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Collecting a cacophony of Montana's stories

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Jennifer Bottomly-O'Looney, senior museum curator at the Montana Historical Society in Helena, talks about paintings in the museum's art vault by Edgar S. Paxson, at top, and Ralph DeCamp. The museum's most valuable and famous works, including paintings and bronzes by Charles M. Russell, are housed in the vault when not on exhibit.

HELENA – Those aren’t voices you hear as you descend the steps to the storage rooms of the Montana Historical Society.

Or are they?

Does Charlie Russell, whose art is so prominently displayed up on the museum’s main floor, spin yarns about the rest of his 232 pieces down here in the art vault?

Maybe that’s Tommy Cruse, the illiterate Irishman who struck it rich up at Marysville, extolling the virtues of his electric bathrobe over there in the textile section.

You don’t know Mary Frances Benton Connor, but way back in archival storage, secured from the public but bursting with Montana stories, comes the plaintive voice of the 54-year-old schoolteacher. She’s in Goldstone, a hop and jump from Canada in northern Hill County and, well, she’s not particularly enamored with things.

“Childhood was never, ever meant/In such a land as this to be spent,” Mary Frances moans. “Of grownups too I have my doubts/If they were meant to settle hereabouts.”

She wrote those lines on May 11, 1921, a Wednesday, and the AABB rhyme scheme is no accident. The historical society received Benton’s 1921 diary from a donor.

“She writes the entire thing in verse. Doesn’t break stride once,” Rich Aarstad marveled last week. “And she doesn’t wax poetically about the prairie and the prairie school. She bitches about her students, bitches about her family, complains about them always wanting money from her. It’s great stuff.”


Housed in archival storage is the 1921 diary of Mary Frances Benton Connor, a school teacher in northern Hill County. Benton wrote the entire diary in rhyming verse.

To Aarstad, senior manuscript archivist at the historical society, this is every bit as important to the collection as, say, the Abraham Lincoln signatures in 1864 on appointments of Sidney Edgerton as Montana Territory’s first governor and of Hezekiah Hosmer as territorial chief justice.

“We have what I like to call the high and mighty, and then we have the average people,” Aarstad said. “Those are the ones that really tell a story of Montana.”

It’s an issue of pertinence.


Rich Aarstad, senior manuscript archivist, stands in one section of the museum's manuscript collection housed in compact storage units that replaced a clutter of boxes and cupboards in 2013-2014.

Attempts to fund and build a bigger, better Montana Heritage Center have been ongoing for more than a decade. Staff and supporters say the current museum and research center in a 1950 building across North Roberts Street from the state Capitol is, among other things, bursting at the seams, outdated and unbefitting of the gem of a collection it houses.

The proposed center as currently designed would be expanded downhill to the north, with a concourse and exhibit area under Sixth Avenue connecting old to new. Its price tag of $37.5 million in 2005 has ballooned to $44 million, and there are a couple of proposals across the street at the Legislature to get it built.

One would increase a state tax on lodging. Another would require the historical society to sell off up to $50 million worth of its 60,000-piece collection to fund it.

Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, sponsored the latter solution.

“We all sometimes have to sell things we don’t want to,” Lenz said at a House Administration committee hearing Thursday. “I’d suggest to you there may be a fine line between a hoard and a museum.”


The Montana Historical Society is housed in the 1950 Veterans and Pioneers Memorial Building across North Roberts Street from the state Capitol. The society has tried for years to procure state funding to expand its facility in order to display and house more of the artifacts, photographs and documents that belong to all the people of Montana.

The difference is in the eye of the beholder.

At the state Historical Society, established in Virginia City the year after Montana became a territory, a five-person museum acquisition committee is charged with vetting potential donations.

It’s a job fraught with responsibility.

“We’ve been in existence since 1865, and we’ve been collecting that entire time,” said Amanda Streeter Trum, curator of collections.

Would-be donors are asked to fill out questionnaires, explaining the stories and particulars of their articles.

“We consider things like the space we have available to care for these things and whether we have duplicates of these items already,” Trum said. “Of course the main thing is that we want to see that there is a specific connection to Montana history.”

Bev Donaldson of Helena knows and approves of how the system works. She lives just up the street from the museum. A few years ago Donaldson lined up her collection of vintage clothes from the 1940s through the '60s and invited staff to her home to see if any of it was museum material.

“Beautiful things, exquisite fabrics, unusual styles,” Donaldson said. “They took pictures and ended up keeping probably half of it.”

That’s how an “old-time” bathing suit and cap came into the museum’s possession. Among other items Donaldson has given to the museum is the green 4-H jacket that belonged to her late husband, state legislator and education advocate Gene Donaldson. She grew up in Cut Bank, he in the Helena Valley.

They met as teenagers at Camp Neihardt 4-H camp.

“I’ve chosen to donate things to the museum because I see items that are part of growing up and they’re unknown to the generation of today,” Donaldson said. “As the years go by we don’t think of history until we’re older, and my grandchildren have not identified with the same things I grew up with.”

To illustrate her point, Donaldson told the story of sending one of her grandchildren to fetch a simple shoehorn. After an inordinately long wait, she said, “I realized he didn’t know what a shoehorn was.”


A lace-making pillow is among some 60,000 artifacts in the museum collection.


Frequent or even occasional visitors to the Montana Historical Society over the decades will recognize a few icons. The entrance to the Mackay Gallery of Russell Art at the far end of the lobby is still graced by the heroic-scale bronze of C.M. Russell, Montana’s “cowboy artist.” There’s the buffalo jump diorama created in the early 1950s by Gardell Dano Christensen and completed by artist Leslie H. Peters. Big Medicine, the sacred white buffalo from the National Bison Range that died in 1959, remains mounted in a second-floor display.

Downstairs, the museum’s main storage room is accessible to the public, although you’re asked to set up an appointment in advance.

It looks much as you’d expect: a long room of concrete, lined by paintings, drawers, benches and tables, gewgaws and curiosities. Propped in the corner are two inordinately long wooden skis that were part of the exhibit of photographer F. Jay Haynes upstairs for three decades.


An ornate radiator cap comes from one of museum's iconic Yellowstone National Park tour buses. 

There’s a separate room for saddles, tack, firearms and other weapons. Inside the climate-controlled (somewhat) art vault are 4,500 pieces by the likes of Russell, Edgar S. Paxson, and Ralph DeCamp – the trio represented by murals in the Capitol.

Assiniboine artist William Standing is also represented, and there’s a color pencil sketch Haynes produced showing himself photographing a Native American party, with mosquitoes buzzing around his head. “Night Attack in Indian Country,” he called it.

Much of the museum’s Native American selection is stored farther back, in drawers labeled pipes and toys, beaded vests and dresses.

Headdresses are stored in individual, custom-made boxes, sitting high on a top shelf.

“They’re often very fragile,” Trum said. “So to view them we take the lid off the top of the box and undo ties on the side so the front comes down. Then we pull out the tray that the headdress is sitting on. That way you don’t try to pull it out of the top.”

“These things are very much treated with respect,” said Tom Cook, the historical society’s public information officer.


Moccasins from the Gros Ventre in northern Montana are stored in a cabinet along with hundreds of other Native American items.

He remembers back in the early 1990s when the museum received Sitting Bull’s 1866 Henry repeating rifle, one taken from the Lakota Sioux holy man on the day he was killed in 1890.

“We actually had all kinds of elders come in from Standing Rock,” Cook said. “They did a sweetgrass ceremony and looked at it for its religious symbolism. It was amazing.”

Cook stopped beside a pile of colorful picket signs. Some were solicited, others showed up at the front door after the Jan. 21 Women’s March of Montana at the Capitol.

“History doesn’t stop,” he said.

None of the signs are part of the museum collection yet, said senior curator Jennifer Bottomly-O’Looney. But they represent an important part of Montana’s story. The crowd of women, men and children was estimated at 10,000.

“There’s never been a march of that number of people,” Bottomly-O’Looney said.

Still, history is nonpartisan.

“In addition to selecting a representation of offered signs from the Women’s March, we are soliciting Montana-related President (Donald) Trump items, ideally something that a Montanan wore or used such as ‘Make America Great’ or other related memorabilia,” she said. “This is part of our mission to collect continuing Montana history.”


Tom Cook describes how the museum is in the process of evaluating signs carried by participants in the Women's March in Helena in January. The society is also looking for items related to President Donald Trump and the 2016 election.


The citizens of Montana own a pair of Big Dorothy’s black heels. The madam of Helena operated a brothel in Last Chance Gulch until it was raided and shut down in 1973. Dorothy Baker died less than a month later.

“I think these are good example of the breadth of items we collect here,” Trum said, holding up a nightie she said belonged to “one of Dorothy’s girls.”

The sheer gown still sports a cigarette burn.

“The presence and use of brothels is always a popular subject," Trum said. "It’s a part of our history and has been a part of our history since Europeans started moving out.”


Amanda Streeter Trum, curator of museum collections, holds a nightgown used by a woman who worked for Dorothy Baker, the well-known madam Big Dorothy who ran a brothel in Helena until 1973.

Two floors up, Jeff Malcomson opens an album from what has quickly become a prize addition to the photo archives he patrols, one that contains somewhere north of half a million photograph items.

Fred Miller was a land clerk at Crow Agency from 1898-1910 and carried a camera to prove it. The Crow called him Boxpotapesh and after his death in 1936 his collection of glass plates, negatives and prints was sold at auction and scattered around the country. Beginning in the 1970s, Miller’s daughter and granddaughter set out to reconstruct his body of work, Malcomson said.

That granddaughter, Nancy Fields O’Connor, completed the project before she died in 2014. A University of Montana graduate, O’Connor married another UM grad, Carroll O’Connor, who was making a name as Archie Bunker of "All In the Family" about that time.

In January, the Montana Historical Society officially came into possession of the Miller collection as a donation. It consists of 135 glass-plate negatives and something less than 1,000 vintage or original prints, which had been turned over to a specialty shop. It came to Helena with its components cleaned and complete with housings for the glass plate negatives, casings and mattings for the vintage prints and a bar-coding system.

“It’s really a remarkable collection because of that,” Malcomson said. “We’ve never gotten a collection with anything close to this amount of work. Everything is pristine and very nicely conserved.”

Why here?

“It was created in Montana. Obviously they were attracted to us for that reason, and also just because we have the facilities and staff to care for a collection like this and can make them available and accessible to researchers and the public,” Malcomson said. “I think the quote was they felt like the collection was coming home.”


Jeff Malcomson, a photograph archivist, holds an album of prints made by Fred E. Miller, who photographed the Crow tribe in Montana around the turn of the 20th century. The collection of prints and glass plates was donated to the Historical Society by the Carroll & Nancy O'Connor Foundation, which had already archived the material to museum quality.


There’s a lot of bad reasons to sell off any of the historical society’s collection, let alone $50 million of it, Bruce Whittenberg argued last week.

“Probably the most important is the public trust that would be violated after 152 years of collecting, preserving and telling Montana’s stories,” said Whittenberg, who as director carries the museum’s banner into legislative battles.

He appreciates Lenz’s interest in helping find a way in tight state budget times to pay for the new heritage center.

“It’s just not a good way,” he said.

No one knows how much the entire collection is worth, and Whittenberg’s staff figures it would cost millions just to find out. Certainly at least some of the Russell works are worth in the millions, and the Paxsons, Remingtons and the entire collections of Blackfeet sculptor/artist Bob Scriver are difficult to monetize.

“This,” said Aarstad, “is a phenomenal collection. I mean, there’s just no way to describe what it covers and what it contains.”


Tom Cook, public information officer for the Montana Historical Society, describes the museum's collection of Bob Scriver's life work donated in 2000. The collection of bronzes and other articles is so extensive the museum built an off-site warehouse to house it.

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian