Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday Photo: Ashland

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 981-997
The men of the town of Ashland in Rosebud County turned out to have their photograph taken by L.A. Huffman circa 1910. There appear to be children peeking out the window of the building in the background.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Captain James Williams

Pennsylvania native James Williams was the son of Irish and Welsh immigrants. The West lured him as a young man. In 1856, Williams was involved in the violent Border Wars in Kansas where he was a “Free State” man. He followed the rush to Pikes Peak in 1858 and came to Bannack with a wagon train from Denver in 1862. In the absence of a leader, the travelers elected Williams to lead the train and thereafter he was known as Captain, or Cap, for short. Cap Williams followed the rush to Alder Gulch in 1863. Then during those dark turbulent days of lawlessness, he again served as captain, this time of the vigilantes. When robberies and murders terrified citizens, Cap Williams stepped forward to lead the vigilantes in the capture and hanging of some two dozen suspected road agents during winter of 1863-1864.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 945-626
When this work was finished, Cap married and settled down in the emerald green ranchlands of Madison County’s Ruby Valley. But in March of 1887, searcher’s discovered Cap’s body hidden in a thicket. The newspapers reported that Cap had laid out his mittens and scarf as a pillow. He took a fatal dose of laudanum. He lay down knowing sleep would take over and the cold winter weather would do the rest. Some speculated that Virginia City banker Henry Elling was about to foreclose on his ranch. Others believed that his role as a vigilante weighed so heavily upon him that he could no longer live with the burden. Some however, had a different theory. Cap was a man of integrity, and he would never have willingly left his wife and seven children. Some believe that sentiments against Cap were still rife, and that he had enemies. Perhaps, they speculated, someone came along in the cold and offered him a fatal drink. A tombstone in a tiny burial ground today marks Cap’s grave. We will never know for sure what put him there.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Neihart’s Silver Lining

Neihart is a wonderfully quirky little community in the heart of the rugged Little Belt Mountains. In the 1890s, Neihart’s population of four thousand rivaled that of Great Falls. Today, the twenty-five full time residents take pride in the town’s colorful past. Its roots date to 1881 when James Neihart and company discovered rich silver veins. There was gold in the district, too. Richard Oatey and his partners sold their silver mine at nearby Barker and headed to Neihart to celebrate. As they hiked back to Barker, hung over and sick, Oatey inadvertently knocked off a piece of outcropping and stuck it in his pocket. Several days later he took it out and studied it. Gold ran through it. The assayer valued it high in both gold and silver content. Oatey and his partners searched the hills and coulees for years, but they could never find the mysterious outcropping.

Scattered buildings recall Neihart's roots.
 By 1885, Neihart bustled. Even though the area was one of the richest in Montana, lack of transportation hindered further development until the arrival of a spur of the Montana Central Railroad in 1891. After the silver market crashed in 1893, Neihart’s mines operated sporadically. They never regained their 1890s momentum, but the Broadwater and Chamberlain mines continued to produce. In the 1920s, Neihart’s silver production was second only to that of Silver Bow County. The late 1930s to 1945 saw the last burst of activity when silver prices briefly increased. In 1945, Neihart residents took their last round trip to Great Falls. Upon their return that afternoon, the train ran no more and workers pulled up the tracks.

Mines and mills dot the hillside around Neihart.
Remnants of mines and mills dot the hillsides. Declared a Superfund site in 2001, the $11.8 million project will include removal of lead-contaminated soil.  Although the mining waste poses no immediate risk, the project will protect residents from long-term exposure. Neihart’s Main Street showcases the community’s individuality. A sign posted just outside town reinforces its resdients’ love for their unique community.  “Our small town is like Heaven to us,” it reads, “please don’t drive like Hell through it.”

The town has a wonderfully quirky personality.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday Photo: At the Park

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, H-372
This family is relaxing in Miller's Park at Coal Banks Landing, a low-water unloading and refueling site for steamboats headed up the Missouri River to Fort Benton. The landing is now a BLM recreation site. Well-known photographer F. Jay Haynes took the photo.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Gypsy Fortune Teller

Reigning over the Gypsy Arcade in Virginia City, the famous Gypsy Fortune Teller is the most unusual and rarest treasure among the hundreds of thousands of artifacts and antiques that fill the state-owned buildings there. Charles and Sue Bovey were inveterate collectors who bought whole inventories of antiquated goods. They bought the gypsy in the 1950s, and until the 1970s, tourists could drop a nickel in the machine and hear their fortunes read. The gypsy would flash her creepy eyes, click her teeth, and tell fortunes through a speaking tube.
When the gypsy eventually no longer worked so well, the Boveys placed her at Bob’s Place—a local restaurant—where she gathered dust for decades. The State of Montana inherited her with the Bovey properties purchased in 1998, and her real value only slowly was realized. The Montana Heritage Commission removed her from public display. In 2004, renovations of the gypsy’s internal mechanisms and appearance began. Completed in 2006, the gypsy was then exhibited in the Arcade where she remains today. During her restoration, word got out that Montana had a very valuable item. Famous illusionist David Copperfield tried to talk the state into selling her. He reportedly offered around $2 million, but the state fortunately refused. Copperfield, who is an avid collector of penny arcade games, claims the gypsy is one of a kind, the last of about ten that were manufactured. Other mechanized fortune teller machines dispensed cards, but the gypsy’s fortunes were recorded on a hidden player at the back.

The Virginia City Fortune Teller, one of ten manufactured in the early nineteenth century, may be the only one left.
Courtesy MHC.
The Mills Novelty Company of Chicago made the gypsy around 1906. The Mills Company also manufactured the first slot machines in the 1890s and the first refrigerated Coca Cola vending machine in 1935. It was one of few companies to deal in both vending and gambling machines. Between 1905 and 1930, the Mills Company was the world’s leading manufacturer of coin operated machines, including slot machines, vending machines, and jukeboxes.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Jersey Lilly

Completion of the “Milwaukee Road” brought hundreds of homesteaders to Ingomar in Rosebud County during the 1910s. During its heyday, Ingomar was the sheep-shearing and wool-shipping center. It saw two million tons of wool annually.  On July 2, 1914, the Ingomar Index announced that a bank would soon open, marking an important milestone in the community’s development. Investors H. B. Wiley, C. W. Greening, and E. B. Clark hired bookkeeper W. T. Craig. All, declared the Index, were businessmen of sterling reputations. When the new building was completed that October, the newspaper declared it a “pippin,” noting that “cashier Craig feels like a kid with a new toy.” It was Ingomar’s first brick building. The bank indeed prospered, reorganizing and expanding in 1917 as a state bank, and reorganizing again in 1921 under federal charter. Economic reversal led to the bank’s sudden closure later that year. Craig was convicted of misuse of bank funds, a ruling that was later overturned on appeal. The bank stood empty, a painful reminder of delinquent loans and failed homesteads. In 1933, the Oasis Bar opened in the building and the Jersey Lilly Bar and CafĂ© moved into the former bank in 1948.

The Jersey Lilly is a Montana must!
Named for the beautiful nineteenth-century actress Lilly Langtry, the Jersey Lilly has since served as a community gathering place with a devoted clientele. Original pressed tin ceilings, bank vaults, and the outline of teller cages on unfinished hardwood flooring suggest the building’s previous function. Recalling the sheepmen who once drove their flocks through the area, the Sheep Herder Hors d’Oeuvre — orange slices, onions, and cheddar on saltine crackers—is a favorite. And as in days of old, there is always a pot of beans on the stove. Fare is simple and facilities are out back, but today’s Jersey Lilly Saloon and Eatery is an unforgettable Montana experience.

The interior of the Jersey Lilly preserves some of the original features of the former bank.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Friday Photo: Bird Wild Hog

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 981-170
Bird Wild Hog posed for this portrait by photographer Christian Barthelmess in 1892.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Pioneer Artifacts

Helena’s Pioneer Cabin, the oldest documented dwelling in the capital city, was built in 1864 during the height of the gold rush to Last Chance Gulch. In the late 1930s, women in the community saved it from demolition and created Montana’s first house museum. The Pioneer Cabin opened to the public in 1939. Helena’s pioneer families generously donated heirlooms of the 1860s and 1870s, used by their ancestors at Last Chance, to furnish the museum. Among the interesting items in the cabin is a pie safe dated to 1864. Its punched tin panels let the air circulate but kept insects out, allowing safe storage of baked goods. The rustic cabinet was discovered on the property in an outbuilding.

Pie safes with punched tin panels were essential in well-equipped frontier kitchens. 
Another item of interest is a Civil War era “hat bathtub” that came West by covered wagon. It has a place for the bather to sit, a place to put the soap so it doesn’t fall into the water, and just enough room for one’s legs. It was difficult to heat quantities of water on a small cookstove for a bath, and so bathing was not a frequent occurrence. The tradition held that the oldest person in the family got the first shot at the hot water. In mining families, by the time the youngest child got to the water after all that dirt came off the adults, it was dark and murky. The expression, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” comes from the fact that the youngest child could get lost in the dirty water.

Hat bathtubs—resembling an inverted hat—were popular during the Civil War.
During the Victorian era, it was common to clip a lock of hair from a person who passed away. Jewelry made of human hair was lovingly worn by grieving family members. But sometimes families saved these cherished locks to weave them into beautiful forms which were framed, cherished, and passed down. Some of these incredible works of art came west. The Pioneer Cabin displays two beautiful—although a little creepy—“mourning wreaths.”

The human hair in this mourning wreath was likely from more than one individual and was an artistic tribute to deceased family members.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day

The late nineteenth century was a time of national labor unrest when workers nation-wide protested deplorable working conditions. Labor unions in New York City celebrated the first Labor Day on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. Ten thousand workers took unpaid leave to march from City Square to Union Hall. The idea caught on, and many states followed New York’s lead. In 1891, Montana joined nine other states whose legislatures had previously designated the holiday: New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey and Ohio.

Early telephone operators often worked ten to twelve hour days for as little as thirty dollars per month. In 1907, Butte operators struck and were granted a minimum wage of fifty dollars per month, an eight-hour workday, and a closed shop. These operators are working in Helena in 1906. Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 75-43 folder 23
On September 7, 1891, flowers looked their prettiest and birds sang their sweetest when Montana celebrated that first Labor Day. Deer Lodge was the main center of celebration where people from all points gathered. They came from the country, from outlying camps, and on the train from Butte. Seventeen rail cars dispatched some two thousand visitors and two bands. They formed a procession and marched to a pavilion prepared for the occasion. Hon. E. D. Matts of Missoula, who authored the legislation making Labor Day a state holiday, addressed the crowd. Other speeches followed, filling two hours. The crowd listened intently. At four o’clock, rail cars brought five hundred more guests from Butte where all the labor organizations had marched in a huge parade. Revelers quietly scattered, some participating in races and games, others strolling the grounds among the trees and quietly enjoying the holiday. An evening of dancing brought the pleasant day to a close.

This photo by N. A. Forsyth, taken circa 1905, shows the dangerous working conditions in Butte's mines that contributed to labor strikes and unrest. Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, ST 001.168
Several years later in 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation designating the first Monday in September a federal holiday. Congress passed the Labor Day act on the heels of a violent strike by employees of the American Railway Union in Chicago. Federal troops were called in and thirty-four workers lost their lives during vicious riots. Although President Cleveland was not favorable to unions, he signed the act in an attempt to mend damaged ties with American workers.
While we celebrate the workingman’s holiday today more as a symbol of summer’s end and the start of the school year, we should remember that it was a originally a workingman’s holiday born of national unrest.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday Photo: Working on the Railroad

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, Railroad Collection
Happy Labor Day weekend! Here's a classic photo of laborers. Japanese railroad crews like this one built hundreds of miles of track in Montana. These men are getting ready for the last spike celebration of the Chicago, Milwaukee, & St. Paul Railroad, better known as the Milwaukee Road, four miles west of Garrison, Montana. The photo was taken on May 19, 1909.