Christmas Day was on a Monday in 1865.
A half-moon waxing toward full on New Year’s Day shone down on a dozen wooden buildings and a corral in the new village of Missoula Mills when Granville Stuart came to town.
Montana was less than two years old, but Stuart, 31, was already a pioneer of the territory. That year alone he’d written his first book, “Montana As It Is;” helped found the Montana Historical Society; and was elected its first secretary.
Stuart’s sense of what should be recorded and preserved was highly developed and urgent. That’s probably why he sat in the snow on the south bank of the Missoula (Clark Fork) River in temperatures of 34 degrees below zero to draw Missoula.
“That was a cold morning,” Stuart told the Missoulian in 1911, for an article that was reprinted after his death in 1918.
“I never tried to make a drawing under such conditions, before or since,” he said. “It was so cold that I could not hold my pencil more than a minute at a time and my fingers were so stiff that at no time could I draw easily. I had to sit in the snow and that did not make it any pleasanter.”
One hundred fifty years later, his sketch from the far side of the river and at least two others in town remain our best clues of Missoula in its infancy.
Stuart had arrived in town that day from Deer Lodge with Frank Worden, a business partner who had invited Stuart to spend Christmas with him. Worden’s name is more closely associated with early Missoula than is Stuart’s. He was one of the men responsible for founding the town in 1865 and Old Hell Gate to the west five years before that.
The previous month Worden and Capt. Christopher Higgins had opened their new Worden and Co. store in Missoula (“Mills” was dropped within a few years). The two-story store, windowed only on a second floor used as a courthouse, dance hall and Masonic Hall, towered over most of the other buildings in the picture. It received its own treatment from Stuart’s pencil that cold day.
Worden and Stuart were old acquaintances. Stuart kept the books for the Deer Lodge store his older brother James started with Worden in 1864. According to biographers Clyde Milner and Carol O’Connor in their 2008 book “As Big As the West: The Pioneer Life of Granville Stuart,” within a couple of weeks of Christmas they started on a trip back to the States together, traveling by wagon, overland mail coach and, finally, the first railroad car Stuart had ever seen.
“This was not the first time he had seen the site of (Missoula), but it was his first visit after the town had been started,” reported the Missoulian writer, probably editor Arthur Stone, in the 1911 article. “He was more than before impressed by the excellence of the location of the new town ... and his belief in the future of the town became strengthened.”
The newspaper story identified six of the 12 buildings in Stuart’s sketch, anchored by the sawmill on the river.
The sawmill was built the previous winter by the three members of the Missoula Mills Co. – Higgins, Worden and David Pattee.
In “Missoula: The Way It Was,” Lenora Koelbel wrote that the company built a flour mill next to the sawmill in the spring of 1865. There’s no evidence of it in Stuart’s sketch, and contemporary documents suggestit was more likely 1866.
That was the year acting territorial governor Thomas Francis Meagher came through town. A sketch accompanying Meagher’s “Rides Through Montana” published in 1867 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine shows the taller flour mill to the east of the sawmill on the riverbank.
Koelbel included Meagher’s description of the two mills operating as one, with “sixteen bushels of wheat flying from it every hour into the finest and snowiest dust, miles of lumber sliding out of it every month, and one of the handsomest stores close by, under the same proprietorship ...”
Presumably with the aid of Stuart, the newspaper article identified four of the other 10 buildings in the sketch. They were a saloon built by William McWhirk; a carpenter shop that stood where the Florence Hotel was (and still is); Higgins’ first home; and the Cottage Hotel, built earlier that year by Pattee on or near what is now Madison Street north of the bridge.
McWhirk was one of the founders of Walla Walla, and sold his home and business to Worden in that frontier town in 1859. The gardens that McWhirk and his brother Cyrus established at the mouth of Rattlesnake Creek, the early east gateway to Missoula, contributed to the town’s first nickname, the Garden City.
Granville Stuart left no other record of his Christmas visit to Missoula.
His 21st-century biographers tend to think the sketches were the highlight of the day.
“Granville is not just disinterested, he’s hostile to formal religion,” Milner said Wednesday from his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he and O’Connor, his wife, have retired after distinguished careers at Utah State and Arksansas State universities.
“He’s a Freethinker. He is not necessarily going to be all hyped up about Christmas at all, so it’s not a surprise he’s sketching a mill," Milner said.
Nor is it surprising that he sketched a barren frontier town. Among the thousands of papers, letters and other documents he left behind were dozens of such sketches recording that period in the West, probably beginning with his gold-mining days in California.
“He loves to sketch and most of his sketches are from the 1860s,” Milner said.
“I think probably a lot of people sketched in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s,” added O’Connor. “That was at a time before easily transported cameras. I think it was a way of retaining knowledge about a place. If you could sketch it, you could bring back memories and complement other things you might have written.”
Missoula Mills itself was small in 1865, but white and mixed-blood settlers had been farming and ranching among the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and other tribes in the region for several years. The Jesuit mission was built at St. Ignatius in 1854, near the Hudson’s Bay Co. trading post of Fort Connah. Hell Gate still had inhabitants and the first church built for whites in Montana, St. Michael's.
But the longest-standing enclave of “civilization” in western Montana was 30 miles to the south at Fort Owen, established in 1850 by Maj. John Owen.
Even as Stuart sketched Missoula in the snow, Owen reported “The Most quiet Christmas I have Ever Seen at Fort Owen.”
John Chatfield, a saloon keeper, fired a salute from the mountain howitzer on Christmas Eve.
That, Owen said, “has been about all the demonstrating Made – Excepting the health & happiness of friends far away was drank by all hands.”
They might have been partied out. On a cold Tuesday evening six days before, almost everyone in the area turned out for a wedding at the Tom Harris ranch on Three-Mile Creek.
Pattee, the Missoula Mills hostelier and recently elected county treasurer, married Harris’ 18-year-old sister, Emma.
“Very Cold to go to a party,” Owen noted the day before.
But it wasn’t too cold for Granville Stuart to draw Missoula the following Monday. It was a minor accomplishment in the life of a remarkable, if flawed, Western pioneer, prospector, miner, rancher, foreign diplomat, artisan, vigilante, librarian and politician, said Milner.
“He’s not lovable, but he’s fascinating. And he’s clearly very talented,” said Milner.
Stuart’s legacy, he added, is a remarkable resource for researchers of western history, if for no other reason bu the sheer number of records he left behind.
His biggest imprint was on points farther east, but in Missoula we have Stuart Peak to the north in the Rattlesnake Mountains.
And Missoula is where Granville Stuart died, in October 1918, after spending his final two years here with his second wife, Belle.