George F. Wentworth died long ago, in 1940, and far away, in New Hampshire.
But you could discern a few things about the man by picking up a $5 book in the specialty section of the Friends of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula’s annual book sale at Heritage Hall.
The tiny “Pocket Guide To the Common Land Birds of New England” was written in 1895 by a professor of zoology at Wellesley College. On the flyleaf inside is Wentworth’s signature in flourishing handwriting, along with “Dover, N.H.” and the year 1899.
So we know Wentworth was a birder. Somehow in the past century or so, his book made its way to Missoula, and when presale workers were going through it they discovered something else about him: He was either a romantic or superstitious.
Pressed inside the pages of the book are a number of four-leaf clovers.
“These have to be like 100-year-old clovers,” Jessie Rogers, development director at the historical museum, said Thursday. “I think that’s so cool.”
The prospect of finding such gems is a major attractant at a used book sale like this one, which runs through Sunday.
Maybe it was the wintry weather, which can put you in the book mood, or maybe it’s the increasing exposure the fort museum has enjoyed as its history as an alien detention camp in World War II becomes more widely known and appreciated. But used books of all varieties were flying off the shelf at an unprecedented pace on opening day.
“It’s been crazy,” longtime volunteer Victor Machart said in early afternoon as he watched at least two dozen browsers pick through the offerings. “I’ve never seen it like this, and right now it's slowed down.”
Other volunteers staffed the cash registers with rulers, measuring the thickness of each book to determine its price. Specialty books like Wentworth’s are pre-priced, but the vast majority cost $1.50 per inch.
Bob Borino showed up on the blustery day for the ambience and a particular kind of book.
“I have a small collection of books on the history of the western frontier,” the Missoula man said. “I’ve picked them up primarily here and at the AAUW sale they have in the spring, so I’ve been able to build a reasonably nice library of western frontier studies on the cheap.”
While copies of, say, Stephen Ambrose’s popular “Undaunted Courage” abound, it’s the less available books that interest Borino. He was thrilled to find a biography of Mary Ronan, the girl from early-day Virginia City who became the wife of Flathead Indian agent Peter Ronan.
“I’ve never been able to find it, other than in the library,” Borino said.
Rogers said workers were almost overwhelmed by the volume of books donated for this year’s sale. A book sale website provides a formula to count such things.
“I found out how many square feet were in Heritage Hall, then I added up how many tables we have and how big the tables are,” she said. “There were two different options: With softcovers it was saying 60,000 books and with hardcover it was saying 30,000. We have both.”
The formula didn’t take into account the boxes and stacks of book on the floor under tables.
“So I would say 50K, easy,” Rogers said. “Last year I was saying maybe 20,000 or 30,000, and I thought that was fairly approximate. But this year it’s just kind of blown out of the park.”
So much so that an overflow room in the museum’s T-1 Building next door has been stocked with the likes of novels, vintage magazines, old newspapers, and used CDs, DVDs and audio books.
Among the biggest influxes of donations came in the children, youth and young adult genre. Helped by sizeable contributions from Stevensville schools, they occupy much of the back wall of the hall, whereas they took up just a couple of tables in 2016.
“It was scary there for a minute because there were so many boxes in that back corner we weren’t really sure how we were going to do it. But we did,” Rogers said. “We had a wonderful volunteer, Gigi, who basically spent two days in the kids section.”
Organizers this year have added a twist to the four-day sale — historical greeters that remind of the sale’s connection to history and the museum.
On Thursday morning, sale-goers were welcomed by Missoula founder C.P. Higgins, or the man who’s identified with him, Bob Brown, the former executive director of the historical museum. In the afternoon it was local photographer Jennifer Driscoll, dressed as one of her literary heroines, Laura Ingalls Wilder of “Little House on the Prairie” fame.
“I figured the homesteader aspect would be a good match for the Montana crowd,” Driscoll said.
It was a “logical match,” she said, because in her travels in a former job, she visited historic “Little House” sites in Minnesota, Kansas and South Dakota.
She did it when she was working in those areas in a former job, Driscoll said.
“When I was looking for things to do on the weekend, I was like, 'Of course. I’m x miles away from a Little House site. I’m going,'” she said.
Historical greeters in subsequent days will be in character as Norman Maclean, Sarah Woody and, on Saturday and possibly Sunday, Calamity Jane.
“We met on the Osage Reservation when we were in Oklahoma,” Driscoll, in character as Laura Ingalls Wilder, quipped of Calamity Jane. “She’s a friend of mine and she’s going to be amazing. I saw bits of her costume. You should come back.”