March 15, 2018

Oh, The Places You'll Go: A Research Request Journey

by Barbara Pepper-Rotness, Reference Librarian

The Montana Historical Society’s Research Center receives an average of twenty paid requests per month for information on various subjects. No matter the topic, each request provides us with a question we must answer and forces us to look more in-depth at materials we may not have previously. Once the search begins, we embark on a journey that hopefully leads to an answer; or, at minimum, provides the patron with one or two pieces of the puzzle he/she is trying to solve. Whatever the question, we are always fascinated by what we learn.

A request for information about a building in Helena arrived recently. The patron was interested in knowing when this structure was first built and who resided there, both of which are typically easy to ascertain.

After verifying that the building is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, we can use the Helena Polk City Directories to determine who currently resides at the address. We can also see who lived there when it was first built by searching under the street address (only in the Polk’s from 1929 to the present).

1954 Polk City Directory

When was it built, though? We used the current resident’s name found in the Polk City Directory to search for the property in the online Montana Cadastral database. Nothing came up, though.  Since this database is for valuation of property owned, the most likely explanation is that the person who resides or does business there is not the owner. If you don’t have a name to search, you can zoom in on the associated map. Once you select the correct plat, the corresponding data will display. The cadastral data indicates that this cabin was built in 1953 and we can verify that against the Polk Directory to see if the address is listed before 1953. It wasn’t. In addition, we can check our Helena Sanborn maps for surveys of that area. In the collection of 1930-revised-to-1953 maps, there was nothing surveyed above the 1500 block of 11th Avenue.

Because our patron also wanted information about the people who resided at that location, we must go back to the Polk City Directories and determine who lived there when. We tracked that ownership from the first resident to the present, noting each year the ownership changed.

From the Spokesman Review, November 11, 1951, p.2
The gem of this search, however, was learning about the first owner, Jean Barnes Allen, who resided and did business at 1807 11th Avenue. We were pleasantly surprised to find a vertical file for her and it held surprises of its own. Jean sold, from her home business, antler and horn carvings that she fashioned into buttons, belts, and jewelry.


From the Great Falls Tribune, November  18, 1962, p.2

The highlight of Jean’s life, though, was when she rode an eleven-year-old Morgan horse called Black Beauty 1500 miles from Deer Lodge, Montana to Chicago, by herself, for the Century of Progress Exposition of 1933, a trip that took sixty-eight days. Although on her own for the ride itself, and with only $10.00 in her pocket, she was greeted by fans and was welcomed into homes along the way. Of her experience in Chicago, she commented, “I had been told to watch out for gangsters in Chicago, but the only person I saw who looked like a gangster turned out to be an evangelist.”

From the Great Falls Tribune, November 18, 1962, p.2

We never know what we will learn, and will want to continue learning about, in our quest to help our patrons!

Sources:
Mac, ‘Tana. “Helena Woman recalls 1,500-Mile Ride on Horse.” Great Falls Tribune, November 18, 1962.
Friesen, Phyllis L. “When Extra Money Needed…Hobby Became Career.” Great Falls Tribune, March 29, 1970.
Helton, Dorothy. “Montana Headline Girl Runs Side-of-the-road Shop” Spokesman Review, November 11, 1951.

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