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

Montanans at Play

Play is more than fun and games: it both reflects and impacts the cultures that engage in it. Examining the ways in which earlier generations of Montanans entertained themselves provides an important window into the past.  Play helped children understand the world around them and learn the skills they would need as adults. For grownups, recreation was restorative, offering much needed opportunities for physical relaxation or occasions to blow off steam. While the essential human need to have fun has remained constant, many aspects of play have evolved over time with changes in circumstance and technology. For many, what used to be labor essential for survival—like hunting, fishing, weaving, or gardening—has, over time, become “play.”


Assiniboine Doll, ca. 1900, MHS 2013.20.07

While many of the particulars surrounding the maker and original owner of this Assiniboine doll have, unfortunately, been lost to time, she still conveys important messages about Montana’s past. The detail with which she has been outfitted—down to her beaded awl case, knife sheaf, and umbilical pouch—indicate the importance of doll to her maker. As a result of the care taken with these details, the doll’s clothing is an authentic rendering of the way in which Assiniboine women dressed at the turn of the twentieth century. The materials of which she is made—cotton and silk cloth, brass studs, glass beads, leather, straw, and wood—indicate the supplies that were available in in the sparsely settled region of northeast Montana. And the doll’s known history speaks to the role that trade with non-Indians played in reservation life. In this case the maker likely traded the doll for supplies with the donor’s grandparents O. C. and Edith Worthy Johnson who operated the “Fad,” the first general store in Wolf Point, that served the nearby Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations.

Playing Circus

Playing Circus by F. Y. Cory, 1904, MHS 2014.35.05

In 1904, Harper & Bros. published a series of lithographs depicting children at play by Montana artist Fanny Cory Cooney (1877–1972), who always worked under the pen name, F. Y. Cory. A part of this series, Playing Circus pays homage to the creativity of the instigators while sympathizing with the plight of the less eager participants—a rooster masquerading as “a ostrich,” a tiger-striped dog, and a baby brother who, throughout the series, bears the brunt of his elder siblings’ enthusiasm. Each image was accompanied by a descriptive verse; the poem for Playing Circus reads: “We're planning for a circus— / It's the nicest kind of play, / We hope that some grown-ups'll come, 'Cause they have got to pay. / The wild-man really howls because he thinks it isn't fun; / And you just better wait until the tight-rope act's begun!"

Faro game board and casekeep

Faro Board and Casekeep, ca. 1920, MHS X1925.03.01

In writing about faro in 1894, John N. Maskelyne—an English magician who was ardently opposed to all serious forms of fraud—stated: “There is no game in which money is lost and won more readily. Above all, there is no game in which the opportunities of cheating are more numerous or more varied.” In spite of, or maybe because of, this fact, faro was the most popular gambling game in the West during the nineteenth century. Its play required a faro board, an abacus-like device known as a “casekeep,” and a fifty-two-card deck. Although gambling was always opposed by many Montanans on moral grounds, it was not made illegal until passage of the state’s 1917 gambling laws. By 1920—when this faro board was seized in a raid on a Miles City saloon—the sale of alcohol had joined gambling as a strictly forbidden vice.

Taylor Gordon Record

Steel Recording of Taylor Gordon Singing "By and By," 1929, MHS MC150, 6-11

An African-American native of White Sulphur Springs, Taylor Gordon (1893–1971) first achieved fame as a singer of spirituals in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance. As a young man, Gordon began working for circus impresario John Ringling on his private railroad car that traveled regularly from Montana to New York. It was in the corridors of the train that Taylor’s soaring tenor voice drew the attention of guests who encouraged him to pursue a career in music. During a layover in New York, he joined a traveling vaudeville group that crisscrossed the nation. This steel record, produced in 1929 as an audio letter to his family, is one of the few recordings made of Gordon and includes him singing "By and By." Today, Gordon is best known for his autobiography, Born to Be, which chronicles his rise from servant to high society, from mining camp to New York City.

Trophy Hunters

Trophy Hunters Wax Sculpture by E. E. Heikka, 1930, MHS X1974.15.01

Historically, Montanans often hunted out of necessity, but the pursuit of wild game has always been a popular form of recreation as well. In this hand-painted clay model, titled Trophy Hunters, Great Falls artist E. E. Heikka (1910–1941) provides a vivid glimpse of a successful back-country hunting trip. The four pack horses are loaded with a bear head and skin, a bighorn ram’s head, moose antlers, and the hunters’ requisite gear. The actions of the two men—the lead rider points while his companion pulls his rifle from its scabbard—indicates that the hunt may not be over. The details that Heikka so expertly captured in his sculptures like Trophy Hunters came from careful, firsthand observation. As a teenager Heikka worked for well-known Augusta outfitter Emil Klick, who recalled that the young artist “noticed things about the animals, how they looked and how they were packed—things most kids his age would never pay any attention to, and few older folks would either.”

Fisherman's Map of Montana

Fisherman's Map of Montana by Jolly Lindgren, 1940, Copyright L. W. Wendt Advertising, Great Falls, MT, MHS A-97

Norman Maclean, celebrated author of A River Runs Through It, might be Montana’s most eloquent fisherman, but he was certainly not its first. Plateau tribes living in the western part of the state relied on fish as a staple of their diet. Early non-Indians entering the region fished for both food and pleasure—Meriwether Lewis noted the prowess of Private Silas Goodrich in his 1805 diary and John G. Bourke, staff officer for General George Crook in the 1870s, referred to his fellow infantrymen as “trout maniacs,” noting that a “gentle lunacy” took over as the men competed to catch the most fish. Since the 1930s, when fly fishing set its proverbial hook into the Treasure State, many have associated the sport with the good life in the West. The continued popularity of the sport and the threat of loving the resource to death produced a wave of conservation measures in the 1970s aimed at ensuring the resource would remain to be enjoyed by future generations. (Image used with permission of The Wendt Agency)