Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday Photo: Santa Claus is Coming

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, H-3736
Santa Claus stopped in front of F. Jay Haynes's photo studio to have this photo taken in 1897.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas Trees from Forest to Fireside

We all know that Christmas trees can be a drain on the budget, and that is nothing new. In the first settlements of territorial Montana, Christmas trees might come fresh cut from the forest but required an outlay of cash to decorate. Ribbons and ornaments—even those made by hand of scraps—were expensive and hard to come by. Churches, meeting halls, and courthouses were the usual venues for Christmas trees because they could be communally decorated. Gifts, including fruit and candy, were hung on the trees and not usually placed beneath as we do today. Distribution of gifts on the tree was done with great ceremony.

By 1880, Christmas trees were more common in private homes and sold in larger cities for ten to fifty cents. In the next decade, one in every five families had a Christmas tree. By the early 1900s, Christmas trees cost from twenty-five cents to a dollar and most families had their own Christmas trees.  While decorations could still cost more than the tree itself, saving decorations from year to year helped Christmas trees become almost a seasonal necessity. An editorial feature in the Daily Missoulian, December 18, 1910, advised that Christmas trees were for everyone. Even those too old to hang a stocking and those with no young people in there households should not give up on the custom.

Maurice Hain poses with the family's Christmas tree in 1936.
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 945-214
While some argued that cutting trees desecrate the forest, Gifford Pinchot, conservationist and first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, answered these critics. He maintained that cutting a five-foot tree is not the same as logging an old-growth lodge pole pine. A five-foot farmed tree grows in half a decade and can be replaced. Pinchot further remarked, “Trees were destined to be used. What better use could be made of them [than] to give pleasure to millions of people at Christmastime?”

Whether you cut your own or buy your tree, keep the custom and fill your home with Christmas.

Monday, December 15, 2014

America’s “Stiffest Guzzlers”

At Christmastime in 1878, Montana’s territorial capital had been fixed at Helena, Fort Benton was the “Chicago of the Plains,” Butte was a struggling camp, and Miles City was a remote outpost serving brand-new Fort Keogh. Virginia City had lost its once substantial population and status. Captain Thomas Fuller, Collector of the U.S. Internal Revenue, reported on collections in Montana Territory. It was a report that some found disturbing and others relished.

The Central Beer Hall in Helena was one of Montana's many nineteenth-century drinking establishments.
Jorud, photographer. Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives.
Revenues for the fiscal year 1877-1878 in the territory were approximately $25,000, an increase of $3,000. This increase was directly related to the consumption of beer and other spirits. Captain Fuller noted that no “vinuous or spirituous liquors” were produced in Montana. The revenue was from only liquors consumed and malt liquors produced. Twenty-one breweries were operating in Montana in 1878, a number greater than in any other territory. The New North-West of Deer Lodge observed on December 12, 1878, that Montana’s drinkers were the “stiffest beer guzzlers in America.” In addition to the breweries, Montana Territory had 600 total licensed “whisky saloons.” Further, Helena had 161 liquor licenses issued for the fiscal year, more than any other settlement in the territory. Butte came next with 60, Miles City with 54, Virginia City 44, Bozeman 39, Deer Lodge 36, Benton 35, and Missoula 29. There were 95 licenses issued to dealers along the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers compared to only 13 the previous year. Soldiers must have been among the hardiest drinkers.
The New North-West lamented that these statistics revealed Montana to be a “fearfully dissipated people” and encouraged the Good Templars (a fraternal temperance group) to work harder on the population. Territorial population in 1878 was approximately 25,000. According to these statistics, there was a drinking establishment for every 40 men, women, and children—including all the Templars!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Photo: Pet Bear

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 82-19 F11
The Bayerd family kept a pet bear at their ranch on Sheep Creek near White Sulphur Springs. The people are (l. to r.) Carry Tucker, Mr. Bayerd's son, and Mr. Bayerd's father, who looks old enough to know better. Photo taken circa 1890.

P.S. Remember this strange pet? And this one?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Sad End of Major John Owen: Part 2

While John Owen was under the care of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth at Helena, he had the opportunity to prove his title to the Fort Owen properties, but he was too ill. So his fort was auctioned at sheriff’s sale. Friends, wanting to believe he would recover, elected him to the 1873 territorial legislature. Owen could not attend.

Major John Owen as he appeared in 1871.
Portrait from Dunbar and Philips, Journals and Letters of Major John Owen.
For the next several years, Owen, indigent and incompetent, was shuffled back and forth between the sisters’ care and the Lewis and Clark County Hospital. At the end of January, 1877, during the Tenth Session of the Territorial Legislature, House Bill No.1, “an Act to establish and maintain a hospital for the insane, and otherwise provide for the insane of the Territory,” unanimously passed. Governor Potts approved the bill on February 16, 1877, the very day that the legislature adjourned.  The bill contained the following clause: “...whenever, in judgment of the governor, it is desirable to send such insane person to friends out of the territory, he may do so at the expense of the territory . . . .” This clause was for Major Owen’s benefit and brought his days in Montana to an end.

The following morning, February 17, Tenth Legislative Assembly President W. E. Bass, Owen’s longtime close friend, escorted him from the territory. After an arduous journey by stage and rail, Bass handed over Major Owen to relatives in Philadelphia. Weeks later, on April 1, thirteen indigent mentally incompetent patients were admitted to the new, privately owned hospital at Warm Springs established under House Bill No. 1.

John Owen lived another twelve years, probably a victim of what we now know as Alzheimer’s disease. He died in 1889. The Helena Weekly Herald of July 12, 1889, quietly noted John Owen’s passing: “. . .  Maj. Owen was for a long time one of the most enterprising, prosperous, influential and public-spirited men in this section of the country. . . . In his prime he was a man of ability, culture and influence . . . . The older generation of Montanians will cherish pleasant memories of Maj. Owen as they first knew him.”

Fort Owen today is a state monument, operated as a state park.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Sad End of Major John Owen: Part 1

John Owen came west as a sutler—or provisioner—for the army. He was in the Bitterroot Valley in 1850 when Jesuits closed St. Mary’s Mission and offered it for sale. Owen’s purchase for $250 was reputedly Montana’s first recorded legal document. Relocating a short distance north of the mission, Owen built a trading post. In 1856, he was appointed special agent to the Flathead Indians, hence the honorary title, “Major.” Owen openly criticized the government and advocated passionately for the Indians.

Montana’s first written conveyance of property is this bill of sale.
Joseph Joset, S. J., to John Owen, recorded in Missoula County. MHS Archives.
Elected to both the first and second territorial legislatures, Owen attended neither. Yet even in his absence, Owen was named a charter member of the Montana Historical Society. Among the twelve original members, which included W. F. Sanders, Granville and James Stuart, and C. P. Higgins, Owen was the first to reside in Montana.

Owen’s hospitality at Fort Owen became widely renowned. Travelers and guests enjoyed excellent hospitality and fine wines, delectable meals, even iced lemonade. Owen’s library was, according to Lt. John Mullan, the finest in the Northwest. However, Owen’s status in the territory was tenuous. The government viewed his position as Indian agent and trading post proprietor as a conflict. Legality of the title to his land was in question even in the 1850s, and the boundaries were disputed. By the late 1860s, financial troubles forced Owen to mortgage his property. Worse, he began to suffer deteriorating mental capabilities and lapses of memory. Then in 1868, Nancy, Owen’s beloved Shoshone wife, died. This event escalated his diminishing mental health.

Fort Owen was an oasis in the wilderness from the 1850s through the 1860s.
Special Collections, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana-Missoula
In 1871 or 1872, friends committed Owen to St. John’s Hospital in Helena where the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth cared for the indigent “mentally deranged.” Owen’s fort was abandoned. Most blamed his dementia on alcoholism. Future president James A. Garfield, then a congressman, passed a night at Fort Owen and noted in his  journal that the major was a “bankrupt and a sot.” Father Lawrence Palladino, however, contended that “it may not have been so,” since Owen appeared robust but “his memory continued slowly to fail.”

Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday Photo: Forsyth Flood

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 76-26 F50
The Yellowstone River flooded in 1918, and Forsyth residents coped with the help of a few boats. Walter Dean took this photograph of the event.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Lewistown Satellite Airfield Historic District

In the dark days following the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress appropriated massive defense funds. The U.S. Army selected Great Falls, Montana, as the site of a major air base with satellite airfields at Cut Bank, Glasgow, and Lewistown. On October 28, 1942, the first Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses roared over Lewistown’s Main Street with their bomb bays open, buzzed the treetops, and landed at the Lewistown Airfield. Crews trained day and night combining navigation, bombing, and gunnery practice. The men familiarized themselves with all aspects of the B-17 and trained with the top secret Norden bombsight, a computerized aiming device that reportedly could “put bombs in a pickle barrel.”

The Norden bombsight storage building at the Lewistown Airfield is a rare WWII survivor.
Barbed wire encircled the double-compartment building that housed the Norden bombsight. A twenty-four-hour sentry kept armed guard. The top secret bombsight, a mechanical analog computer, was accessed through bank vault doors, removed for training missions, and returned under armed guard. The fifty-pound instrument was used to determine the exact moment a bomb should be released. Its accuracy depended upon the bombardier’s ability to correctly calculate speed, altitude, temperature, barometric pressure, and the “bomb curve.” Setting the instrument required such precision that one reporter likened it to playing a violin. Wearing silk gloves so that his fingers wouldn’t stick to the metal and breathing pure oxygen in temperatures reaching forty degrees below zero, the bombardier crouched in the Plexiglas nose of the aircraft, the worst seat in the house.

The community adopted the GIs and many married local girls. Nearly one thousand men trained at the Lewistown Airfield before they flew directly to Europe to join air combat. Many never came home. B-17s carried four thousand pounds of bombs and served in every World War II combat zone, but casualties among bomber squadrons were horrific. A single mission over Germany in October 1942 claimed sixty B-17s and six hundred lives. The Lewistown Satellite Airfield was deactivated after eleven months of service. The U.S. Department of Defense systematically removes “temporary” World War II buildings, so this airfield is a rarity and its intact Norden bombsight storage shelter is the only known identifiable example remaining in the United States.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Pekin Noodle Parlor: Not a Brothel!

Butte’s Chinese community settled on the block bordered by West Mercury, South Main, West Galena, and Colorado streets in the late nineteenth century. Dwellings, club rooms, laundries, restaurants, and stores selling Chinese goods crowded its thoroughfares and alleyways. Butte attorney F. T. McBride built the Pekin Noodle Parlor building at 117 South Main on speculation in 1909. Hum Yow moved his Mercury Street noodle parlor to the second floor of the new building and soon owned the property.

Upstairs noodle parlors were common in urban Chinese communities, and the Pekin’s central stair and neon sign has long beckoned both Asian and Euro-American customers. Close proximity to Butte’s once-teeming red light district has long fueled local legends about the Pekin. Online reviews of the restaurant unfortunately label it a former brothel because of its seventeen curtained booths. However, these booths were a fixture in Asian restaurants across the West and simply offered diners privacy. Hum Yow’s Chinese Goods and Silks and G. P. Meinhart’s sign painting business originally occupied the two storefronts. A gambling casino operated in the basement from the 1910s to the 1950s. It was a business and family home and never housed prostitution.

For more than a century, the curtained booths in the Pekin Noodle Parlor
have provided private dining and nothing more.
Hum Yow and his wife Bessie Wong—both California-born first-generation Chinese—raised three children in the family living quarters in the building and housed immigrant lodgers as well. While it is true that the building has a basement entrance to Butte’s underground tunnel system, these tunnels were designed to provide steam heat to downtown buildings and are not what many call “Chinese tunnels.”  Butte’s tunnels sometimes provided a means of delivery for food and messages as well as steam heat, but they were not built by the Chinese nor were they exclusively used by them. (Read more about mythical “Chinese tunnels.”)

Butte's Pekin Noodle Parlor is Montana's oldest Chinese restaurant still operated by the same family.
(1979 HABS/HAER photo by Jet Lowe, Library of Congress.)
The Hums retired to California in 1952 and several more generations of the family have maintained this landmark business. It is Montana’s oldest family-operated Chinese restaurant.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Friday Photo: Standing on the Car

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 94-84.4
This man, Thomas Leslie Lyle, opened a photography studio in Helena in 1914. This photo was taken in 1917, and the location is unknown. Does anyone recognize it?