December 9, 2016

How to Do Research in the Photograph Archives

Christy Eckerle, Associate Editor of Montana The Magazine of Western History

In a collection of more than 500,000 historic photos, how do you find the one perfect photo you want? I face this quandary every day. As an associate editor for Montana The Magazine of Western History, it’s my job to gather the historic photos that illustrate each article.

This sign stood by the highway near Eureka, Montana, a
t the height of the region’s Christmas tree boom. Richard
C. Shirley, photographer, MHS Photograph Archives, Helena,
PAc 99-34 p. 28 24a
Our forthcoming Winter 2016 issue features an article about western Montana’s Christmas tree industry, which boomed between 1926 and the 1950s with much of the activity centered around the town of Eureka. So, I had to find photographs of people cutting and shipping Christmas trees near Eureka in the twentieth century.

Luckily, the Photograph Archives here at the Montana Historical Society are a treasure trove of historic images. I started my search with the Research Center’s marvelous online catalog. I typed “Christmas tree” and narrowed my results to photos. The eight results included photos of Christmas trees at celebrations, but nothing of the industry itself. So, I tried searching “Eureka.” Among descriptions of photos of the local baseball team and postcards of the town, I found a collection called “Tobacco Valley News photos.” The description read: “Photographs taken to document information and events for the Tobacco Valley Newspaper of Eureka, Montana.”

Lois Workman ties trees at the J. Hofert Christmas Tree Company yard,
circa 1950s.  Richard C. Shirley, photographer, MHS Photograph Archives,
Helena, PAc 99-34 4x5


With the catalog number of the collection (PAc 99-34) jotted down on a scratch paper, I headed for the Photograph Archives.
Handing a catalog number to an archivist is like handing a claim ticket to an infinitely knowledgeable valet. The archivist whisks the boxes you desire from their temperature-controlled storage room, sets them on a reading table, and hands you a pair of gloves.

The collection, “Tobacco Valley News photos,” is an unprocessed collection. Unprocessed means that no archivist has yet done his or her scientific and thorough sorting, arranging, and indexing of it. The collection remains in the disorganized state it was in when the donor dropped it off and the archivist plunked it into an acid-free Gaylord box.

Side note: most archives have many unprocessed collections—the culprit is understaffing and underfunding. Archivists spend much of their time helping us eager yet uninformed researchers answer questions like “Do you have any photos of cowboys?” (The answer, by the way, is: “We have several thousand. Can you be more specific?”) Even the most dedicated archivist has only so much time to divide between helping patrons and cataloging collections. So, should you ever run into the maddening phrase unprocessed collection in your research, instead of getting upset, consider donating to help solve the problem.

Jim Fuller’s family works together to bale Christmas trees at the
G. R. Kirk Tree Company yard in Eureka, circa October 1969.
Steve Shirley, photographer, MHS Photograph Archives, Helena,
PAc 99-34 p. 25 17a
Anyway, I had a strong hunch that the collection of Tobacco Valley News photos contained images of the Christmas tree industry. With no index to guide me, I sorted through photo by photo. And my hunch proved right. I found scores of images of people cutting, baling, and shipping Douglas fir trees.

The only remaining problem was that many of these photographs were unidentified. No dates, locations, or names were listed. I could, of course, sift through decades of the Tobacco Valley News on microfilm to try to find the photos with their original captions. But, I was saved from this daunting task by serendipity.
Workers load Christmas trees on a Great Northern Railway
freight car at the Eureka station, November or December 1972.
Richard C. Shirley, photographer, MHS Photograph Archives,
Helena, PAc 99-34 p. 324 9

While I was looking through the collection, the son of the former editor of the Tobacco Valley News walked into the Photograph Archives reading room. How such a coincidence is possible, that he should drive down from Eureka on the very day that I was looking at his father’s photographs, I don’t know. But he identified all the unidentified photographs that I wanted.

So, after my determined searching with the help of an archivist and a lot of luck, when Montana The Magazine of Western History subscribers open up their Winter issue in a few weeks, they’ll see these marvelous photos with captions chalk-full of information—not only about western Montana’s Christmas tree industry, but also about the people who worked it.

P.S. If you’d like to receive Montana, you can subscribe online or by calling (406) 444-4708.

P.P.S If you want to do research at the Montana Historical Society but can’t make it in person, you can submit a research request, and one of our talented staff members will help you.