HELENA — What are the things we carry? And what are the things that Montana ancestors carried and so cherished that they gifted them to the Montana Historical Society?
A new exhibit at the society that opened this week, “Montana Territorial Legacy: The Montana Historical Society” displays just a small cache of the treasure trove.
Almost as long as there has been a Montana – there’s been a Montana Historical Society.
Montana Territory was signed into law May 26, 1864, by President Abraham Lincoln.
Less than nine months later, the historical society was created by Montana’s Territorial Legislative Assembly as one of its first acts — signed into law by Territorial Governor Sidney Edgerton Feb. 2, 1865. Because of these farsighted pioneers, the Montana Historical Society is the oldest institution of its kind in the American West and is now world-renowned, drawing scholars from across America and the world.
“This exhibit focuses on our collection,” said senior curator Jennifer Bottomly-O’looney. “It is a broad cross-section of some of the society’s extraordinary materials.”
And quite an eclectic collection it proves to be.
As Wilbur Fisk Sanders said, when he headed the historical society in its infancy, “Here is a society of your own creation … organized for your own uses, conducted in your own interest, to preserve your own story, and to keep in perpetual memory the manner of men (and women) you are.”
Out of MHS drawers, cabinets and storage rooms come some fascinating items, often with intriguing stories they could tell.
One eye-catching item is an Assiniboine doll in multicolored dress. “It’s a wonderful, large doll,” said Bottomly-O’looney. “It has everything an Assiniboine woman would have. She has beaded moccasins, a belt decorated with tacks, a beaded awl case bag and a beaded necklace.”
Standing nearby in the same case are also a Blackfeet warrior doll, complete with bow and arrow; Taddy, a very beloved and worn Teddy bear; a “magic lantern,” with its own slideshow; and screw-on ice skates worn by a boy skating in Rimini and on Union Square Ice Rink in Helena.
Adult toys are also part of the territorial exhibit — such as an early slot machine, a pair of cross-country skis and a Victrola.
Some items tell of accomplishment — such as Fannie Sperry Steele’s rodeo saddle that her husband Bill commissioned for her after she won the title of Lady Bucking Horse Champion of the World in 1914.
The famous bronc rider grew up on a ranch breaking horses in the shadow of the Sleeping Giant. She always rode “slick,” said Bottomly-O’looney. “Back then women could wear the spurs hobbled (meaning they were tied to the saddle), but she refused.”
She also won Women’s Champion Bronco Buster in 1913, World Champion Lady Bucking Horse Rider in 1912 and was inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1975.
Other MHS goodies include an adobe brick plucked from the ruins of old Fort Benton; a book on the vigilantes, which was the first book published in Montana Territory; as well as a vigilante warning sign complete with skull and crossbones and 3-7-77, a secret number associated with the Montana Vigilantes.
There’s also an oak tombstone for Langford Peel, which once stood in the cemetery located where Central School now stands. It was gifted to the society by Wilbur Fisk Sanders.
Born in Liverpool, Peel was 36 when he was shot in the back in a Helena bar fight. According to his tombstone, “he was beloved by his friends and respected by his enemies.”
“Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord…” is inscribed below.
Viewers will also see evidence of another tragic tale — the boot of Charlie Thomas, a child killed on the Bozeman Trail along with his father and another man when they pushed ahead of their wagon train. There’s also a Little Big Horn Battlefield map and the Kessler banner carried into the Spanish/American War that later became the design of Montana’s state flag.
And then there’s the heart-wrenching farewell message written in chalk by miner Emil Anderson on a piece of powder box. He was in Montana’s Smith Mine Disaster, the worst coal mine disaster in Montana history on Feb. 27, 1943: “Its 5 mins pass 11 o’clock … dear Agnes and children I’m sorry we had to go … God bless you all Emil with lots … kisses.” The other side reads: “We try to do our best but we couldn’t get out.”
There were, of course, explorations with happier endings.
Some were in science. One of these — an early Holter heart monitor designed by Helenan Dr. Norman J. Holter — is on display, as well as a microscope used by the state’s first entomologist James H. Pepper, whose research led to the first effective vaccine against Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Resting in the same display case is a gold pan and gold scale used in Alder Gulch, one of Montana’s first gold strikes.
A distinctly Montana invention, the “Buckley Bomb,” is also among Montana’s treasures.
A sheet metal worker from Opportunity, James Buckley designed a “bomb” that didn’t explode, but rather burst open and distributed leaflets encouraging enemy troops to surrender. It earned him the bronze star in World War II.
There are also some of the more expected treasures – among them a gorgeous and ornate silver service presented by the people of Montana to the Navy for the U.S.S. Montana; the original Montana Territorial Constitution and the 1972 Montana State Constitution; a Charlie Russell sculpture of Jim Bridger; a gold and diamond pocket watch from 1897; an array of intricately beaded bags, belts and gloves; and a Chinese porcelain spoon and dish.
What makes for a Montana treasure?
Apparently, much is in the eye of the beholder.
“Ultimately … the decision of what makes a treasure a treasure was not ours to make,” said Bottomly-O’looney. “Rather, that judgment was made at some point in the past when someone decided that, for whatever reason, a prized object deserved to be saved for, and shared with, their fellow citizens and the generations yet to come.”