Friday, June 21, 2024

History exudes quirky diversity

by Margaret E. Davis
| October 22, 2023 12:00 AM

One perk of my job came a year after I started at the Northwest Montana History Museum: I got to go to the Montana History Conference.

It was in Helena, which meant I not only made a return trip to where I grew up but also went on a hard hat tour of the state heritage center, which is under construction.

On the way I admired the terrain and fall color, and mused whether people mirror their landscapes. The rolling tawny hills around Helena seemed to me to also be reflected in Helenans’ gentle, open demeanor. Maybe living in the capital means residents become used to a steady stream of people and ideas.

For two days I mixed with history nerds starting with an Indian Education for All event at which two participants at our table related how they both discovered they had Native American grandmothers.

Then I went to Carroll Van West’s presentation. Logging 25,000 miles in four months in the mid-1980s for a state-funded survey, he photographed communities and focused on “places where Montanans interacted,” not just pretty buildings. West recently received an inquiry from someone who said West was the only person with high-resolution images of Circle. West said, “His next question was, ‘Why?’” West’s images and musings are at

They’ll take you back, and also make you look forward.

Over lunch Apsáalooke curator Nina Sanders talked about an exhibition at the Field Museum centered around 200 Crow war shields. Seventy Crow people attended the opening festivities, for which they borrowed horses from the Chicago police.

We delved into the trees with a presentation on Elers Koch, whose ridiculed “Paiute forestry” now informs fire policy at the U.S. Forest Service. The agency’s early love of bulldozers and fossil fuels made inroads. “The Lolo Trail is no more,” Koch lamented at the time. “Roads are such final and irretrievable facts.” Despite Koch never living to hear the vindication of his ideas, presenter and Montana State professor Mark Fiege said, “What he stood for speaks to us today.”

Stu Wilson and Mel Barker from the Flathead detailed a formative summer that F. Scott Fitzgerald spent in White Sulphur Springs, and showed that news and Treasure State trends of the time figured prominently in Fitzgerald’s writing. Who knew that Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is the most read American novel outside the United States?

I also learned about a state poultry specialist who prefaced her reports with poetry, Rudy Autio’s architectural artwork and the capture of Sacagawea. I can’t wait to visit Bear Gulch, the largest pictograph site in North America.

Molly Kruckenberg, director of the Montana Historical Society, led the tour of the heritage center, which won’t fully open until 2025. It will be triple its former size, surrounded by native plants and artwork. A Homeland Gallery, complete with smudge room, will tell the state’s story.

As I headed out of town, I smiled that Helena finally had become cool. Sure, growing up we had the odd hippie hangout, the Second Story Cinema, and renowned ceramicists at Archie Bray. Those cultural seeds are dispersed, rooted and flowering.

You can go home again — and it can even be more fun.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at