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.