Preserving Montana’s history through old letters and photos

Posted at 12:07 PM, May 14, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-14 14:07:17-04

HELENA – When a loved one has passed away, or an elderly parent is downsizing to move into smaller living quarters, relatives are often charged with figuring out what to do with those belongings.  

That can include correspondence saved and tucked away for decades.

Reference historian Zoe Ann Stoltz is passionate about preserving that everyday history and she frequents estate sales looking for historical items.  She says families often hold on to envelopes to show stamp collectors, but they rarely consider the value of the letter itself.

"Inevitably they come back, ‘but my family isn’t important.’ And I beg to differ, all of our families are important,” says Stoltz.

Just weeks ago, she came across that exact scenario.  She continued communicating with the family.

"My impression was, once they realized that yes, their family’s story was important, I was able to correspond with her through email and within two weeks I was picking up this wonderful box of history,” says Stoltz.

In it, the chronicling of a life unfolding: starting when the couple met at a play in Butte.

"And in 1938, they start corresponding.  And this collection goes through, their courtship, their early marriage and the last letters I’ve read he is mailing from Germany and Paris, it’s 1945 and he’s in Europe," Stoltz explained.

Senior Manuscript Archivist Rich Aarstad says once those letters are entrusted to them, their job is making it so they can be found down the road.

"To look at the collection and look at it through the eyes of who is going to be interested in that collection and in the process of doing that, identify subject terms that are going to bring that collection to the forefront when somebody does a search,” says Aarstad.

Aarstad shows a table full of examples of letters in the care of the Montana Historical Society.

Pointing to one, in particular, he explained, "so what he’s doing is asking (Hezekiah) Hosmer to send him some newspaper clippings and so forth about why the righteous vigilantes decided it was necessary hang (Jack) Slade."

The letter was sent by Mark Twain in 1870 to the then head of the Historical Society asking for background information for his autobiography Roughing It.

It’s just one of the thousands of letters in their care.  While famous or well-known people may make up a fraction of those, most are written by everyday Montanans chronicling their lives for loved ones and friends. 

"People want to know, historians want to know, academics want to know, just regular people want to know how everyday people carried on their lives and dealt with the various aspects of their lives,” explains Aarstad.

"There is no better place to understand the mark that they made than by reading letters," Stoltz aded.

The Montana Historical Society is located at 225 N. Roberts in Helena; click here to visit the website for more information.