September 2, 2011

Ephemeral Summer

 This summer we had the pleasure of working with Sean Leahy, an intern from the Pratt School of Information and Library Science in New York. Sean's focus over his 8 week stay was the Library's Ephemera Collection. Sean worked on clarifying the organization of the collection, and on digitizing a sample of the collection. Below is an excerpt from his end of project report.

"Part archival object, part work of art, and part printed matter, the items that make up a collection of ephemera can be difficult to define and therefore difficult to organize and describe. Though the history of collecting ephemera is centuries-old, it is only in recent years that ephemera has become the focus of serious research. Particularly when investigating the social life and customs of a particular group, era, or region, examples of ephemera can illuminate what historians in the past have overlooked or obscured."
The Ephemera Collection dates to the 1980s and its primary focus is materials deemed to be fragile, rare, or unusual. Generally, the items are more than thirty years old and of some graphical interest. The collection is particularly strong in materials related to Helena. These range from political campaign materials to tourist information brochures, hotel menus to shoe store ads. The bulk of the items date from 1885 to 1910, documenting the end of the territory and the early years of statehood, as Helena grew to be one of the richest towns in the United States and an important destination along the Northern Pacific Railway. The strengths within the Helena materials are the programs from various social clubs, the extensive collection of theater programs, and the amazing variety of business advertisements. In addition to the Helena files, there are a number of folders devoted to tourism in Montana in general. The materials, many of which were published by the Montana State Highways Department, suggest routes, sights, and activities (mainly fishing) to travelers. These date mostly from between 1930 and 1950 and offer a researcher some especially interesting graphic material and a sense of Montana identity in the age of automobile travel, i.e., the last place to get a taste of the Wild West. Finally, there are two folders related to the Montana Club that contain a number of fascinating items. While the majority of the items are invitations to various events hosted by the Club (particularly their annual New Year’s Eve “Smoker”), they contain interesting caricatures of club members and humorous songs and toasts, all displayed on well-designed, nicely printed sheets.

We really appreciate the work that Sean did on this collection and hope that you find the collection useful in your research.

The Ephemera File Index can be found on the Montana Historical Society’s online wiki. To see more of the MHS Library ephemera collection, visit the MHS Library Collection on the Montana Memory Project.

April 8, 2011

Secrecy, war planes and belligerent nations

What do secrecy, war planes, and belligerent nations have to do with Montana? More than you might think. A recent research request put me on the trail of training planes sold to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1939 and 1940. The request asked for confirmation of these planes being flown to Sweet Grass, Montana and then being pulled across the border into Canada. Newspapers proved to be the place to find this information. Using our subscription to Access Newspaper Archive I was able to find articles in the Lethbridge Herald that confirmed this had taken place. Then I started looking at similar dates in the Shelby Promoter and Great Falls Tribune. The first 5 planes crossed the border on November 19, 1939. Ten more followed within a week. The November 27, 1939 Great Falls Tribune ran a large article with several photos that detailed the plan. A small article in the Montana Standard on December 13, 1940 stated that 100 planes would be delivered to Canada through Great Falls. The U.S. Neutrality Act would not allow U.S. pilots to fly across a belligerent nation (Canada was at war with Germany) or allow for flight across the US by people from a belligerent nation. The North American Aviation Company was getting around the law by flying the planes to Sweet Grass, and then having them towed across the border by Canadian civilians. RCAF members could not touch the plane until it was firmly on Canadian soil. If they crossed the border into the United States they could be interned for the duration of the war. The cash and carry law was replaced by the Lend-Lease Act in March of 1941.

Learn more about the Cash and Carry amendment to the U.S. Neutrality act here:

Read about the Lend-Lease program and see the actual bill text here:

March 4, 2011

Reflections on a Woman Homesteader

Guest post by Christy Goll, Assistant Editor, Montana The Magazine of Western History.

I read last month's post about the county history books on the Montana Memory Project until I got to the third paragraph—and then I stopped in shock. Lois Imler Warren? She was my great grandmother!

March is Women’s History Month. What better time to do a little research on a female ancestor? I searched for Lois Imler Warren on the Montana Memory Project, and found her diary printed in east Blaine County’s history, Thunderstorms and Tumbleweeds. Lois came to Montana in 1914 to join her brothers Albert and Frank and took a homestead on the Big Flat near Turner. Her diary is a glimpse into the life of a woman homesteader.

"I got up at 5 to get breakfast for Albert," she wrote soon after arriving in Montana. "Made some soap from some cracklins and lie [sic] that were here. Made a cupboard of three shelves from a few boxes and put the dishes into it. In the afternoon I washed up the dirty clothes the boys had laying around the shack. I had to put them through the boil suds and boiling twice and they was somewhat ashamed of them."

But Lois didn’t work so hard every day. On January 10, she "Got up at 10:00. L.D. [Lowell Warren, who was courting her] came down with eggs so I could bake a birthday cake. Audra and T. Simons came over at 3:00. They stayed all night. We played cards & checkers had popcorn & apples."

A month later, Lowell took a trip back east. While he was gone, Lois’s entries grew shorter: "Did fancy work & usual chores," she wrote on February 23. On March 26 Lois wrote: "I felt quite blue in the morning and read over all of Lowell’s letters to me and the tears ran down my cheeks." But the day had a happy ending—when Lois went out in the evening to do the chores, she "saw L.D. come around the barn." Two days later, they took the train to Havre and were married. For entertainment that evening, they "took in city" and attended a lecture at the high school on "Booze and business."
What a fascinating woman! Her story is one of many; the Montana Memory Project is a good starting place to find out about your own ancestors. You’ll find even more resources at the Montana Historical Society Research Center. What will you discover about the women in your family?

My favorite discovery? Lois and L. D.’s wedding photo. It turns out that I look just like her.

Christy Goll, March 2011

Lowell and Lois Warren on their wedding day, March 28, 1915

February 14, 2011

New resource for genealogists goes live

Cover: Wheels Across Montana's Prairie If a book like Montana: A History of Two Centuries offers the “macro” history of our state, county histories give us the “micro.” With a generous grant from Humanities Montana, the Society recently digitized 23 Montana county history books comprising more than 11,000 pages. These books are now available on the Montana Memory Project, an online tool that enables users to type a search term and instantly retrieve any page on which the term appears. A treasure trove for family historians with Montana roots, the collection currently includes histories of Big Horn, Blaine, Dawson, Fallon, Garfield, Hill, Lincoln, McCone, Musselshell, Pondera, Prairie, Richland, Roosevelt, Sheridan, Stillwater, Toole, Treasure, Wheatland and Wibaux counties.

Varying in size from one hundred pages to one thousand, each county history presents the story of one piece of Montana, told by those who lived it. Typically, the books are organized into hundreds of first-hand accounts, each focusing on a single family, homestead, event, or institution. This fiercely narrow focus reflects the books’ creators—not academics or theorists but everyday folks driven by curiosity and affection.

And the riches these books reveal? Where else can you find a hand-drawn map of Big Sheep Mountain with each family’s homestead carefully penciled in? Or a captioned photograph of the 1928 girls’ basketball team in Terry, Montana? (Wheels Across the Prairie) How about a complete transcription of homesteader Lois Imler Warren’s 1914-16 diary? (Thunderstorms and Tumbleweeds) Or Dora Jarrett’s memory of riding a horse six miles—then walking another mile and a half—to her first teaching job at age 19? The horse, Dora explains, was deposited in the last available shelter, because “horses were more valuable than teachers.” [Horizons O'er the Musselshell]

A good portion of county history projects were conceived and nurtured by the local women’s club. Sometimes, funds were raised and a professional writer commissioned. But more often, content was collected by a “book committee,” who visited, telephoned and wrote to hundreds of residents, asking them to contribute memories, stories and photos. [For more on women’s clubs in Montana, see this March 2009 blog post.] Such a project was years in the making and undertaken only for a significant milestone, such as the county’s 100th birthday. When the manuscript was finally ready, it often went to press at the offices of the local newspaper.

It was a privilege to work with these remarkable books and to make them accessible in digital form. They are not just a record of an area’s past. They are a testament to the pride of its citizens: pride in a community and its longevity but especially in the struggles, hard work, and enterprise of those who built and sustained it.