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March Madness: Pick your favorite Montana artifact

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Lewis and Clark Bridge Near Wolf Point, 1930, one of the objects in the “Sweet 16” contest sponsored by the Montana Historical Society./ Hope Good


Next month, 16 objects from the Montana Historical Society’s vast collections will compete, March Madness-style, for the title of Montana’s Most Awesome Object.

The competition, modeled on the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, will pit object against object from the Montana Historical Society’s museum, archives and library collections, reports Last Best News.

Throughout the month of March, an object will face-off against an object in online polls that will be promoted on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #MontanaMadness. But the game isn’t limited to Facebook and Twitter. Anyone can download a Sweet Sixteen bracket from the Montana Historical Society website home page, where they can also vote on the objects they think should advance in the tournament.

Those voting through the website can enter a sweepstakes to win a one-year family membership to the Montana Historical Society, a signed copy of “Montana’s Charlie Russell: Art in the Collection of the Montana Historical Society,” by Jennifer Bottomly-O’looney and Kirby Lambert, or a 7½-by-9½-inch print of “Night Storm,” by Blackfeet artist Gale Running Wolf Sr.

“The Montana Madness competition is our way of having a little fun while looking to expand the audience for Montana history,” said MHS Historical Specialist Martha Kohl.

In February, history buffs chose the Sweet 16 competitors from 65 objects displayed in the Society’s new online exhibit, “Appropriate, Curious, & Rare: Montana History Object by Object.” All 65 objects are still in the online display.

Here’s more information about the objects competing in the  Sweet 16 (some accompanied by photographs; all photos can be viewed by clicking on the link above):

Chalk and Wood Message from the Smith Mine Disaster, 1943/ Tom Ferris


#1 Seed: The Smith Mine Disaster Board, 1943. At 8 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 27, 1943, Emil Anderson and 76 other coal miners entered Smith Mine No. 3 near the community of Bearcreek. An hour and 37 minutes later, a powerful explosion occurred. Only three workers escaped from the mine. Thirty men died instantly from the forceful blast and another 44 soon suffocated. Anderson was part of this latter group. In the short time he had remaining, he used the materials he had available to leave his family this message on the lid of this dynamite box: “It’s 5 minutes pass [sic] 11 o’clock Agnes and children I’m sorry we had to go this way God bless you all Emil with lots [of] kisse[s].”

#2 Seed: Montana State Federation of Labor Certificate of Affiliation, 1908. Montana’s labor movement started in 1878, with Butte miners striking for $3.50 a day. Despite robust beginnings, labor faced formidable opposition, especially after the Anaconda Company consolidated its control over Butte’s mines. Internal divisions also undermined unions’ effectiveness. In 1908, the Montana Federation of Labor joined the nationally powerful, politically conservative American Federation of Labor. In 1938, differences in ideology and method led the AFL to expel 10 unions, including the United Mine Workers, a powerful Montana presence. This and other union charters, donated to the Montana Historical Society, represent the battle for the soul of Montana’s labor.

“When the Land Belonged to God” by Charles M. Russell./ Tom Ferris


#3 Seed: “When the Land Belonged to God” by Charles M. Russell, 1914. No person better personifies Montana’s perception of its colorful past than “Cowboy Artist” Charles M. Russell (1864–1926).  No painting better exemplifies Russell’s artistic genius than “When the Land Belonged to God.” At face value a pre-eminent portrayal of wildlife, it is also a testament to Russell’s belief in the superiority of life in Montana before it was changed forever by the farmers and boosters who closed the open range.

#4 Seed: White Swan’s Painted Robe, ca. 1880. In a centuries-old tradition, Plains Indians men painted narrative scenes like this one on buffalo robes, hides, and tepees to chronicle their personal feats, memorializing and making public their heroic deeds. White Swan — a young Crow warrior who served as a scout for the U.S. Army during the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 — painted the lower half of this magnificent robe about 1880. A different artist painted the battle scene on the upper half of this robe and an unidentified female artist beaded the central blanket strip.

#5 Seed: Lewis and Clark Bridge Near Wolf Point, 1930. When it opened in 1930 the Lewis and Clark Bridge was the only public access to the Missouri River for 350 miles. Located six miles east of Wolf Point, the new bridge connected residents to outside markets and Canadian neighbors. By the late Twentieth Century, the bridge had become too narrow for modern traffic and was replaced. Its symbolic importance, however, prompted its preservation. The Montana Historical Society accepted ownership of the historic three-span Pennsylvania through-truss bridge in 1998.

#6 Seed: Shoe Worn by Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, ca. 1914. A suffrage activist and unyielding peace advocate, Jeannette Rankin (1880–1973) became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1914. She gained renown for voting against the United States’ entry into both World Wars I and II. Although her stance was far from popular, many still admired the courage with which she adhered to her convictions. Consequently, in 1985 she was inducted as one of Montana’s two representatives to Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Artist Terry Mimnaugh referred to Rankin’s singular shoe, now in the Society’s collection, when she created the life-sizes bronze of Rankin that now resides in our nation’s capital.


#7 Seed: Elk Tooth Dress, before 1860. Constructed from two bighorn sheep hides, this dress was most likely made about 1830 or even earlier. Once plentiful on Montana’s plains, bighorn sheep produced hides larger than those of deer, thus offering a popular option for dressmaking. The dressmaker ornamented the upper portion of the dress, front and back, with 192 elk teeth (small, ivory, upper canines that are vestigial, prehistoric tusks). Because each elk has only two such “teeth,” their profusion on this dress paid homage to the hunters’ skills and served as a proud boast for the wearer.

#8 Seed: Beaded Cradleboard, ca. 1900. Montana’s indigenous women used cradleboards to carry their babies, enabling mothers to keep their arms free for other activities while ensuring the infants’ safety. Designs and materials varied from tribe to tribe. This cradleboard, likely Shoshone, features soft white buckskin attached to a wooden plank with brass tacks. The floral design is made of glass seed beads which, like the tubular beads on the fringe, are likely much older than the cradleboard itself, which dates from 1900. The Shoshone people once populated much of Montana but were pushed south by the Blackfeet and west by migrating Hidatsa, Crow, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes in the early 1700s.

#9 Seed: Letter Written at Three Forks, Montana, 1810. This letter — written in French by Pierre Menard and dated April 21, 1810 — was sent from Montana to Pierre Choteau at the St. Louis Fur Co. in Missouri. It details the difficulties that Menard and his companions faced in trying to establish a fur trading post at the Three Forks of the Missouri River only a few years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition had passed through the area. It is the earliest document in the Montana Historical Society’s collection.

Elk Tooth Dress, before 1860.

#10 Seed: A’aninin (Gros Ventre) Tepee Liner, 1875-1900. Staying warm on the Northern Plains required great adaptability and resourcefulness. Tepee liners — originally made of tanned bison hide — were secured to the inside of the tepee poles to produce a second wall that offered insulation and helped draw smoke up through the smoke hole at the top of the tepee. Illustrated liners also served a second, cultural function. This painted canvas liner features drawings that document intertribal warfare.

#11 Seed: Petroglyph, 350-2,000 before present. This enigmatic rock panel came from the Ellison Rock Formation near Colstrip. Before mining the area, the Western Energy Co. removed a series of petroglyphs and donated this piece to the Montana Historical Society. Petroglyphic images of “shield-bearing warriors” like these have been found throughout the Northern Plains. The date of this petroglyph is unknown, but it is thought to have been created between 350 and 2,000 years ago.

Faro Board and Casekeep, ca. 1920.

#12 Seed: Faro Board and Casekeep, ca. 1920. 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 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 19th century. Its play required a faro board, an abacus-like device known as a “casekeep,” and a 52-card deck. Gambling was legal in Montana until 1917. 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.

#13 Seed: Fort Benton Weather Vane, ca. 1854. Somewhat worse for wear, this sheet-iron weathervane once topped the cupola of the blockhouse at Fort Benton, the uppermost fur trade post on the Missouri River. The company blacksmith probably crafted it about 1854. It outlasted the cupola on which it sat to become a symbol of Montana’s early frontier.

#14 Seed: Fisherman’s Map of Montana by Jolly Lindgren, 1940. 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. 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.

Fisherman’s Map of Montana by Jolly Lindgren, 1940,

Copyright L. W. Wendt Advertising, Great Falls, Montana.

#15 Seed: Cree Gauntlet Gloves, 1910. Beginning in the 1880s, Cree Indians in Montana often worked as wage laborers and hired out to break horses, brand cattle and guard horse herds on the open range, working for other Indians and for whites. Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow hired Cree horsemen to guard and train his horses. In time, Crees amassed their own herds and registered their own brands with the state. Taking pride in their profession, they wore beautifully beaded gauntlet gloves, bracers, leggings, and chaps. This pair of fringed, moosehide gauntlet gloves has the Cree syllables ???? monogrammed on the cuffs.

#16 Seed: “Square & Compass” Branding Iron, 1899. By the time that the first cattle were brought into Montana in the 1840s, the practice of branding livestock to show ownership was hundreds of years old. Intended in large part to thwart theft, brands took on additional significance during the open-range era when herds belonging to different owners were grazed together on public lands. On February 10, 1873, the Poindexter and Orr Ranch in Beaverhead County registered the Square & Compass (a traditional symbol of the Masons). It was the first Montana brand to be recorded.

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