March 30, 2020

The Exhibits are Lonely!

By Roberta Jones-Wallace, MHS Exhibit Designer

The exhibits are lonely—their main visitors now are staff continuing to work in the building and security staff making their rounds.

How do the exhibits and collections fill their time?

In the Russell gallery, cowboys meet around a campfire (no concern here for social distancing) where they tell jokes and stories, reminisce about their lives, or dream about future possibilities.

Another group is disrupted by a bronc, who has either had too much coffee, or not enough. Or perhaps he is simply enforcing the social distancing rule.

Charlie is ever ready to spin a yarn and add color to your imagination. He’ll model you a mini animal—something his talented fingers can do without supervision—and will pull from his pocket a surprise. Knowing Charlie's affinity for horses, you bet that's what it's going to be; but no … it's a pig. How clever. You guessed wrong—this beer is on you!

March 9, 2020

Read All About It!

Montana’s Content on Chronicling America Grows

By Natasha Hollenbach, Digital Projects Librarian

Last September, I shared how we selected newspapers for our latest National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP) grant-funded project, which focuses on booms and busts after 1922. Now those titles are starting to appear on the Chronicling America website. As new papers come online, we’re going to share a little bit about why each paper was chosen. We hope this will serve as a reference, pique your interest, and encourage you to head to the site to search or browse.

Bozeman Courier (1921–1927)
Despite the agricultural depression starting in Montana immediately after World War I, the Courier doesn’t address the problem until 1926 and even then, it’s abstract. While several of the chosen papers deny that there are problems in the agricultural section, they are active and vocal in their denial. The Courier in contrast has no comment even while it is covering the extension school and including a weekly state livestock news section. While it might not take a stand on agriculture, the Courier definitely has political opinions. During this period, they are extremely isolationist and vocally Republican.

Carbon County Chronicle/Carbon County News/Red Lodge daily news combined with Carbon County News/ Carbon County News (1924–July 1945) Note: Right now, 1938–1945 is available online. This is one of the titles that was split across several batches.
Originally, we were going to digitize this paper starting with 1932, but by then the coal mines were mostly closed, so I extended the date range back. The extended date range includes not just the coal mine but rural electrification through the Beartooth Electric Co-operative, the intersection of transportation and tourism with the creation of the Beartooth Highway, the oil refinery which burned in 1941, CCC/WPA activities in the county, and fish hatcheries. Politically the Carbon County News is anti-New Deal, anti-Roosevelt, pro-business, and isolationist, which is an interesting combination with many of these topics.

Eureka Mirror(March 1932–November 1936)
The Mirror like most of the papers chosen have a little bit of everything, but something unusual that struck me was transportation. There is discussion of railroads, highways and airports, which is an area that we weren’t focusing on but that appears in several of the chosen titles, though not usually all in the same paper.

The Fort Peck Press (August 1934–May 1937)
The Fort Peck Press is specifically tied to the building of the dam. While many newspapers cover the Fort Peck Dam’s construction, the Press has weekly updates on how the project is developing. However, this coverage tends to be positive, so when scandal or controversy hits the dam, the Press usually ignores those stories.

Glasgow Courier (1942–1945)
Note: In a previous grant cycle we digitized 1915–1922.
We also want to recognize the boom and bust of military bases. While there were several other bases we could have used, the Glasgow Courier provides both a quick boom and bust cycle as well as a reasonable page count. In fact, my notes say that that I wanted to include 1946–1947 if page count allowed, but between this being one of the final papers chosen and the page count per issue increasing, it was necessary to stop at 1945.

Hungry Horse News (Aug 1946–1955)
Note: Currently, only Aug 1949–1954 is available online. The rest will be available soon.
There are a lot of things happening in this newspaper. The building of the Hungry Horse dam, the logging and Christmas tree industries, the story of the Anaconda Aluminium Company (from approval through building and opening to unionization), Forest Service activities and the Great Northern railroad. In addition to all that, it relays news from the surrounding communities.

The Kevin Courier/The Montana Courier/The Kevin Review (May 1922–June 1929)
If you’re discussing the oil industry in Montana, you have to include the Kevin Sunburst strike in the early 1920s, which kicked it all off. During this period, the Kevin papers shift from focusing almost solely on Kevin oil strikes to becoming a full-fledged community paper including local sports, automobiles, fiction, crossword puzzles, and the other material typical of community newspapers of the period.

Laurel Outlook (1944–1950)
We originally chose the Laurel Outlook for news about the refinery, and while it does have some discussion of that, it’s more valuable for its coverage of other topics including railroads, the local grain elevator, oil, veterans, and polio. We usually think of post-World War II as a boom era, but the Laurel Outlook shows the recovery and shortage issues of the immediate postwar era.

The Wolf Point Herald (1920–1932)
The Wolf Point Herald illustrates the depression era through its coverage of local events and institutions. The chosen date range shows how often businesses are changing hands and how hard the town is trying to attract employers. From grain elevators to oil and gas exploration, the Herald shows its community trying to adapt to the times.

February 28, 2020

J. P. Ball: Legendary African-American Photographer in Montana

Jeff Malcomson
Photograph Archives Manager
Montana Historical Society


Portrait of a music teacher, Helena,
ca.1887-1900 (Catalog # Lot 22 B8 F15 02)

From the unusual circumstance of being born to free black parents in 1825 Virginia, James Presley Ball lived a long life as a pioneering photographer and businessman.  Ball applied a portion of his pioneering spirit to his steady movement westward across the country, and another portion he applied to his early adoption and development of photographic skills and entrepreneurship.  Ball also pioneered as a social activist, using his photography for the advancement of African American rights and social and political acceptance.  [Ball’s intriguing life can be followed in an online exhibit created by the Cincinnati History Library and Archives where you can also browse or search nearly 300 of his photographs .

J. P. Ball arrived in Helena, Montana, late in life sometime in the fall of 1887, just two years before Montana achieved statehood.  He was an experienced and successful photographer, having worked decades since 1845 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and many other locations.  He strongly supported the abolition of slavery prior to the Civil War, and in the years following it he continued to promote the political and social advancement of African Americans.  His son, J. P. Ball, Jr. came to Helena with him, sharing his father’s political views and his father’s business, a photography studio then known as J. P. Ball and Son.  J. P. Ball Jr. published and edited a short-lived newspaper in Helena called The Colored Citizen, while his father remained active in the Republican Party and at one time served as president of the Afro-American Club, a state-wide support group for the black community in Montana.  Ball saw the Montana Territory become a state in 1889, Helena become the state capital in 1894, and he photographed the laying of the cornerstone for the Montana State Capitol building in 1899.  Ball followed his son to Seattle in 1900 and died in 1904.


Ball photographed a series of views from the ceremony to lay the cornerstone of the Montana State Capitol building in Helena on the 4th of July 1899 (Catalog # 957-627).

Though very little of his written record remains in Montana, Ball’s photographic legacy in the Treasure State is preserved through over 100 known Ball photographs in the collections of the Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives. He was first and foremost a master of studio portraiture; most of his extant work is individual studio portraits. Ball served all members of the Helena community, taking portraits of a U. S. Senator, a Chinese cook, an immigrant family fresh from Europe, and many other Helenans, both white and black. However, he occasionally took his camera outside to photograph significant events. His work documenting two public executions in Helena in 1896 is some of the most intriguing work by any photographer in 19th century Montana. We recently digitized over twenty of Ball’s more interesting photos. These can be browsed here on the Montana Memory Project. Several select images are displayed below.


Portrait of 'Tex' Rose, the long-time caretaker
at the Broadwater Hotel in Helena,
ca. 1891-1900 (Catalog # 957-598)
Portrait of an unidentified man, ca.1887-1900
(Catalog # 957-602)
Portrait of William Biggerstaff, a convicted
murderer, prior to his public hanging,
April 1896 (Catalog # 957-610)
Portrait of the body of William Biggerstaff, after his public hanging, April 1896 (Catalog # 957-613). For Ball’s images of his public execution and that of William Gay see the photos on the Montana Memory Project link above.

February 6, 2020

Happy Valentine's Day , Love Charlie

Jennifer Bottomly-O'looney
Senior Curator
Montana Historical Society


My Valentine by Charles M. Russell
watercolor and gouache, ca. 1896-1897, 18” H x 15½” W
Historical Society Collection, Gift of Mrs. Charles L. Sheridan in memory of Lela V. Roberts, X1954.03.03

In My Valentine the artist surrounds the beautiful central figure with a decidedly Russell-esque sinuous, heart-shaped frame and places two putti floating next to her.

After a courtship of just over one-year Charlie and Nancy Russell—whom Charlie called Mame or Mamie—were married on September 9, 1896, in a ceremony at the home of their good friends Ben and Lela Roberts. It was in the Roberts’s home in Cascade where Russell had first met Nancy the year before. The bride wore a blue wedding dress that Lela Roberts made for her.  The event was newsworthy. As the Anaconda Standard on reported on September 13:

“Wednesday evening at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. B. R. Roberts, Miss Mamie Mann and Charles M. Russell were united in marriage by Rev. B. W. Pierce. Many guests were present and after the ceremony the party sat down to an elaborate collation. The occasion was one of the most pleasant social events ever held in Cascade where the couple have many friends.” The Standard noted that “Charley Russell, the happy groom, is known all over the west as the ‘Cowboy Artist’… [and] now more than ever before [he] will confine himself to his profession. In the classic language of Charley, he’s ‘done settled down to business and can’t trot with the gang anymore.’”

The couple honeymooned in the small twelve by twenty-four-foot shack behind the Robert’s house, where they would make their first home.

Charlie was persuaded to paint this very atypical, and romantic watercolor, My Valentine, for his friend Lela, who used it as a sign for a candy booth set up as a fund-raiser for a church social in Cascade. It was given to the Montana Historical Societyin 1954 in memory of the donor’s mother, Lela V. Roberts.

November 21, 2019

ExploreBig Gets Bigger and Better

by Christine Brown, Historical Specialist

In 2017, MHS launched ExploreBig.org—a website and mobile app—to share the history and architectural significance of selected Montana buildings, neighborhoods, and cultural sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Initially, ExploreBig included approximately 250 individual stories and several historic district and themed tours. In January 2019, the MHS Outreach and Interpretation program began efforts to make a good thing even better by showcasing our entire treasure trove of interpretive material.


Contractor Michael Connolly points out the interactive map featured on MHS’s ExploreBig.org, soon to be renamed HistoricMT.org.

After many months, ExploreBig now has 1,700 brief stories on a dizzying array of historic sites ranging from grand business blocks, churches, and schoolhouses to railroad depots, brothels, mansions, humble homes, cabins, and industrial buildings. Thankfully we had help in this time-consuming process from a dedicated group of volunteers and students. MHS volunteer turned part-time contractor Michael Connolly assisted in uploading photos and text and creating links to digitized bibliographic sources. The project is far from complete however. Connolly continues to expand the site’s visual resources, researching and adding historic images from the MHS Photo Archives and State Historic Preservation Office collections, while MHS volunteer Joe Furshong is scanning photographs from National Register of Historic Places records and contributing contemporary photographs from his travels around the state.


ExploreBig looks good now, but will soon have a new name and look.
Watch for the launch of Historic Montana in 2020.

Students have also been key players in expanding the project. In September, Carroll College intern Augustus Krier-Ness and seven graduate students in a University of Montana public history course started work to add at least ten new themed tours to the site. And most recently, the Butte High School History Club has agreed to capture new photographs of buildings with National Register signs in the Butte National Historic Landmark, about 250 properties. Pairing new photos with historic Butte photos collected from the MHS Photo Archives and the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives will create a striking “then and now” virtual tour of Butte’s unparalleled collection of historic buildings.


A glimpse of the forthcoming Historic Montana exhibit on the
second floor of the museum. Rendering by Wyatt Design.

The next step in ExploreBig’s transformation is a new name and look and a physical exhibit inside the Montana Historical Society building. The website and app will be renamed Historic Montana and have a new address, HistoricMT.org. The makeover clearly defines the site as Montana’s go-to place to learn about historic Montana buildings and places. The exhibit, near the Society’s second-floor Research Center, will provide a dedicated touchscreen tablet for visitors and researchers to use during their visit.

Work on Historic Montana will continue long after the name change becomes part of history. MHS historians create about fifty to a hundred new National Register signs every year and the content of each one will be added to the site along with photographs and links to research sources. It’s hard to say if the site will ever be complete, but the ongoing process is well worth the time to make this information readily available. Historic Montana will be an invaluable tool for students and teachers, researchers, and curious travelers delving into place-based Montana history for years to come.