April 21, 2020

Spring Cleaning adds to depth and breadth of MHS archives collections

by Rich Aarstad, Senior Archivist

The first quarter of calendar year 2020 started with a crush.  In just three months, the Montana Historical Society Research Center added 425 linear feet of records to our archival holdings, greatly enhancing our labor history and corporate history collections. Now if you are wondering how much 425 feet is...think one football field plus four first downs and you get an idea of the size!  Below are some of the highlights of these new materials now in our permanent collections.

Montana Public Employees' Association—80 linear feet dating between 1945 and 2017. While this is a stand-alone collection, it has intellectual ties to the Montana Education Association, Montana Federation of Teachers, and MEA-MFT records already held at by MHS.

Established in 1945 to promote a retirement system for public employees (state, county, and municipal), MPEA merged with MEA-MFT in 2018 creating the Montana Federation of Public Employees.
The MPEA Master Contract has withstood the test of time as it commemorates its 44th year.
MFPE-MDT Local 3511
Courtesy Local President David Krause

Montana AFL-CIO—285 linear feet dating between 1923 and 2016. This new donation fills in the Montana AFL-CIO collection already held by MHS: MC 341 Montana State AFL-CIO records 1896-2000.

Onsite storage of MT AFL-CIO records
Tailgate preliminary processing
Jeff Malcomson, Photograph Archives Manager, and Roberta Gebhardt, Library Manager, lend a much needed hand.
Senior Photograph Archivist, Kellyn Younggren packing up historic photos.
Archivist's Toolkit

Montana Power Company—60 linear feet  dating between 1896 and 1999. This transfer from the Butte Silver Bow Public Archives is the missing link that pulls together UPMC 6 Montana Power Company records 1885-1979 and MC 268 Montana Power Company Predecessor Company records 1880-1947.

How many feet of archival records can you fit in a 1/2 ton four-door pickup with canopy. Turns out 60 linear feet!
Ingesting the collection.
Archivist's best friend—the 3 shelf cart

April 13, 2020

Musings from an Exhibit Designer

by Roberta Jones-Wallace

“Long sleeves” prepared for exhibition along with other items of clothing which it might have been worn (MHS catalog numbers 1986.79.21, 1986.79.94, 1986.79.105, and L2014.08.05)

Numerous activities occur behind the scenes here at the Montana Historical Society. Newly acquired artifacts coming in must be catalogued, condition-reported, and carefully stored. Later, when we look at objects, or art, for possible exhibition, we assess items by their looks, sure, but also for their back story (their provenance), their condition (in need of conservation, or good to go?), and how well they fit the story we are trying to tell.

We look at their mounting needs (how we will display them) and case needs (how we will protect them). We think about how long an item will need to be on exhibit and plan ways to mitigate exposure for items susceptible to the damage caused by light. Clothing might need a mannequin; artwork, matting and framing; other items, small mounts or supports to allow them to “shine.” Archival and fragile paper items may need to be rotated in and out of the exhibit more frequently than less sensitive materials.

We also have to consider cultural context. We have in our collections a beautiful Chinese shirt, which we sent out for conservation in preparation of the exhibit, “Our Forgotten Pioneers: The Chinese in Montana.” When the shirt came back, the conservator made the comment that the person who wore it must have been a gorilla because the sleeves were inordinately long and the shirt itself quite broad. For each exhibit we produce, we must respect the customs and culture depicted. Our Chinese exhibit challenged us in many ways to try to depict the Chinese in Montana and show the clothing in our collections to our best understanding. In my scramble to understand this shirt and other items of clothing I had to reach into my poor memory banks—for I was sure I had seen images of Chinese wearing clothing with overly long sleeves. And indeed, I did find that the Chinese had quite rigorous protocol for clothing, color, and symbols which reflected social status and profession. This lovely shirt with its overlong sleeves may have been worn by a scholar, definitely someone of a higher status since the sleeves would interfere with manual labor.

Each exhibit we do, especially when depicting another culture, challenges my cultural bias—forcing me to try to be as sensitive as possible to representing our collections in the most respectful way I or we understand. We try to include consultants to help us in that endeavor, and to correct things when we get them wrong.

April 6, 2020

“Opposition makes me stronger for you:” The interconnected lives of Jeannette and Wellington D. Rankin

By Barrett Codieck

Jeannette and Wellington Rankin, circa 1914. Catalog #944-477. Montana Historical Society Research Center, Photograph Archives.

Montana history enthusiasts need no introduction to Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973), the first woman elected to the United States Congress. Over a dozen published biographies celebrate, mythologize, debunk, and simply seek to explain “Miss Jeannette.” Weaving in and out of every account of Jeannette’s life is the sometimes-enigmatic figure of her brother Wellington (1884-1966). No biographer can dismiss Wellington’s importance to his sister’s story, but the nature of the siblings’ relationship remains difficult to define. The Montana Historical Society Research Center holds newly expanded collections of the personal papers of both Rankins, offering new insights into these complex historical figures.

The Rankin family [date]: (L-R) Wellington, Harriet, John, Olive, Jeannette, and Philena. Catalog #Lot 039 B1F05.01. Montana Historical Society Research Center, Photograph Archives.

Besides the ties of family, two threads kept the Rankins connected throughout their lives: politics and money. Jeannette’s success in both of her elections were the result of favorable political circumstances and her great talent for organizing and campaigning in the field. However, both campaigns might never have happened without Wellington as campaign manager and financier. Once in office, Jeannette continued to seek Wellington’s political advice. Wellington was not shy to provide it, as he was dismayed by Jeannette’s antiwar votes and opposition to the all-powerful Anaconda Copper Mining Company.

Wellington’s opposition to Jeannette’s actions was not necessarily ideological, although the two siblings would drift in very different ideological directions over the years. Rather, Wellington seemed galled by his sister’s willingness to sacrifice her electability by embracing unpopular and politically dangerous positions. Given that Wellington would wage and lose eight campaigns for public office between 1914 and 1952, it is perhaps understandable that he considered electability to be a precious resource.

“I shall…vote my conviction regardless of future of political life.” Jeannette Rankin to Wellington Rankin, April 22, 1917. Jeannette Rankin papers, MC 147, box 1, folder 1, Montana Historical Society Research Center, Archives. (Hereafter JR papers)
“let your conviction be right and not sickly.” Wellington Rankin to Jeannette Rankin, April 22, 1917. JR papers, box 1, folder 1.
“Grieved at vote but opposition makes me stronger for you.” Wellington Rankin to Jeannette Rankin, April 28, 1917. In this case Wellington was partly misinformed, Jeannette had voted for a competing conscription bill instead of President Wilson’s. JR papers, box 1, folder 1.
“Mining companies no possible way to blame.” Wellington Rankin to Jeannette Rankin, June 20, 1917. Wellington correctly predicted Jeannette’s response to the Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine Disaster of 1917 and tried in vain to limit the political damage of opposing the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. JR papers, box 1, folder 1.

As critical as Wellington could be in private correspondence, in public he always maintained a united front with his sister. Even after Jeannette’s vote against entry into the Second World War made her politically toxic in Montana, Wellington refused to publicly criticize her during his own 1942 Senate run. Repaying loyalty with loyalty, during each of Wellington’s doomed campaigns Jeannette reached out to progressive and labor voters alienated by her brother’s increasing conservatism.

“My brother has been an active friend of labor always.” Jeannette Rankin to Edward Keating (editor of the newspaper Labor), June 11, 1934. Wellington D. Rankin papers, box 26, folder 4, Montana Historical Society Research Center, Archives. (Hereafter WR papers)

Money defined more than the Rankins’ political relationship, as Jeannette’s sources of income were often sporadic and unreliable while Wellington amassed an enormous fortune from his law practice, ranching empire, and business interests. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Jeannette relied upon Wellington’s financial support to care for their ailing mother and to afford expensive trips to Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. At the same time, she adopted an idiosyncratic and anti-materialistic personal lifestyle and her politics became increasingly anti-capitalistic. This uncomfortable dynamic sometimes strained the siblings’ relationship, but again never broke their fundamental family loyalty.

“You were very good to send me the checks. For anyone without a salary I’m getting on fine.” Jeannette Rankin to Wellington Rankin, January 24, 1940. WR papers box 2, folder 9.
“I feel very badly over all the horrid things I said…I really do appreciate all you have done…to make it possible for me to go to Europe.” Jeannette Rankin to Wellington Rankin, July 25, 1937. WR papers box 2, folder 9.

Jeannette and Wellington’s relationship was far from that of typical siblings, yet its complex dynamics were driven by a relatable mix of love, loyalty, resentment, rivalry, and extreme familiarity common to all families. These archival records complement our understanding of the past and ultimately humanizes its very human subjects.

Explore the full finding aids to the Jeannette Rankin and Wellington D. Rankin papers.

March 30, 2020

The Exhibits are Lonely!

By Roberta Jones-Wallace, MHS Exhibit Designer

The exhibits are lonely—their main visitors now are staff continuing to work in the building and security staff making their rounds.

How do the exhibits and collections fill their time?

In the Russell gallery, cowboys meet around a campfire (no concern here for social distancing) where they tell jokes and stories, reminisce about their lives, or dream about future possibilities.

Another group is disrupted by a bronc, who has either had too much coffee, or not enough. Or perhaps he is simply enforcing the social distancing rule.

Charlie is ever ready to spin a yarn and add color to your imagination. He’ll model you a mini animal—something his talented fingers can do without supervision—and will pull from his pocket a surprise. Knowing Charlie's affinity for horses, you bet that's what it's going to be; but no … it's a pig. How clever. You guessed wrong—this beer is on you!

March 9, 2020

Read All About It!

Montana’s Content on Chronicling America Grows

By Natasha Hollenbach, Digital Projects Librarian

Last September, I shared how we selected newspapers for our latest National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP) grant-funded project, which focuses on booms and busts after 1922. Now those titles are starting to appear on the Chronicling America website. As new papers come online, we’re going to share a little bit about why each paper was chosen. We hope this will serve as a reference, pique your interest, and encourage you to head to the site to search or browse.

Bozeman Courier (1921–1927)
Despite the agricultural depression starting in Montana immediately after World War I, the Courier doesn’t address the problem until 1926 and even then, it’s abstract. While several of the chosen papers deny that there are problems in the agricultural section, they are active and vocal in their denial. The Courier in contrast has no comment even while it is covering the extension school and including a weekly state livestock news section. While it might not take a stand on agriculture, the Courier definitely has political opinions. During this period, they are extremely isolationist and vocally Republican.

Carbon County Chronicle/Carbon County News/Red Lodge daily news combined with Carbon County News/ Carbon County News (1924–July 1945) Note: Right now, 1938–1945 is available online. This is one of the titles that was split across several batches.
Originally, we were going to digitize this paper starting with 1932, but by then the coal mines were mostly closed, so I extended the date range back. The extended date range includes not just the coal mine but rural electrification through the Beartooth Electric Co-operative, the intersection of transportation and tourism with the creation of the Beartooth Highway, the oil refinery which burned in 1941, CCC/WPA activities in the county, and fish hatcheries. Politically the Carbon County News is anti-New Deal, anti-Roosevelt, pro-business, and isolationist, which is an interesting combination with many of these topics.

Eureka Mirror(March 1932–November 1936)
The Mirror like most of the papers chosen have a little bit of everything, but something unusual that struck me was transportation. There is discussion of railroads, highways and airports, which is an area that we weren’t focusing on but that appears in several of the chosen titles, though not usually all in the same paper.

The Fort Peck Press (August 1934–May 1937)
The Fort Peck Press is specifically tied to the building of the dam. While many newspapers cover the Fort Peck Dam’s construction, the Press has weekly updates on how the project is developing. However, this coverage tends to be positive, so when scandal or controversy hits the dam, the Press usually ignores those stories.

Glasgow Courier (1942–1945)
Note: In a previous grant cycle we digitized 1915–1922.
We also want to recognize the boom and bust of military bases. While there were several other bases we could have used, the Glasgow Courier provides both a quick boom and bust cycle as well as a reasonable page count. In fact, my notes say that that I wanted to include 1946–1947 if page count allowed, but between this being one of the final papers chosen and the page count per issue increasing, it was necessary to stop at 1945.

Hungry Horse News (Aug 1946–1955)
Note: Currently, only Aug 1949–1954 is available online. The rest will be available soon.
There are a lot of things happening in this newspaper. The building of the Hungry Horse dam, the logging and Christmas tree industries, the story of the Anaconda Aluminium Company (from approval through building and opening to unionization), Forest Service activities and the Great Northern railroad. In addition to all that, it relays news from the surrounding communities.

The Kevin Courier/The Montana Courier/The Kevin Review (May 1922–June 1929)
If you’re discussing the oil industry in Montana, you have to include the Kevin Sunburst strike in the early 1920s, which kicked it all off. During this period, the Kevin papers shift from focusing almost solely on Kevin oil strikes to becoming a full-fledged community paper including local sports, automobiles, fiction, crossword puzzles, and the other material typical of community newspapers of the period.

Laurel Outlook (1944–1950)
We originally chose the Laurel Outlook for news about the refinery, and while it does have some discussion of that, it’s more valuable for its coverage of other topics including railroads, the local grain elevator, oil, veterans, and polio. We usually think of post-World War II as a boom era, but the Laurel Outlook shows the recovery and shortage issues of the immediate postwar era.

The Wolf Point Herald (1920–1932)
The Wolf Point Herald illustrates the depression era through its coverage of local events and institutions. The chosen date range shows how often businesses are changing hands and how hard the town is trying to attract employers. From grain elevators to oil and gas exploration, the Herald shows its community trying to adapt to the times.

February 28, 2020

J. P. Ball: Legendary African-American Photographer in Montana

Jeff Malcomson
Photograph Archives Manager
Montana Historical Society


Portrait of a music teacher, Helena,
ca.1887-1900 (Catalog # Lot 22 B8 F15 02)

From the unusual circumstance of being born to free black parents in 1825 Virginia, James Presley Ball lived a long life as a pioneering photographer and businessman.  Ball applied a portion of his pioneering spirit to his steady movement westward across the country, and another portion he applied to his early adoption and development of photographic skills and entrepreneurship.  Ball also pioneered as a social activist, using his photography for the advancement of African American rights and social and political acceptance.  [Ball’s intriguing life can be followed in an online exhibit created by the Cincinnati History Library and Archives where you can also browse or search nearly 300 of his photographs .

J. P. Ball arrived in Helena, Montana, late in life sometime in the fall of 1887, just two years before Montana achieved statehood.  He was an experienced and successful photographer, having worked decades since 1845 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and many other locations.  He strongly supported the abolition of slavery prior to the Civil War, and in the years following it he continued to promote the political and social advancement of African Americans.  His son, J. P. Ball, Jr. came to Helena with him, sharing his father’s political views and his father’s business, a photography studio then known as J. P. Ball and Son.  J. P. Ball Jr. published and edited a short-lived newspaper in Helena called The Colored Citizen, while his father remained active in the Republican Party and at one time served as president of the Afro-American Club, a state-wide support group for the black community in Montana.  Ball saw the Montana Territory become a state in 1889, Helena become the state capital in 1894, and he photographed the laying of the cornerstone for the Montana State Capitol building in 1899.  Ball followed his son to Seattle in 1900 and died in 1904.


Ball photographed a series of views from the ceremony to lay the cornerstone of the Montana State Capitol building in Helena on the 4th of July 1899 (Catalog # 957-627).

Though very little of his written record remains in Montana, Ball’s photographic legacy in the Treasure State is preserved through over 100 known Ball photographs in the collections of the Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives. He was first and foremost a master of studio portraiture; most of his extant work is individual studio portraits. Ball served all members of the Helena community, taking portraits of a U. S. Senator, a Chinese cook, an immigrant family fresh from Europe, and many other Helenans, both white and black. However, he occasionally took his camera outside to photograph significant events. His work documenting two public executions in Helena in 1896 is some of the most intriguing work by any photographer in 19th century Montana. We recently digitized over twenty of Ball’s more interesting photos. These can be browsed here on the Montana Memory Project. Several select images are displayed below.


Portrait of 'Tex' Rose, the long-time caretaker
at the Broadwater Hotel in Helena,
ca. 1891-1900 (Catalog # 957-598)
Portrait of an unidentified man, ca.1887-1900
(Catalog # 957-602)
Portrait of William Biggerstaff, a convicted
murderer, prior to his public hanging,
April 1896 (Catalog # 957-610)
Portrait of the body of William Biggerstaff, after his public hanging, April 1896 (Catalog # 957-613). For Ball’s images of his public execution and that of William Gay see the photos on the Montana Memory Project link above.

February 6, 2020

Happy Valentine's Day , Love Charlie

Jennifer Bottomly-O'looney
Senior Curator
Montana Historical Society


My Valentine by Charles M. Russell
watercolor and gouache, ca. 1896-1897, 18” H x 15½” W
Historical Society Collection, Gift of Mrs. Charles L. Sheridan in memory of Lela V. Roberts, X1954.03.03

In My Valentine the artist surrounds the beautiful central figure with a decidedly Russell-esque sinuous, heart-shaped frame and places two putti floating next to her.

After a courtship of just over one-year Charlie and Nancy Russell—whom Charlie called Mame or Mamie—were married on September 9, 1896, in a ceremony at the home of their good friends Ben and Lela Roberts. It was in the Roberts’s home in Cascade where Russell had first met Nancy the year before. The bride wore a blue wedding dress that Lela Roberts made for her.  The event was newsworthy. As the Anaconda Standard on reported on September 13:

“Wednesday evening at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. B. R. Roberts, Miss Mamie Mann and Charles M. Russell were united in marriage by Rev. B. W. Pierce. Many guests were present and after the ceremony the party sat down to an elaborate collation. The occasion was one of the most pleasant social events ever held in Cascade where the couple have many friends.” The Standard noted that “Charley Russell, the happy groom, is known all over the west as the ‘Cowboy Artist’… [and] now more than ever before [he] will confine himself to his profession. In the classic language of Charley, he’s ‘done settled down to business and can’t trot with the gang anymore.’”

The couple honeymooned in the small twelve by twenty-four-foot shack behind the Robert’s house, where they would make their first home.

Charlie was persuaded to paint this very atypical, and romantic watercolor, My Valentine, for his friend Lela, who used it as a sign for a candy booth set up as a fund-raiser for a church social in Cascade. It was given to the Montana Historical Societyin 1954 in memory of the donor’s mother, Lela V. Roberts.