Exhibit: Appropriate, Curious, & Rare: Montana History Object by Object

Becoming Montanans

As immigrants settled in Montana they quickly sought to establish the institutions and organizations that had defined their lives back home, whether that was the eastern United States or elsewhere in the world. Churches, schools, hospitals, and newspapers were all viewed as essential components of any community that hoped to achieve permanence. Forced onto reservations, during the closing decades of the nineteenth century Native Americans fought to retain aspects of their traditional culture that still held meaning while adopting new ways out of both necessity and desire. Throughout the twentieth century ideas of what constituted “community”—and the organizations necessary to achieve it—continued to evolve for both Indians and non-Indians.

Printing press

Lowe Press No. 2, ca. 1860, MHS X1898.01.01  

The Montana Post—which was published weekly between August 27, 1864, and June 11, 1869—was the first newspaper in Montana Territory issued as a regular edition. It measured twenty-one by thirty-one inches (six columns wide) and was printed on this Lowe Press No. 2, initially in Virginia City and, after March 1868, in Helena. As new communities sprang up across the state, editors founded many other local newspapers, which were an essential part of a thriving community. In addition, during the early part of the twentieth century dozens of foreign-language and ethnically affiliated papers—including German, Swedish, Serbian, Croatian, Irish American and African American—flourished. Woolgrowers, stock growers, mining interests, farmers, socialists, and labor unions all published special interest newspapers as well. Today, the Montana Historical Society holds ninety-five percent of all the newspapers ever published in the Treasure State, providing researchers with a remarkable record of daily life, culture, and politics from 1864 to the present.

Altar

Chinese Masonic Altar, ca. 1885, MHS 1973.17.01

Gold rushes in the American West coincided with famine, overpopulation, and civil war in southern China. Desperate to aid their families, hundreds of men from Guangdong (Canton) Province traveled across the Pacific Ocean beginning with the first California gold discoveries in 1848. In Montana’s gold camps, like elsewhere in the West, Chinese miners gathered in Chinatowns that generally included at least one temple. To these men far from home, urban temples were places of refuge and relief. Often these temples paid homage to military heroes; in that tradition, this altar from Helena’s Chinese temple was dedicated to Guan Yu, a famous general who died in 220 AD. The two vertical lines of characters flanking the altar’s central portion translate: “Throughout the ages, his Firmness and Loyalty shine bright as the Moon and Sun/For eons, his Bravery and Sincerity with the hills and rivers is one.” The altar’s intricate carvings include flowers, birds, silk worm moths, and bats with outstretched wings—a potent symbol of good fortune.

Grotesque

Ornamental Architectural Element Called a Grotesque, 1890, MHS X1975.17.01

Longtime Helena resident Homer Hewins built his namesake Homer Block for $25,000 in 1890 at a time when—as one of several communities vying to become the permanent state capital—the “Queen City” aspired to create a more cosmopolitan persona. One of a matched pair, this copper grotesque is emblematic of the grand, high-style architecture Helena and other Montana cities embraced in their attempts to “civilize” the formerly wild west. Once perched on pedestals on either side of the apartment building’s entryway, the Homer Block’s twin grotesques recalled ancient mythical creatures, or chimeras, that once guarded temples and other buildings.  These types of architectural features are often mistakenly referred to as “gargoyles.” Technically gargoyles function as waterspouts as well as decorative motifs; grotesques like these are strictly ornamental.

Quilt

Embroidered Quilt, ca. 1894, MHS X1964.12.03

Arriving in Montana in the early 1890s, Maggie Halbert (c. 1869–1935) taught at a one-room schoolhouse in Beaverhead County, near Dewey. At the turn of the twentieth century, rural teachers effectively ran all day-to-day operations of schools themselves—from teaching classes to chopping firewood for the woodstove. Despite their hard work, female teachers were typically paid twenty percent less than their male colleagues and were forced to resign if they married. Halbert used this quilt—which her mother stitched c. 1894—to keep her students warm when they became ill at school. Halbert only taught for a few years. She married in 1894 and moved to a ranch near Lavon Station in Madison County. In 1964, Halbert’s daughter, Susan Hand—who was herself a teacher—donated this quilt to the Society’s collections.

Anesthesia tank

Nitrous Oxide Tank, ca. 1900, MHS X1969.18.09

This ornate nitrous oxide gasometer, manufactured by Buffalo Dental Manufacturing Co. in New York, was used by Marysville dentist John Vincent Cole at the turn of the twentieth century and is believed to be the first of its kind in Montana. One of the challenges of dentistry at that time was the lack of effective and safe anesthesia. Prior to the use of nitrous oxide, an injection of a cocaine solution was sometimes used to numb a dental patient’s gums before oral surgery; alternatively, the patient was sedated with chloroform. This tin and chrome anesthesia tank stands over five feet high and is designed to provide a consistent pressure of nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. The gasometer was an improvement upon the original method of delivery, via balloons filled with the gas, because it allowed the oral surgeon to deliver a fairly precise amount of the anesthesia.

Gauntlet gloves

Cree Gauntlet Gloves, 1910, MHS X1957.05.15

Beginning in the 1880s, Cree Indians in Montana often worked as wage laborers and hired out to break horses, brand cattle, and guard horse herds on the open range, working for other Indians and for whites. Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow hired Cree horsemen to guard and train his horses. In time, Crees amassed their own herds and registered their own brands with the state.  Taking pride in their profession, they wore beautifully beaded gauntlet gloves, bracers, leggings, and chaps. This pair of fringed, moosehide gauntlet gloves has the Cree syllables ᒥᒋᑎᓂ monogrammed on the cuffs. The maker used large glass seed beads and smaller, faceted seed beads in the design. Made in 1910, the gloves were collected by Sun River area rancher Robert Vaughn and donated to the Montana Historical Society by his daughter, Elizabeth Sprague.

Montana State Federation of Labor Certificate of Affiliation

Montana State Federation of Labor Certificate of Affiliation, 1908, MHS MC 341

Montana’s labor movement started in 1878, with Butte miners striking for $3.50 a day. Despite robust beginnings, labor faced formidable opposition, especially after the Anaconda Company consolidated its control over Butte’s mines. Internal divisions also undermined unions’ effectiveness. In 1908, the Montana Federation of Labor joined the nationally powerful, politically conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL). In 1938, differences in ideology and method led the AFL to expel ten unions, including the United Mine Workers, a powerful Montana presence. The remaining AFL unions were craft unions that only organized skilled workers. In contrast, the expelled unions, who joined together to form Congress for Industrial Organization (CIO), organized unskilled workers across occupational lines. The AFL’s opposition to the CIO’s “industrial unionism” diminished over time, and the two organizations merged in 1956, increasing the power of both. This and other union charters, donated to the Montana Historical Society, represent the battle for the soul of Montana’s labor.