Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Does anyone remember that very scary 1961 episode of Great Ghost Stories retelling novelist Algernon Blackwood’s powerful 1910 short story "The Wendigo?"  The final scene shows the mythical creature, in the body of a starving human, doomed to roam the cold, snow scattered forests of the north, picking at the bark of a tree for nourishment. Others, including Theodore Roosevelt in his book The Wilderness Hunter and Stephen King in Pet Sematary, have written stories of wendigos.

Illustration by Matt Fox in "The Wendigo" by Algernon Blackwood in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, June 1944.
The mythical wendigo is said to roam the northern regions from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains and as far north as the Arctic Ocean, hungry for human flesh, but also feeding on moss, frogs, and mushrooms. Most northern Native American tribes have stories explaining how a human can turn “wendigo” by an act of cannibalism, through the presence of a demon, through a dream, or by the sorcery of a shaman.  In times of starvation, the wendigo myth served as a deterrent to cannibalism, even to save one’s life. Suicide or resignation to death was preferable to turning wendigo. Among the Assiniboine and Cree, a wendigo ceremony was performed in times of famine to reinforce this taboo. Anthropologists have studied a phenomenon called “Wendigo psychosis.” There are historical cases of this condition which apparently resulted when a person resorted to cannibalism and then developed an insatiable taste for human flesh. A famous documented case involved Swift Runner, a Plains Cree trapper in Alberta, who butchered and ate his wife and five children, even though the starving family was within twenty-five miles of food at a Hudson’s Bay post. Swift Runner, suffering from this psychosis, became a homicidal cannibal, later confessed and was executed at Fort Saskatchewan in 1878.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Poacher Gulch

Tales of Chinese terraces along a remote, heavily timbered hillside in Sanders County attracted the attention of Forest Service and University of Montana archaeologists in 2006. The site was unlike any other in Montana with rock-lined terraces, moss-covered with age, spanning several hundred feet along a steep slope. Forest Service archaeologists discovered these terraces in 1979, tucked away in an obscure drainage known as Poacher Gulch. Locals firmly believed that Chinese miners built them. The moss and a tree trunk growing through an iron wheel seemed good evidence that the site was of great age.

Photo by Chris Merritt
As the local story went, Chinese workers laying tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad along the Clark Fork River in 1883, underpaid and mistreated, left their jobs to search the hills for gold and silver. It was logical, and these terraces resembled terraces Chinese farmers constructed in Idaho’s Payette National Forest. So between 1979 and 2006, the Chinese terrace theory was so convincing that it nearly became accepted as fact. Archaeologists assumed they would discover evidence of 1880s Chinese occupation, when laborers were in fact laying track along the Clark Fork. However, that is not what came to light, and it served to prove that local stories do not always match historic facts. Forest Service archaeologist Milo McCloud, University of Montana graduate student Chris Merritt, and a Passport in Time volunteer crew worked for weeks under terrible conditions in cold and rainy weather in 2007.

Photo by Chris Merritt
They found no evidence of Chinese settlement. Instead, they found thousands of tiny pieces of tarpaper, mushy wood, nails dating to the early 1900s, and the cultivation of corn on the terraces. The “Chinese terraces” of Poacher Gulch turned out to be something completely unexpected. No Chinese ever lived there. Its real inhabitants were cultivating corn for moonshine during Prohibition in the 1920s.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Photo: Night Owl

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 80-88 Box 1 F8
Emmet Burke (r.) and Ed Craney (l.) hosted the Night Owl program, an all-night Saturday night show on KGIR in Butte in the 1930s.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Easter Bonnets and Easter Eggs

The Culbertson Searchlight reported on March 25, 1910, that Easter customs have a long and colorful history. The idea that folks should wear something new is tied to the coming of spring and renewal of the fields. The custom of wearing something new evolved into the superstition that wearing a new item on Easter would insure good fortune in love affairs. Christian women often focused on hats as the new item. In times past, the Easter hat was the outward material expression of the joyous resurrection. “Of course,” said the Searchlight, “the connection between inner joyousness and the monstrosity that looks like an old wooden chopping bowl sprouting forth a truck garden may not be apparent to all.”  The great danger is that spring rains are notorious at this time of year. Many a woman has wept when the heavens poured forth on Easter morning and ruined the feathers and ribbons of the carefully chosen Easter bonnet.

This ad from the March 25, 1910, Daily Missoulian shows the styles of the time. Via Chronicling America.
After the Easter bonnet, colored eggs are the most familiar token of Easter. The custom of coloring eggs is much older than Christianity, and all ancient people including Romans, Egyptians, Jews, and Greeks used the egg as a symbol of universal life and renewal. Early Christians adopted it because the egg is the perfect symbol of resurrection. At first, eggs were only colored red to signify the blood of redemption. The Daily Missoulian on March 25, 1910, summed up the “modern” connection between Easter bonnets and eggs noting that the hen whose product is gaily colored contributes to the joy of Easter morning. She has not laid her egg in vain even if she has no chick to show for her trouble. However, some of the Easter hat decorations look as if they might have been hatched from Easter eggs.

P.S. Remember these delightful hats?

Monday, April 14, 2014

House of the Good Shepherd

A small colony of five Sisters of the House of the Good Shepherd arrived in Helena in 1889 at the invitation of Bishop John Brondel. He was keenly aware that many of Montana’s wild and wicked mining camps and urban areas supported thriving red light districts. The bishop was concerned that young girls might be enticed into an immoral lifestyle and wanted to offer these young girls (and women of the “profession”) sanctuary. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd fit the needs perfectly. The Catholic order, founded in France to convert prostitutes to a better way of life, spread into Europe and the United States in the first half of the 1800s. Residents under the sisters’ charge were called Penitents. They included women who wished to reform, reformatory children, and “children committed to the nuns’ care for preservation.” The sisters came to Helena from St. Paul, Minnesota, and settled into a convent prepared for them at Ninth and Hoback in a quiet South-Central neighborhood.

The complex at 9th and Hoback includes the convent (now apartments) and the dormitory at far left which is now the studio of artist Tim Holmes. SHPO photo.
The sisters supported their work with a state-of-the-art laundry operation in the basement of the women’s dormitory. The “inmates” (as they were called) did all the laundry for the major hotels in Helena and Great Falls. The complex included a large dormitory adjacent to the sisters’ convent and chapel. The home was always filled to capacity and soon outgrew the space. In 1909, the House of the Good Shepherd moved to expanded facilities in Kenwood west of the city. Eventually the emphasis shifted to teens at risk, and the sisters took in girls until 1967. The original Ninth and Hoback convent, dormitory, and St. Helena’s Church across the street are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The complex is a neighborhood curiosity. Nothing remains of the extensive Kenwood campus except for the former gymnasium. It survives as St. Andrew School.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, Mulvaney postcard collection

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Photo: Pet Antelope

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 90-87 200
Netty Archdale feeds her pet antelope on her ranch in eastern Montana. The photo was taken by Evelyn Cameron on June 9, 1908.

P.S. Remember this strange pet?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Death of Mrs. Spratt

Helenans may be familiar with the story of the sheriff’s wife who died in the Lewis and Clark County jail when her husband’s gun discharged. This story has long floated around, and here are the facts that go with it. The tragedy took place upstairs in what is now the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing Arts.

Lewis and Clark County Jail and Courthouse. Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 953-357
It was 8:30 on the morning of November 11, 1922. Sheriff Thomas Spratt was in his private office just off the family living quarters. Mrs. Flora Spratt sat three feet away at the desk, looking through the phone book. Sheriff Spratt had just completed cleaning one gun and was examining another when it accidentally discharged. The gun was a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson police special six-shooter. The trigger was slightly out of order and after cleaning the gun, the sheriff removed a side plate from it, thinking he had extracted all the shells, and was working the trigger when it discharged. The bullet entered Mrs. Spratt’s right armpit, passed through her chest, and came out under her left arm. She cried out and Sheriff Spratt asked if she had been hit. She replied “Yes,” and died instantly. Drs. O. M. Lanstrum and S. A. Cooney and the county coroner were immediately called to the scene. The coroner decided not to hold an inquest. The Spratts had been married for thirty-six years and had three grown daughters. Before a brief appointment as sheriff in 1921, Spratt was an accountant in the state auditor’s office, dairy owner, and County Hospital superintendent where Mrs. Spratt was matron. His previous employment raises the question whether Sheriff Spratt was adept at handling weapons. After his wife’s death, Spratt was custodian and purchasing agent at the county garage. He remarried two years after the tragedy and died in 1956 at age ninety-four.

P.S. Remember Montana's first woman sheriff?

Monday, April 7, 2014


Some years ago the Montana Club in Helena was undergoing a little cleanup. The indoor/outdoor carpeting that covered the entryway had become loose and dangerous. Workmen pulled it up and were aghast to discover what lay beneath. The historic tiled entryway was interspersed with swastikas.

Photo by Katie Baumler-Morales
The discovery had the community talking, wondering if they would be quickly covered again. Fortunately management chose to leave the swastikas exposed. They are a fabulous teaching tool, demonstrating how meanings can radically change. Research revealed that after the first Montana Club burned to the ground in 1903, members put much thought into the message they wanted the building to convey. They searched especially for just the right symbol to install in the entryway. They finally found exactly what they were looking for. Swastikas are ancient symbols that have been used for six thousand years to mean abundance and prosperity.  Formed with a Greek cross, the arms of the cross can be bent in either direction. “Swastika” in Sanskrit means wellbeing or good luck. It appears in ancient Tibetan, Thai, and Turkish artifacts. To Hindus, swastikas symbolize the sun’s rotation; Buddhists consider them Buddha’s footprints. Swastikas symbolized friendship among American Indian tribes. To the Hopi Indians of the Southwest they also depict migration routes. To the Navajo, swastikas represent the whirling log legend of an outcast tribal member who rolled downriver in a hollowed out log. The ancient symbol even ornaments the Capitol in Washington, D.C. And in 1903, Montana Club founders placed swastikas at their club’s entrance to wish friendship, peace, and prosperity to all who entered. With the rise of the Third Reich, Hitler transformed this universal symbol of good wishes and good luck to a symbol of hate.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friday Photo: Missoula Track Meet

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 2006-26.30
Boys wearing track uniforms from various Montana high schools line up for the start of a race at a track meet in Missoula in 1910. The officials stand at the right side of the photo. This track meet was probably held at the University.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

State Capitol Rotunda Roundels

The Pedretti brothers painted much of the art in the Montana State Capitol, but it was Governor Joseph K. Toole who dictated the subject matter. Toole wanted the Capitol to reflect the people and events important to Montana’s heritage. In the magnificent Capitol’s rotunda, four roundels, painted on canvas in 1902, portray people important to Montana’s past.

The Trapper represents famous mountain man Jim Bridger (1804–1881), who guided many early trappers and explorers into the Montana wilderness. The portrait acknowledges the trappers and explorers who paved the way for the first white settlers.

The Indian Chief represents the Salish chief Charlo (1830–1910), who resisted the removal of his people from the Bitterroot Valley to the Jocko Reservation. Whether Governor Toole meant to emphasize Charlo’s resistance to government authority or his final acquiescence poses an interesting question.

The Prospector commemorates those who exploited Montana’s mineral wealth with pickax and gold pan. The portrait represents Henry Edgar, one of the six discoverers of Alder Gulch. Edgar became a respected member of the early community and lends a special dignity to the image of the rough miner.

Cowboys were already romanticized as a dying breed by 1902, but they provided the foundation for the huge cattle industry that brought immense wealth to Montana. Governor Toole suggested that the Pedrettis study the cowboys in Charlie Russell’s paintings for inspiration for The Cowboy. The cowboy is the only anonymous figure among the four roundels.