towns without the historical significance of the Montana complex between Crow Agency and Lodge Grass on Interstate 90 have sold for millions of dollars.

"This sale is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be an integral part of American history and to own the most famous privately held historic real estate in America," he wrote. "It should clearly be considered an outstanding corporate opportunity: corporate sponsorship programs range into many millions just to hang a name on a building."

Garryowen isn't a town in the traditional sense. It's an unincorporated tourist stop on deeded land within the boundaries of the Crow Indian Reservation in Big Horn County. Being deeded land means the land is privately owned and not held in trust by the United States government for the tribe or its members. Unlike trust lands, it is subject to taxation.

Neither the National Park Service nor the Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee, which has purchased thousands of acres of land where the sprawling battle was fought, will be among the bidders.

Darrell Cook, Park Service superintendent at the national battlefield, said he was surprised when he learned recently that Garryowen and the archive were for sale.

"The battlefield doesn't have any funds to try to acquire it," he said. "I don't know where we could find that kind of money."

Jim Court of the Preservation Committee said the committee was "not remotely interested" in trying to raise money for the purchase. Both the cost and the fact that the committee uses its funds to purchase and preserve historic lands - not archives - are factors, he said.

With the land comes a colorful past, most of it wrapped around the Little Bighorn battle where five companies of the 7th Cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. George Custer were wiped out by an allied force of mostly Sioux and Cheyenne. Crow warriors, traditional enemies of the Sioux, acted as Army scouts for the campaign to bring the last free-roaming Sioux bands onto reservations in the Dakotas.

Although the government has acquired a few hundred acres of land around Last Stand Hill and the Reno-Benteen defense site a few miles away, the battle covered thousands of acres, including Garryowen.

The town of Garryowen, named after an Irish marching song adopted by the 7th Cavalry, was officially born in 1895 as a water stop for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. Troops, supplies and mail bound for Fort Custer on a bluff above present-day Hardin were offloaded there.

The town was also the site of a 1926 commemoration that drew an estimated 50,000 people on the 50th anniversary of the battle. Ceremonies attended by 7th Cavalry survivors and warriors who had fought in the battle included burial of the Unknown Soldier. A trooper's remains, minus the skull, had been found by a road crew earlier that year.

Gen. Edward Godfrey and Sioux Chief Red Tomahawk shook hands in a "burying the hatchet" ceremony. Placed in the crypt was a time capsule that included a letter from Elizabeth Custer explaining why she couldn't attend the ceremony and memorabilia from the commemoration.

Although the grave was moved a short distance in 1957 for highway construction, the time capsule remains in place, along with a new one Kortlander added when he created a "Peace Memorial" around the tomb in 2001.

Kortlander has owned Garryowen since 1993. He had previously offered it for sale in 1997.

When he bought the Elizabeth Custer archive two years ago, Kortlander quickly immersed himself in it and determined there was more there than even he imagined.

"I could have sold it off piece by piece and made a lot of money. But I wanted to do the right thing," he said.

The collection included a copy of the widow's will. In it, she said that she wanted Custer's belongings and the Custer memorabilia in her possession to be delivered to "the Public Museum or Memorial, which may be erected on the battlefield of the Little Bighorn in Montana."

Kortlander said he believes that keeping Elizabeth Custer's archive in Garryowen would fulfill the wish expressed in her will.

Battlefield Superintendent Cook said the battlefield did receive much of Custer's personal property, including his uniforms, when Elizabeth Custer died in 1933. He said that he had not seen Kortlander's archive and did not know how much of it pertained to Custer at the Little Bighorn.

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