May 23, 2019

The Poindexter Collection of Abstract Expressionism

by Jennifer Bottomly-O'Looney, MHS Museum Senior Curator 

Forest No 1, 1959, Robert Goodnough, MHS Museum X1962.03.04
The Poindexter Collection is an assemblage of 99 works of art (98 paintings and one photograph) representing the New York School of Abstract Expressionism—a defining art movement of the mid-20th century which had world-wide impact.  The Collection contains representative works by such leading artists as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Richard Diebenkorn, and Robert DeNiro (the father of the actor), as well as significant holdings of works by lesser-known artists like Earl Kerkam and Robert Goodnough.  

Untitled, 1947, Willem de Kooning, MHS Museum X1974.04.05
 It was given to the people of Montana by Everton Gentry “George” Poindexter and his wife, Elinor (the Poindexters also donated a similar collection to the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings).  George was a third-generation Montanan who grew up in Dillon. His family was associated with the Poindexter & Orr Ranch in Beaverhead County, and his father was a judge and Attorney General of Montana.  George moved to New York City where he was a highly successful businessman. He fell in love with and began collecting abstract art, and he and Elinor eventually owned and operated an influential art gallery in New York. The Poindexters were friends with and supporters of the artists represented in the collection long before these artists became famous.

Untitled, 1943, Jackson Pollock, MHS Museum X1973.05.01
The collection was donated to the Society in increments beginning in 1960 (most of the collection was here on loan before it was officially donated). The last piece was given in 1987. The Poindexters’ motive in donating the collection was to give Montanans the opportunity to experience first-hand this type of art and, as George wrote, in “hope that the pleasure they [these paintings] have given me will be shared by the people of my native state.” Both George and Elinor are now deceased.

Flowers, 1955, Robert DeNiro, MHS Museum X1967.04.01

April 25, 2019

Family Life and the Fort Peck Dam

by Kelly Burton
MHS Film Archivist

In keeping with the reputation of its home state, Montana’s Fort Peck Dam is outsized in stature. At 21,026 feet in length and over 250 feet in height, Fort Peck Dam is the largest hydraulically filled dam in the United States. The reservoir created by this dam, Fort Peck Lake, is 134 miles long, has a 1520-mile shoreline (longer than the California coast), and is the fifth largest man-made lake in the U.S. Ownership of the dam and lake are held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and it was this federal agency that began construction of the structure in 1933 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. At its peak in 1936, the Fort Peck Dam project employed over 10,000 workers and created dozens of boomtowns that would eventually disappear after completion of the structure in 1940.

Construction of Fort Peck Dam (MOV 0052)

Construction of Fort Peck Dam (MOV 0052)

Some of the Montana Historical Society’s more detailed and memorable images of Fort Peck Dam and its construction come from the Van Faasen family home movie collection. Jerold was born in Holland, Michigan in 1913, and Ruth was born that same year, in Libby, Montana. Jerold describes the couple’s meeting in the donation paperwork for the collection: “Ruth Shanahan and Jerold B. Van Faasen both arrived at the Fort Peck Dam Project on the Missouri River in Northeastern Montana in October 1935. Ruth was assigned duties in the Finance Section and Jerold was assigned duties in the Engineering Field Office for the Diversion Tunnel Construction. Ruth and Jerold met for the first time about a year later through a mutual friend. After a two-year courtship, they were married in the Glasgow Methodist Church Parsonage on September 24, 1938.” Jerold’s engineering work led to several relocations between Montana and Washington State over the years, and during this time, the couple raised three daughters. Many of the Van Faasens’ work and life events were captured on 8mm film, and these reels provide us with a rich portrait of life in the American West during the 1930s – 1960s.

Construction of Fort Peck Dam (MOV 0052) 

Jerold Van Faasen in the Fort Peck Dam offices (MOV 0052)

In May of 1994, Jerold and Ruth donated thirty-eight 8mm film reels to the Montana Historical Society’s Photo Archives (MOV 0052). In the donation paperwork for the Van Faasen family moving image collection, the origin of this cinematographic hobby is described thusly: “The amateur movie activity started when Ruth gave Jerold an 8mm Bell and Howell ‘filmo’ movie camera for Christmas in 1938. This led to 30 years of the filming of construction of civil and military projects, family events and vacations, friends and relatives and special events. Many of our vacations included the families of our siblings.” An amazingly thorough sixty-one-page document accompanies the Van Faasen donation, with a detailed description of every shot contained on every numbered reel. Many of these films pertain to Jerold’s work as an engineer on the Fort Peck Dam and Glasgow Air Force Base in Montana, along with other infrastructure projects such as the Hungry Horse Dam in Montana and the Bonneville Dam on the Washington/Oregon border. A notable face in the Fort Peck Dam footage is that of President Harry Truman, whose visit to the facility on May 13, 1950 was filmed by Jerold. Family trips were also frequent, with Waterton-Glacier, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Bryce Canyon, Sequoia, King’s Canyon, and Yosemite among the leisure destinations chosen by the Van Faasens. Complementary home movies pertaining to the family’s time in western Washington were donated by Jerold and Ruth to Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry in 1994.

Recreation at Fort Peck Dam (MOV 0052)

Recreation at Fort Peck Dam (MOV 0052)

In addition to the donation of family films to the Photo Archives, the Van Faasens also gifted their Bell & Howard 8mm FILMO Sportster film camera and various other pieces of filmmaking equipment to the Montana Historical Society’s museum (1994.28) in 1994. An autographed memoir by Jerold Van Faasen, “Making it Happen: A Sixty-Year Engineering Odyssey in the Northwest,” was acquired in 1998 by the MHS library (620.00973 V26M), and this 264-page personal history serves as an insightful companion to the home movies. Finally, Ruth and Jerold contributed individual accounts to the New Deal in Montana/Fort Peck Dam Oral History Project housed in the MHS archives (OH 1071 and OH 1087), with interviews being conducted by Rick Duncan in the town of Fort Peck on August 3, 1987. Ruth’s account states that the couple’s years at Ft. Peck were “a wonderful part of our lives. A cosmopolitan group of people, opportunities that you don’t find everywhere, everybody cared about everybody it seemed and we really enjoyed living in Fort Peck.” (OH 1071)

Harry Truman at Fort Peck Dam, May 13, 1950 (MOV 0052)

Al Van Faasen feeding chipmunks at Glacier National Park (MOV 0052)

With the help its first Federal Grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation in 2009, the Montana Historical Society was able to create new, enlarged 16mm preservation prints and negatives of three Fort Peck-related films from the Van Faasen family moving image collection. These three reels can now be viewed as one continuous 43-minute silent film on the Historical Society’s Moving Image Archive YouTube playlist:

April 11, 2019

"My hats off to you and your boot builders" C.M. Russell

by Barbara Pepper-Rotness, Reference Librarian

Catalogues are an excellent source of information when researching items commonly used during a particular time period. We can learn about washing 'machines' that are no more than a scrubbing board; or, about houses sold as a kit like the Sears Mail-Order Homes (check out this Sears Homes Archives - it includes images and prices of their home kits from 1908 to 1940!).

H. J. Justin & Sons, Inc. 1940 cowboy boot
 catalog dedicated to C.M. Russell
  Some catalogues are more
   interesting than others,
   though, such as this one
   in the Montana Historical
   Society’s Library 
  collections. Created by 
  the H. J. Justin & Sons, 
  Inc. boot company in 
  1940, the catalogue
  is unique in that 
  it ties cowboy boots
  to a well-known 
  personality in U.S. 
 Western history, that of 
 C.M. Russell, 
 the cowboy artist. 
 Throughout this beautiful 
 little booklet are pictures 
 of cowboy boots that
 were popular during the 
 early 1940s, interspersed 
 with illustrations by 
 C.M. Russell. 

The entire booklet is dedicated to the artist and includes “A Tribute to Charles M. Russell, written as an introduction to the artist’s book by the beloved cowboy humorist and actor Will Rogers”. On the second page of his tribute, Will Rogers quotes "a lot of them old reprobates, they said," speaking of Charlie:

“We may have Painters in time to come, that will be just as good as old Charley. We may have Cowboys just as good, and we may occasionally round up a pretty good man. But us, and the manicured tribe that is following us, will never have the Real Cowboy, Painter, and Man, combined that old Charley was, For we aint go not more real cowboys, and we aint got no more Cows to paint, and we just dont raise no more of his kind of men, and if by a Miracle we did get all that combination why it just wouldent be Charley.”

Charlie himself was fond of the Justin Boys and their boots and demonstrated that by purchasing his own boots from them. He even wrote letters to them, such as the one below copied in the catalog, praising their products:
Letter, dated December 28, 1921, from CM Russell to H.J. Justin and Sons
The Justin Boys were so dedicated to keeping C.M.Russell's name and art alive that on the credit page of this 1940 catalogue, it says that each booklet costs 50 cents to purchase and half of each purchase will be 'presented to the Montana Cowboy's Association for its Memorial to Charlie Russell.'

The cost of the boots themselves, though, depended on the style and whether the boot was customized. or, 'Made to Measure'; or if it was from their stock, as we can see below on the inserted price list effective June 1, 1940:
Retail Price List Effective June 1, 1940, from
H. J. Justin & Sons, Inc. catalogue

Let's look at some of the boots you could choose from:

'For the ladies', there was a nice selection of boots that the "dudines* really go for":

"No. L1514 – The Dudines really go for this trim streamlined Western Gypsy boot with its Narrow Square toe, classically simple stitching pattern and dainty row of white stars inlaid around the tops. The whole boot is made of soft pliable Brown Kid and lined with Justin’s smooth tough baseball leather."

And, in reference to their description above concerning the 'smooth tough baseball leather', they included a full page description of the baseball leather they used:

The Justin and Sons Boot, Inc. company was even able to import 'exotic' leathers like kangaroo from Australia.
Genuine Australian Kangaroo Leather selections,
from 1940 Justin Boot catalogue

And, even though round-toed boots were slowly going out of fashion by this time (see below), 

This early 'infographic' describes the evolution of the cowboy boot
[From: The Old West - The Cowboys, by Time-Life Books, 1973]

the H.J. Justin and Sons, Inc. company was still selling them in this 1940 catalog, along with medium-square and narrow-square-toed boots.

Begun in 1879 in Spanish Fort, Texas, a frontier settlement on the later-named Chisholm Trail, Justin Boots is located in Fort Worth, Texas and continues its tradition of creating boots 'crafted by skilled boot-makers using only the finest leathers and quality materials.'


*'Dudine' (and 'dudess'), were early forms of 'dudette':

From A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, University of Chicago Press, 1951

March 21, 2019

“A Montanan Through and Through”: The Photographic Legacy of Barbara Van Cleve

by Molly Kruckenberg, MHS Research Center Manager

Throughout her long career, renowned photographer and Montana native Barbara Van Cleve has captured the spirit of the west through her photographs.  Deemed a “Treasured Montana Artist,” Van Cleve has documented Montana and western ranch life from the mid-twentieth century through today.  Her photographs, described by B. Byron Price as having “left a trail deep and plain over open range,” capture distinctly Montana and western images. 

Barbara Van Cleve’s heritage is steeped in Montana.  Her family’s ranch, the Lazy K Bar, was founded in 1880 on the slopes of the Crazy Mountains.  As a photographer, she has held a camera since she was 11 years old.  Her youthful interest in photography grew into a lifelong commitment.  Ranch work also began early for Barbara.  Barely six, she could be found helping at the corrals or sitting astride a horse.  Ever since she has documented the “true grit” and beauty of her experiences on ranches in the West.

Following an academic career in Chicago, Barbara moved to New Mexico to pursue her photography.  She has since returned to her hometown of Big Timber, Montana, where she continues her photography work today.

Van Cleve has offered her collection of more than 10,000 negatives and prints, comprising her life’s work, to the Montana Historical Society.  As a body, the collection records the land and sky, people and animals that have been a part of her life as well as modern western history.  Stating, “I am deeply pleased that photography students, scholars and historians of the West will have access to my work,” Van Cleve acknowledged her pleasure that her “work will come home to stay in my heartland, Montana.”

Van Cleve has generously agreed to offer her collection to the Montana Historical Society for $250,000.  In addition, she has agreed to donate her personal collection of cameras and family materials.  If you are interested in helping the Montana Historical Society preserve and protect this significant Montana history resource, please contact Director Bruce Whittenberg at or 406-444-5485.

February 27, 2019

Gallery of Outstanding Montanans Coming Up!

On Wednesday, February 27, 2019, at 1:00 p.m. in the Capitol Rotunda, architects John G. Link and Charles S. Haire and champion bronc rider Fannie Sperry Steele will become the newest inductees into the Gallery of Outstanding Montanans.

Butte-Silver Bow Club
[MHS Photo Archives PC 001]
Working independently and in partnership, John G. Link (1869–1954) and Charles S. Haire (1857–1925) shaped Montana’s built landscape. In 1906, the two joined together to form Link and Haire, Architects, which quickly grew into one of Montana’s most prominent architectural firms. In addition to providing plans for a third of the state’s county courthouses and contributing to the capitol’s 1912 expansion, Link and Haire designed schools, churches, hospitals, office buildings, libraries, and private homes. Their buildings, many of which are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, embrace the period’s eclectic and classical tastes.

Helena MT Life Insurance Company
[MHS Photo Archives PAc 2013-50]
Fannie Sperry Steele (1887– 1983) grew up near Helena and learned to ride almost before she could walk. In 1907, Sperry began participating in women’s bucking horse competitions. At the Calgary Stampede in 1912, her ride earned her the title “Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World.” Sperry rode exhibition broncs until she was in her fifties. She was the first woman in Montana to receive a packer’s license, and with her string of pintos, she guided hunters on trips into the mountains. Widowed in 1940, she continued to run her family’s ranch until she was seventy-eight.
Fanny Sperry Steele, Miles City Roundup
[MHS Photo Archives 2018-56