Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Haunted Fort Assinniboine

Empty buildings with hollow windows sprawl across the windswept prairie off U.S. 87 outside Havre, Montana. Fort Assinniboine, established in 1879, once housed some five hundred soldiers and their families. As the largest fort in Montana, its famous residents included General “Black Jack” Pershing. Stationed at the fort in the mid-1890s, “Black Jack” earned his nickname as first lieutenant in the African-American Tenth Cavalry unit.  The fort closed in 1911, and over the decades the remaining structures served as a state agricultural experiment station, church retreat, farmers’ gathering place, shelter for the homeless, and a 4-H camp.

Although some of the fort’s buildings, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, remain intact, the hollow windows of this ghostly shell recall the fort’s former residents. Photo courtesy Havre Chamber of Commerce.
Former Hill County legislator Toni Hagener tells of an experience an elderly acquaintance once shared with her. He attended camp at the fort in the 1930s and recalled bunking in the enlisted men’s barracks. Upstairs, the fort’s records and ledgers lined the walls, leaving a narrow path down the center of the long room. It was forbidden territory, but this pathway offered the boys an irresistible sport. At every opportunity they snuck upstairs, took an open volume, got a running start, and flopped down for an exhilarating slide on the wooden floor.
One night, the boy awoke to an odd rustling overhead. Sneaking upstairs to investigate, he saw an old man sitting cross legged on the floor; his long grizzled hair hid his face. A quartermaster’s report lay open in his lap as he slowly turned the pages. The boy slipped back downstairs, woke his buddy, and together they climbed the stairs. Both saw the old man, turning pages. They returned to their bunks to watch the stairway. No one came down. At first light, the boys checked upstairs. The old man was gone.

In 1954, fire claimed these barracks where the boy had encountered the ghost of an old soldier, turning pages in the quartermaster’s ledger. 1955 NPS photo by R. H. Mattison.
The memory stayed fresh as the boy grew up. Fire left the barracks a burned-out shell in 1954, prompting the man to further speculate on the old timer’s identity. He concluded it was the ghost of an old soldier, searching for something in the ashen ruins. He could picture the scene in his mind’s eye, a ghost within a ghost.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Hangman's Tree

Virginia City placers dwindled and many transferred their stores and shops to Helena to “mine the miners.” The settlement boomed. William Sprague, an early settler, recalled that there were one thousand people at Last Chance Gulch by May 1865 and, “There was a good deal of shooting and hanging. The shooting was most all done by the gamblers, other people having very little trouble.”  By summer, there were three thousand residents. John Keene committed the first murder on June 7, 1865, when he killed Harry Slater outside a Bridge Street saloon. There being no government presence, Helena’s vigilance committee escorted Keene to the Hangman’s Tree in Dry Gulch. There he became the first of some dozen recorded victims who breathed their last on the gnarled branches. However, territorial Supreme Court justice Judge Lyman Munson observed upon arrival at Helena in July 1865 that some claimed the tree had already seen eight victims.
The venerable ponderosa pine stood until 1875 when the Reverend William Shippen chopped it down. He claimed flooding had loosened its roots, and the tree could fall on his barn and kill his horse. Citizens were incensed at the loss of this symbolic landmark, and hundreds crowded the neighborhood to take souvenir slivers of the tree. In 1913 when excavating for an addition on the home of Jacob Opp, workmen encountered the roots and found them as stable as if the tree were still alive. The tree’s exact location was on the property line between 521 Hillsdale and 528 Highland, just west of Blake Street.

Helena's Hangman's Tree appears on this map, drawn in 1875, just before the tree was cut down. Its placement is only approximate. Montana Historical Society Research Center Map Collection.
The activities of the Helena vigilante group—not the same as the group in Bannack and Virginia City—made a lasting impression on the community, and numerous eyewitnesses left accounts of their gruesome work. Rachel Parkinson remembered the morning she and a friend took an early-morning walk to the outskirts of town and came nearly face to face with the body of a man hanging on the scraggly tree. That same morning, children caught glimpses of the dangling corpse from their Rodney Street schoolyard. A few years later, as David Hilger and his young friends played marbles beneath the branches of the ill-famed tree, men arrived to scatter the boys so that ghastly business could be done. When the hanging was over, the boys resumed their game.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Photo: What's the Joke?

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 90-87.NB075A
Bill Fought (left) and Cap Barker pose with their horses circa 1914 near Terry, Montana. One wonders what he said or did to make her laugh. Evelyn Cameron, photographer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Butte’s Famous Female Impersonators

New York City’s Eltinge Theatre on 42nd Street opened amid much fanfare in 1912. Its history includes some interesting ties to Butte. It was named for Julian Eltinge, America’s first famous female impersonator. Eltinge, whose real name was William Dalton, spent much of his youth in Butte in the 1890s. When he began his stage career in 1904, Dalton took Julian Eltinge as his stage name. The Eltinges were neighbors of the Daltons in Butte, and Charles Eltinge was Dalton's boyhood friend.

Via Wikipedia
During Dalton’s youth in Butte, friends recalled that he possessed a good pair of fists and was not shy about using them. Those who knew him as a youngster would never have guessed the direction his career would take. Women adored him for his wardrobe, and his performances sent men “to the smoking room.” At the height of his international career, Julian Eltinge was one of the highest paid performers in the business. In 1907, he gave a performance for England’s King Edward VII. He also starred in silent movies. Eltinge returned to Butte to perform several times throughout his career, perhaps most notably to capacity audiences in the mid-1920s, recreating his dual male/female role in The Fascinating Widow. Poet Dorothy Parker coined the term “ambi-sextrous” in referring to Julian Eltinge. His career faded in the 1930s when a crackdown on cross dressing prevented appearances in costume.  He died in New York in 1941.

Via Wikipedia
Mansel Boyle, who also had ties to Butte, was a popular female impersonator and a contemporary of Julian Eltinge. Boyle was working at a Butte liquor store when he got his start in 1902 with the Overland Minstrels, an amateur theatrical company. Boyle left Butte to find success in the business. Critics claimed that Boyle, under the stage name M. Vardaman, was “the cleverest impersonator ever seen on the stage.” Coincidentally, Boyle later was the manager of the Eltinge Theatre.

In 1998, the long-closed Eltinge Theatre was moved 170 feet down 42nd Street to form the fa├žade and lobby of the new multiplex AMC Empire Theatre.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Carlo, the Chocolate-Loving Pooch

Carlo was a big, handsome, curly-haired brown water spaniel whose master was John Losekamp of Billings. At the turn of the twentieth century, Losekamp was the prosperous proprietor of a men’s clothing store at 2817 Montana Street. He advertised shoes, trunks, valises, and ranch supplies.

Advertisement from Polk’s City Directory, Billings, 1907.
Losekamp’s varied inventory drew a wide range of customers and traveling businessmen. All were familiar with Losekamp’s extremely intelligent dog. And Carlo knew who his friends were. The dog had a weakness for candy—chocolate drops in particular. He adored them. Back in the early 1900s, apparently no one knew that chocolate was poisonous to dogs. At any rate, it never seemed to hurt Carlo. He had a routine familiar to everyone in downtown Billings. When a friend came into Losekamp’s store, Carlo would first greet him with a friendly tail wag, and then would go to the wastebasket and retrieve a small piece of paper. This he would drop in front of the visitor. The visitor would take a nickel, wrap it up and give it to the dog. Carlo would trot to any one of several candy stores, drop the nickel in front of the clerk and receive a bag of chocolate drops in exchange.  Carlo would gently carry the bag back to Losekamp’s store, drop it in front of the waiting visitor, and sit a few paces away. The generous visitor would then toss the chocolate drops, one at a time, to Carlo, who never missed a catch. As the years wore on, Carlo was even able to distinguish between nickels and pennies and knew that a penny wouldn’t buy him enough chocolate to make it worth the trip. Carlo died in 1912, not from eating chocolate, but from old age. He was buried on historic Boot Hill with a fitting ceremony.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday Photo: Pet Cat

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 90-87.N041
Alma and Esther McMurray pose with their pet cat circa 1900-1910. But look past the cuteness in the foreground. The background captures wonderful details of life in a homestead cabin. Evelyn Cameron, photographer.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

George Bartholomew and the Great Western Circus

Theatrical troops and circuses traveled to Montana from the earliest times. The first circus performed at Bannack, Virginia City, and Helena in 1867. The Montana Post reported on July 6 that George Bartholomew’s Great Western Circus drew a crowd of eight hundred at Virginia City. Mary Ronan remembered the much anticipated event in Helena and that the only animals in Bartholomew’s circus were horses. There were bareback riders, equestriennes, acrobats, tightrope walkers, and clowns. These earliest traveling circuses, as Mary correctly recalled, were limited to performing horses. Bartholomew’s horses, however, were highly skilled and later brought him fame.

In Virginia City, residents lined the major thoroughfares as the performers paraded along the main street to the rousing music of the circus band.  The next evening, the audience thrilled at the “perch act,” the trick ponies Napoleon and Zebra, the hurdle chase, and expert bareback riding. There was, however, one mishap. As Mademoiselle Mathilda entered the ring, the band stopped to switch music and the horse followed suit coming to an abrupt stop. Mademoiselle sailed off and crashed against the outer ring-boards. Despite her violent fall, she hopped up and gracefully skipped out of the arena. She did not return to perform, but the Post speculated that she was not seriously hurt.

Circus owner George Bartholomew was a colorful character and an uncanny horse trainer who traveled the West with his Great Western Circus between 1867 and 1869. Bartholomew was perhaps the first professional “horse whisperer.” Several times his fortunes were reversed until 1879 when his horses performed in Oakland, California, in front of an audience of ten thousand. The performance cemented his fame. The valuable horses in Bartholomew’s Equine Paradox traveled in a special train car across the country. The sides of the boxcar advertised gentleness and kindness toward helpless creatures. Bartholomew’s horses performed a play in which horses played the major characters. Bartholomew believed horses could be trained like children and treated his horses thus. They performed incredible feats. According to their trainer, the only difference between horses and children was that horses couldn’t talk, or talk back.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Lewis & Clark(e) County

At the top of the stone tablet carved into the north entrance of the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse in Helena, you’ll find the name Lewis and Clarke County. It’s the only county in the United States with the name of both explorers. But you’ll also notice that on the tablet, Clarke is spelled with an “e” at the end. That’s because our forebears often spelled their names in various ways. Captain William Clark couldn’t seem to make up his mind, and so sometimes he used the final “e” and sometimes he didn’t. Which spelling was the most correct became a matter of concern. In 1900, Montana Historical Society librarian Laura E. Howey settled the question, researching Clark’s official records.

Laura E. Howey. From Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana
with Its Transactions, Officers, and Members
, vol. 6. Helena, 1907
Both as a military officer and as governor of Missouri Clark’s name has no final “e.” Further, publication of Lewis and Clark’s journals at the turn of the twentieth century regularized the spelling of Clark without the final “e.” That meant—oops—the county had the wrong spelling. It took an act of the Montana legislature to allow dropping of that final “e,” but the memory of the older spelling remains on the courthouse tablet.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday Photo: St. Labre

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 981-220
These nuns served at St. Labre Mission in Ashland, Montana. Left to right: Sisters Gertrude, Barbara, and Monica, Mother Mary of the Angels, sisters Thecla and Hildegarde, Father Vermaat. Photo by L. A. Huffman

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Holy Trinity Orthodox Christian Church

Butte was home to a large population of Serbian immigrants who came from the area at the crossroads of Central and Southeastern Europe in what was formerly eastern Yugoslavia. Thirty-five families attended the first Serbian Orthodox services, conducted by a visiting Orthodox priest in 1897. They built the first Holy Trinity Orthodox Church at Porphyry and Idaho streets in 1905. Archbishop Tikhon of Moscow, who headed the Orthodox Church in the United States, came to Butte form New York City to dedicate the church in 1906. According to Richard Gibson, author of Lost Butte, Montana, it was the second Serbian Orthodox church built in North America. By 1910, Butte’s Serbian population numbered more than four thousand and eventually grew to ten thousand.
By the 1950s, shallow underground operations of the nearby Emma Mine had begun to harm the church, and the Hebgen Lake earthquakes in 1959 caused further structural damage. The church was razed in 1964 and a new one built at 2100 Continental Drive.  The new church was consecrated on July 25, 1965. The architecture is modern yet traditional. Its three graceful onion domes are readily visible from the interstate. The church today is Pan Orthodox and proudly counts among its members many whose backgrounds reflect Butte’s multi-cultural community.

Holy Trinity Church is especially remarkable for the fabulous frescoes depicting the major Feast Days of salvation history that grace the interior. Stunning art covers literally every inch of the sanctuary. Six iconographers from Belgrade, Serbia worked a total of fourteen months from 2003 to 2006 to complete the colorful and intricate project. Iconographers are holy persons in God’s service who are not allowed personal expression in their artwork, but rather are expert theologians who convey the connection between heaven and earth in their painting.

In centuries past, when most people were illiterate, iconography served educational purposes as the Bible of the poor.  The magnificent frescoes at Holy Trinity preserve this visual tradition. They are breathtaking, inspiring, and well worth a visit next time you are in Butte.        
To see more photographs, visit