October 25, 2018

A Unique View of the Yellowstone Valley

Kelly Burton
MHS Film Archivist

A procession featuring members of the Crow Indian Tribe
 and local Catholics, near Pryor, ca. early-1930s.
The Montana Historical Society’s 45th annual conference was recently held in Billings, and the theme for this year’s event was “history from the Yellowstone Valley.” Conversations at the gathering inevitably addressed individuals that had made significant contributions to the history of Billings, and “Snook” was one of the family names that came up repeatedly among attendees. Earl Snook was a painter and decorator from Ohio who moved to the Fort Peck area when it was opened to homesteaders. Earl lived and worked on ranches in the Musselshell area until he was married in California in 1909 to his wife, Eleanor. The couple soon opened a paint and wallpaper shop in downtown Billings, which eventually expanded to include artist supplies, books and model airplanes. In the 1930s, the Snooks began acquiring what would become a sprawling 800-acre ranch along the crown of Sacrifice Cliff on the east side of Billings. Maintaining both the ranch and Snook Art Company in Billings, the family began to collect art and forge acquaintances with artists and writers such as Will James, Ernest Hemingway, Hans Kleiber, Bell Rock, Joseph Henry Sharp, and Joe DeYong.

Man riding a camel in the Shriners parade, downtown Billings, ca. early-1950s.
Virginia Snook, the only child of Eleanor and Earl, was born in Billings on June 6, 1911. After departing for Seattle in 1936 to attend Cornish School of the Arts, Virginia returned to Billings in the late 1930s to work in the family store and continue strong relationships with regional artists. After many decades of collecting artwork and supporting local creativity, Virginia was encouraged by Donna Forbes of the Yellowstone Art Museum to make a gift of the family’s collection. The friendship the family enjoyed with celebrated western artist and writer Will James is evidenced by the museum’s Virginia Snook Collection, which represents the largest collection of James art in the world. Virginia passed away on September 13, 2000 at the age of eighty-nine, and the family business closed in 2001 after serving the Billings area for almost a century.

Virginia Snook on horseback, ca. early-1940s.
In 2014, a collection of motion picture films created by the Snook Family was donated to the Historical Society by Marjorie Brown – Virginia’s longtime friend – on behalf of the Snook Estate. The collection consists of forty-two reels of 16mm motion picture film, and it serves as a dynamic document of life in the Yellowstone Valley from the early 1930s to the early 1950s. Highlights from the Snook Family collection include regional fairs and rodeos, parades, Snook ranch activities, gatherings on the Crow Indian Reservation, horse auctions, equestrian quadrilles, and images of the cliffs and canyons around Billings. The family also documented several trips away from their familiar Billings surroundings, including a pack trip to the newly-established Grand Teton National Park ca. 1931, a visit to California ca. 1932, and the bullfights and architecture of Mexico ca. 1945.

Senator Burton K. Wheeler speaking
at a Billings area fair, ca. mid-1940s.
Earl Snook appears to have enjoyed a unique relationship with members of the Crow Nation, as is evidenced from several important films from this collection. Plenty Coups lived from 1848-1932, and he was the Ashbachee√≠tche – or “chief of the camp” – of the Mountain Crow Band of the Crow Nation. Plenty Coups began building the log homestead seen in the Snook film on 320 acres of Crow Indian Reservation land near Pryor, Montana in 1884, and in 1928 he and his wife presented 189 acres of his land in trust to Big Horn County for what is now Chief Plenty Coup State Park. Earl filmed a gathering of Crow Indian Tribal members at this homestead in the early 1930s, with several of the chief’s notable log structures serving as backdrops. In addition to this meeting, Earl also filmed a procession near an unidentified Catholic mission in the Pryor area. This procession footage shows members of the Crow Nation and the Catholic church walking together down a rural road and gathering in front of a small area mission. Given the date of the film and the fact that Earl Snook took still photographs of the funeral of Chief Plenty Coups in 1932 (MHS photograph collection Lot 35), these gatherings may have represented tributes to the life of the Crow chief.

Gathering at the home of Chief Plenty Coups on the Crow Indian Reservation, ca. early-1930s.
One of the more novel events to happen on the Snook ranch was the filming of battle scenes for the Paramount Pictures film Warpath. The film was directed by Byron Haskin, and it stars Edmond O’Brien, Dean Jagger, Forrest Tucker, Harry Carey Jr. and Polly Bergen. Based around a Seventh cavalry detachment scouting expedition out of Ft. Lincoln near Bismarck, N.D. in 1876, the film portrays the events leading up to the tragic Battle of the Little Bighorn. The film itself was made with the cooperation of the Crow Indian Tribe, Montana Film Office, City of Billings, Yellowstone County Fair Board, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, and many of the battle scenes were staged on the Snook ranch. Earl Snook shot 30 minutes of home movie footage during the filming of Warpath, a fact that was noted in one of the many newspaper articles covering the production: “Earl Snook, on whose ranch most of the battle scenes are being taken has been a continuous visitor on the set. He has been taking his own action movies along with the studio camera.” (Billings Herald, September 7, 1950) Billings also hosted the world premiere of Warpath at its Fox and Babcock Theatres in 1951, though this party remains sadly undocumented in the Snook Family films.

Harry Carey Jr. and Polly Bergen on the set of the Paramount Pictures feature Warpath, filmed in 1950.