Curator's Corner

The Case of the Curious Curator: Transit Whatsit?

Last week when I was searching in the museum basement I came across this strange object:


I had no idea what it was, some sort of microscope maybe? It looked nautical, what with the wheel and gears, so maybe some sort of seafaring device? Perhaps it was used by the man in the crows nest, spotting land through the scope and shouting excitedly, “Land HO!”  These were just my musings though, I wanted to know exactly what it was. Being obsessed with all things gold and steampunk, I knew I would not be able to get a good nights sleep until I discovered this strange object’s function.

Here is what our files told me: “transit has large central compass with attached leveling instrument. Adjustable telescope sits above with 2 additional levels; instrument is attached to square wooden base with front indention for ease in pulling”. This was somewhat unhelpful at first, seeing as I had the object in front of me and could see clearly all the parts, but what I really wanted to know was what all these parts were for.  Once I researched the term “transit” I began to unravel the mystery. A ‘transit’ is a type of surveying and engineering device, used in the early 1900s to help measure the parameters of a land area. Some transits also measured the distance of heavenly bodies, but I believe this particular type of transit to be a land surveying device, not an astrological one.

Transit Land surveying devices were used to determine the relative position of prominent points and other objects on the surface of the ground. They were used to make maps and were used on industrial projects such as the building of canals, roads and railroads.  The Great Trigonometric Survey was done in 1851 and was one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs. It was the first successful plotting of an arc of longitude and it measured and mapped Mount Everest and other Himalayan peaks. I flipped through the pages of the dense “1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue” and found an ad for an “engineers’ and mining transit” that looked much like the one we have in our museum. This type of transit was used to measure extreme vertical angles.


I looked in our trusty database, Past Perfect as well and learned there was another item that went along with this object, which was a mahogany carrying case.Taped to the inside of the case were pedantic instruction on the use and cleaning of the device.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


In the instructions it advises the uninitiated to do no cleaning whatsoever. I wondered what type of cleaning training is required, and what exactly one must do in order to be one of the initiated. Was there some sort of secret society involved, did you have to be part of a strange historical society to be able to handle this device? I fiddled with the microscope a bit and peered through, everything seemed very far away, which makes sense since you’re supposed to do this in an open landscape and not in a small, enclosed room. But I handled the object with care and reverence, and put it back carefully in the basement where it belonged. I was obviously one of the uninitiated and wouldn’t want to be on any secret society bad list.


The Case of the Curious Curator: Shhh, I’m not telling you this

You’ve lucked out citizens because I am giving you a sneak peak into the Historical Museums new gallery; “Growing the Garden City: Missoula’s first 150 years”. When you walk into the gallery there are a myriad of strange and exciting artifacts. A wooden wheel reposes on a wall, while a mannequin clothed in military finery poses in the corner, soon to draw his rifle and enact his duties. I won’t reveal all the secrets of this new gallery, but one of the strangest objects I saw was a triad of logs, wrapped in winding wire, standing erect and horizontal against the back wall.


These are the Wooden Water Main Pipes used on Baron O’ Keefe’s Property in 1890. These were used in Missoula’s first public water system, and although not exactly Roman aqueducts, they got the job done. In 1871, the water system was built by using log pipes and wooden mains running from its source: The Rattlesnake Creek. The Rattlesnake Intake Dam was built in 1901 and in times of drought, the Rattlesnake is still used during emergencies. This water system was later bought by  the Missoula Mercantile Co. in 1905, where they consolidated it with their Electrical Holdings to create The Missoula Light and Water Company. This plant was used to heat and power the Missoula Mercantile, the Florence Hotel and half of downtown.

Alright, so I’ve given you a sneak peak into the new exhibit. Pretend to be surprised when you see it and be sure to check out the other historical artifacts and people! Opens April 12th!


The Case of the Curious Curator: War and the University

It was 1917 and the air was tense on the University Campus. War had begun three years previously and the United States had finally decided to enter into the conflict. There was a heated passion on campus, the youth were mobilized towards a cause, and the University was prepared to help the crusade in any and every way possible.

Times were turbulent and dissonance resonated throughout the faculty and student body. Hatred for Germans was high at the time and many schools had decided to stop German language programs all together. Some popular war propaganda at the time were posters like this:


Stating that “Germany is the War”.

The President of the University of Montana at the time, Dr. Sisson, preached tolerance and understanding. He did not want the war and personal qualms to impede student learning and set up public forums to discuss reasonable solutions. These forums, however, were quickly terminated when the community became outraged that a socialist would appear at the forums. A little while later  a newspaper article was published with the heading of, “Soaked in Socialism”; attacking the university and its supposed ‘treasonous’ sympathies.

As the editor of The Sentinel said in 1919: the students and faculty had to face “a stern reality” (Merriam 51). In order to prepare and help with the war efforts, many of the extracurricular activities were cut on campus. Including fraternities and sororities, sports, and dances. It was not a time for luxuries and the students had to face the hard truth that times were not what they once were.

The Law School closed from 1917-1918, as practically every former law student was in active military duty. The number of male students enrolled at the university dropped dramatically and it was a mostly female student body for a time. In our collection here at the Historical Musuem we have a student notebook from the year 1919. In this notebook a young female student wrote poetry about her experience with the war. She writes about how receiving the ‘noble dead’ impacted herself and the school. Here is a page from her notebook:



In this poem she compares the student soldiers to Medieval Knights of old. Describing them as a “glorious figure…Sir Galahad”, a member of King Arthur’s round table. Her lines are stunning and at the end of her poem she states that we have much to learn from these men. She states, “Each served his purpose, died and passed away/ Each fight for God and country, all his due/ Both seem to live and point to a better way.” It is encouraging to see that even in a time of war,such beautiful works of art can still be created– that people can still find the good amongst destruction and death.

The University sought to commemorate these noble dead, and President Sisson arranged to have 32 Ponderosa trees planted as living memorials to the students, faculty, and alumni who had died in association with the war.


In the present day, the University still seeks to commemorate these young soldiers. . Many places in Missoula are named after men who died in WWI. Dornblaser field, for example, is named after Paul Logan Dornblaser, who died in France in October 1918. His combat diary can be found here: And most recently The Memorial Row Monument has been erected on campus. These are the reminders of the “stern reality” past students have faced and serves to inspire current students to face their unique realities with the same amount of courage


The Case of the Curious Curator: The Name Game

Recently I’ve become curious about the names of things. As a student at the University of Montana, I am on campus almost every day, and I never once thought to ask myself why the dorm halls are named as they are. When I was at the museum earlier this week I came across a book in our collection that explained to me just that.

In the book The University of Montana: A History the author tells the story of the University’s birth and adolescence through the scope of each President’s legacy. Three out of the nine residence halls are named after these Presidents. On the University Campus there are nine dorms: Aber, Craig, Duniway, Elrod, Jesse, Knowles, Miller, Pantzer, and Turner. Duniway, Craig, and Pantzer being all previous University of Montana Presidents.




Oscar Craig was the first president of the University, his career lasting from 1895-1908. Before becoming president he was a Professor of History and Political Science at Purdue University and set about with little money or prospects, to turn a school with no buildings, curriculum, or tradition into a functioning place of learning.

Duniways reign lasted from 1908-1912 and he was made of stern stuff. He graduated with a Doctors degree from Harvard and worked as a History Professor at Stanford University, thus coming with a very thorough idea of how a successful university should operate. I’m sure he made some lasting affects that we still see today in the school. He quickly set about turning the University of Montana into the ‘ideal’, despite the qualms of previous faculty and alumni. Some were not pleased with the decrease in attention towards athletics. After all, we do like our football.


Robert T. Pantzer, on the other hand, was a little more easy going than Duniway. His presidency began in 1966 until [     ] and he was a friendly and well-liked man. He was very invested in the human aspects of campus life and sought about to bring a more diverse course load to the University, introducing Native American Studies and Black Studies to the University Program.

Another prominent fellow at the University was Dr. Elrod, who the book describes as “the most active and valuable man ever to serve the University”. He donated a massive amount of plants specimens, slides, and unmounted insects to the Department of Biology. So much so, that President Craig thought they should establish a library simply out of his donations. “The natural way to study,” said Director Elrod, “is to see things as they are. The laboratory must be supplemented by tramps in the woods and fields”. I think Director Elrod would be most pleased with our Science and Forestry departments, who plan multiple field trips each semester to perpetuate that exact idea.

Aber and Elrod were both faculty members at the University, who appeared to have butted heads over the rule of Duniway. Aber found his style of ‘supervising’ to be successful, while Eloise Elrod on the other hand described Duniway as “inefficient… a millstone about our necks” There was mutiny among the ranks.

Dr. R. H. Jesse had a brief stint as acting president from 1950-1951, but otherwise worked as the Dean. He was the Dean of Men, the Dean of Faculty, and Dean of College, starting in 1918. His service to the University was long and loyal.

Miller and Turner are relatively unmentioned throughout the book, but I am assured that they contributed as much to the University of Montana as the others. All of these men and women are worthy of they’re respective buildings and I am glad to finally know the history behind each of them.


The Case of the Curious Curator: Showtime!

I’ve always thought the The Wilma must be haunted. Stepping inside is like stepping back 100 years into the past and I always expect to see a murky outline of a flapper smoking her cabriole cigarette or a spaghetti western cowboy twirling his pistol. The first time I entered the establishment and saw the trim wood paneling and creaky, winding stairs, I fancied myself in one of those Prohibition Era speakeasies; hiding out from the law and enjoying the refreshments and conversations of questionable company.

My fancies aren’t far off seeing as The Wilma was constructed in 1921 by William Simons, who produced Wild West Shows along with building theaters. The Wilma was dedicated to his wife, Edna Wilma, who was an opera singer. Missoula would have appealed to Simons seeing as at the time it was the very epitome of The Wild West. After looking into some books on the history of Missoula, I found that the city was a hub for saloons, red-light districts, and gambling clubs. (Although perhaps that story is best left for another post).

The Wilma was Missoula’s first skyscraper (even though it was only 8 stories tall) and quickly became known as the “Showplace of Missoula”. The designers of the building followed a Sullivanesque style, which according to the Historic Guide to Missoula  was a style that preached “the downplay of ornamentation” (Mathews 82). The theater does possess a reserved and practical style, but one that is still full of grandeur and elegance.

The Wilma - From Balcony



Here at the museum we have a couple of plaster molds of the eagle sculptures on display outside of the building. I did some research, but unfortunately could not find anything on the creator of these sculptures or why they were chosen to be put on display. But it must have been an ornament especially worthy of The Wilma’s layout.


Also have you ever heard that rumor of a swimming pool in The Wilma? I didn’t believe it either!! How and where could a swimming pool fit?? But the architects somehow found a way to construct an olympic size swimming pool called the “Crystal Plunge” in the basement when it was first built. You could watch a show, and if it was getting hot in there from all the dancing, you could just journey down to the basement for a quick dip and frolic. Unfortunately, the pool was taken out rather quickly since it proved incompatible with the structure. I imagine the water damage to the wood must have been expensive. I don’t know about you guys, but come summer, I’m thinking of a petition for a pool again.


The Case of The Curious Curator: Get Out of Missoula Court Free!

Remember those good old family feuds over the Monopoly Board, when you’d hypothesize about who was starting an alliance with whom, scheme over the most clever way to trick your parent or sibling into giving you Park Place, and struggle not to mortgage all your houses? Well now the Missoula Strings on Tour and Pride Distributors have designed a game that allows you to play and feud in your very own home town! I give you Missoula-Opoly: where you can purchase your favorite local cafe or restaurant, be it the tasty Petit Outre or savory Wordens, and compete with friends and family over domination of your city!


In Missoula-Opoly things are a little different. Instead of purchasing property and then proceeding to buy hotels and houses, you buy property and then purchase clientele. The clientele are represented by green and red tokens and once you have four tokens you have reached maximum capacity and can move on to filling up your other properties. There are no Chance or Community Chest cards in this game. Instead, you have something called Fate and First Security Bank cards, which have similar messages as the original Monopoly Game. You can draw a card and immediately be sent to Missoula Court, or you can be commanded to proceed straight to Start, passing the Southgate Mall and the Carrousel along the way. Can you guess the most expensive properties on the Board, the Missoula equivalent of Board Walk or Park Place? I would have guessed the scrumptious Pearl Restaurant or the popular Trail Head, but alas no. The most expensive places on this Board are The Stewart Insurance Company and In Good Taste the delicatessen. Get your hand on these places and you’ll be running the town for sure.


The gorgeous pastoral landscape in the middle of the Board was drawn by Monte Dolack and if you are interested in viewing more of his whimisical paintings you can go here: This particular print of Dolack’s was chosen for the depiction of the grass violin, which is a perfect match and symbol for the Missoula Strings on Tour. The Missoula Strings on Tour created this board to help promote their program, which teaches violin to young children and travels around the world to share and study music. More information on The Missoula Strings on Tour can be found here, where they also sell the Missoula-Opoly Board Game!


The Case of the Curious Curator: Horses in High Heels

That’s right, I said horses in high heels. Although truthfully, it is not quite how it sounds, but still  amazingly similar. One of the latest things discovered at the museum was a type of horse shoe, but not like the typical metal shoes that you are probably imagining that attach to the base of a horse’s hoof. This object is an actual hand-made shoe that would encapsulate the entire hoof of a horse. This interesting item was donated by Walter Eugene Johnson who used this shoe as a prosthetic for a horse who had one leg shorter than the others so that he could walk more easily. As you can see here, the shoe was created with a base made out of a thick piece of wood to add height, a metal piece along the front that I would presume was used to give the shoe some resilience, and the actual “shoe” part was made out of leather with leather straps, and shoe laces. This horse shoe is remarkably similar to shoes we humans use for ourselves, and even in the same context. What I mean is, humans have a similar way to correct a similar problem when we have one leg shorter than the others and do not fix it using surgical methods.

IMG_9224 IMG_9226

When I saw this object I was sure I had never seen anything quite like it before so I decided to do some research and I certainly found some interesting results. I knew there were some more modern technologies that we have created, but had never seen one in person. One example is what I found at this site:, which seems to be quite common, and I even found what appears to be a similar type of prosthetic shown on an elephant at this site: . However, what I became most excited about finding was a story about a shoe, or rather a boot, used on a miniature horse that reminded me very much of the one in our museum. This story by Eric Mack and video can be found at and is about a horse who was born without a segment of his lower leg, including his hoof. The current owners of the horse managed to get a prosthetic leg for this horse in the hopes that it would at least help him walk (but the owners were happily surprised that he could now run as well with his new prosthetic). It reminded me of Walter Johnson’s horse shoe because it fit around the animal’s leg just like a boot; was fastened with, the slightly more modern, Velcro; and was used for the same reason: to help a horse walk.

It’s true that this horse had a slightly different problem, but I think the concept is very similar and the people who helped these animals had a similar mindset. I simply think that it is incredible that this man, Walter Johnson, went to the trouble to create a solution for a horse who probably only had one other grim alternative; and even though it was a relatively simple invention, it appears to be a little ahead of its time, for it is not unlike the impressive alternatives that we see today.

The Case of the Curious Curator: Need to Know Numbers

In my hand, I’ve got a yellow box, or maybe it would be considered gold or golden. It’s rectangular, it has stripes that look red, but maybe orange, and it’s relatively small. It opens as if it’s hinged, but there isn’t an actual hinge, just the paper-like material encasing the box. There is a brand name on the lid or some kind of title anyway, and other words. Inside are what look like black licorice Jelly Beans, but that’s not very technical because they are actually pills, or maybe capsules is the better word. Hopefully some of this will be helpful.



I give you this strange description because these are the kinds of things that you have to think about when you are trying to find an object that has no number. See, generally when you receive an object for your collection, that object receives an accession number that it can be identified with and you may also describe the object so you have a secondary way of searching for it or identifying it. However, some items slip through the cracks and it is up to us here at the museum to figure out where this item belongs, if at all. I thought at first that maybe I just couldn’t find the number on this object, because sadly this wouldn’t be the first time. Sometimes they are written very small, or in interesting places, or sometimes I just don’t think to look in a certain place. Every time this happens though, I bring it up to Nicole Webb, the curator and she finds the number every time in some place I have carelessly overlooked. That day though, she couldn’t find the number either, and then I knew that this was a serious matter; that this object had no number and it was up to me to discover it. Since then, I have looked over this object again and again, so please if you think there is anything I could be missing, let me know.

Let me back up even further though, because one thing you need to know is how I search for these items with no numbers. I don’t just wander aimlessly around the whole museum as some of you may imagine. Here at the museum, we have a software on our computer called Past Perfect. This software does many things, but for me (and you) the main purpose is to locate, describe, and accurately identify every single item that is in the museum collections. You can search by keywords, by accession numbers, etc. Because this item had no number written on it, I attempted to search for it by keyword. Let’s just say that this was absolutely no help at all. Nothing I typed in turned up anything useful. One of the issues sometimes is that descriptions are so short and simple that they don’t provide much information about the object it’s describing. In the end, the closest description I came up with was “gold box w/lid”. The curator didn’t think this would be the right accession, but I had to try. Now was the time to go old school. So I went to look at the paper records for this object to see if I could discover any further information to help me identify this box as the one in the description. Low and behold…..the same exact description was in the paper files as well.

Regretfully, I must admit that so far this little box has defeated me. Every now and then I go back to the computer or the paper files and try and find this unidentifiable box, but to no avail. I am determined though, and this box will receive it’s proper number. I only hope that I am the one to uncover this mystery. So please, keep your fingers crossed for me as I continue on this quest to find this need to know number.

The Case of the Curious Curator: Blanche Harding and Her Marionettes

As I looked at the objects in front of me, I heard my colleague Stephanie begin to sing the song “The Lonely Goatherd” from the “Sound of Music”. For those of you who have seen this movie, you might be able to guess what this blog is about and what objects I am looking at. For those, of you that don’t, trust me the scene is worth watching and today I will be talking about marionettes, or puppets. As a few of us have been going through collections at the museum we have come across a multitude of interesting things. Some that I’ve encountered recently were five puppets that had previously been owned by Blanche Harding of Polson, Montana. Allow me to introduce these puppets and this incredible woman to you now…

Marcus Daley


Margaret Daley


Mr. Montana


Jim Hill


Solovig Knutson


and finally the woman herself: Blanche Harding


I would like to admit that I am not from Montana, but I thought that there may be some people who would have known Blanche and probably her skills as a puppeteer.  Blanche Harding did many shows in Polson and other areas of Montana and was the first professional puppeteer in the state. Sadly, she passed away in 2004 but she continued to provide her gift of entertainment right up until the end, doing a show just two months prior.

I have to admit that I have never seen a puppet show before, at least not in person, and I don’t know much about marionettes in general. However, that’s exactly why I thought this would be a great opportunity to share the information I have discovered with others. The puppets we have here at the Historical Museum are the ones I have shown above. Blanche not only did shows with these puppets, but was also a part of several conventions such as The Shriner’s convention and the P.E.O Sisterhood of Montana convention. She made special puppets for these plays as well as others like the Polson Centennial show and a show she did all over North Dakota called Centennial Soliloquy for their territorial days. Harding didn’t only bring her marionettes to life through movement and verse but she gave them life by creating them herself (and with the help of her grandson Dan Engle occasionally). Here at the museum we even have a handbook created by her on how to make and operate various kinds of marionettes. Also, most of her puppets were carved from wood and I can’t even begin to imagine the work and dedication it would take to amass such a large collection and master the art of being a puppeteer that she must have enjoyed and loved.

Many newspaper articles were written about her and there was a documentary made about her and her profession, as well. Although we only have five puppets here at the museum, from looking through her handbook it’s clear that there are many others, probably dozens.  I also learned that she had a very popular set of marionettes for a show about Lewis and Clark called Montana with Marionettes. I was curious as to where all these other puppets might be, and although I haven’t been able to get a hold of them, I know that at the Polson-Flathead Historical Museum there is an exhibit called “Lewis and Clark Marionettes by Blanche Harding”. I imagine that they have most of her marionettes, particularly the ones from her traditional Lewis and Clark show if you wanted to see more of her puppets or learn more about her. Looking through all of our information at the museum and researching this incredible woman, I have also found out that there have been many articles published about her in newspapers, Even though I was never around to see her shows or meet her, just reading the articles about her and reading words she has written herself, it is obvious Blanche Harding had a great passion for her profession, took great pride in her work, and everyone seemed to love her and the simple, yet incredible gift she gave to those around her when she brought her puppets to life. For those who knew of her I hope this was a pleasant reminder of her talents and person and for those like me who don’t, I hope this was an interesting and insightful look into the life of a puppeteer.

All of the puppets and the picture of Blanche Harding came from The Blanche Harding Collection (1995.17)

The HMFM Slender Clown


Slender Clown here to welcome you to the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula

With Halloween just around the corner, the creep factor here at the museum is rising! Many times at the museum, we have received questions about whether or not we have haunted buildings on the grounds or any interesting ghost stories. Sadly, none have surfaced, but do not fear, for the Curious Curators are here! A few of us interns decided that we should simply create our own haunt here at the museum. So, this week we spotlight on some of the more haunting items in our collection. Seen here are a clown mask from the 1950s and a clown costume once used at parties in the 1920s to entertain residents at Orchard Homes Community Hall. We put these items together on our lovely mannequin with a beaver skin hat and we would now like to introduce you to Slender Clown. On some nights he can be seen around the grounds, creeping behind buildings and windows, or pop his head up (quite literally) in the curators desk. Traditionally, clowns are one of the icons associated with the circus or children’s birthday parties, though one can’t deny there’s something to be said about the mysterious, sinister notion of what lies behind the mask and the ultimate result of coulrophobia, the fear of clowns.


Recently covered on, this relationship is examined in an attempt to shed light on this notorious fear. Clowns as we normally think of them today come from a blend of the classic entertainer being more common from the mid 1800s onward as well as the costumed monsters of cinematic media. Titles such as Stephen King’s “It” or “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” often come to mind along with other icons such as Ronald McDonald. It truly is an odd mix! In reality, clowns have even been known to exist since imperial China and as early as 2500 BCE in Egypt (McRobbie, 2013). In more recent centuries, names such as Grimaldi and Gacy only add further to the strange dichotomy. Grimaldi, being a famous entertainer in the early 1800s, had a life that was not quite that of his persona. A life of alcoholism and a series of depressing events was a sharp contrast to his stage portrayal. An even darker tale can be told of John Wayne Gacy, who was found guilty of several murders in the 1970s and also donned the face of a clown in his working hours.

Perhaps it is that disarming effect of something that should be lighthearted and funny with a more sinister intent that creates that sense of vulnerability as invoked in the media as well as those real stories which can prove all the more haunting. There is no doubt that entertainment mediums will continue to dwell on the sense of adrenaline ignited by fear and slapstick humor. Hence the reason the clown is perhaps the perfect example of that ‘trick-or-treat’ catchphrase associated with the culture of this spooky holiday.

Happy Halloween!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABe safe trick-or-treating

And be sure to stop by to see if you can spot Slender Clown………before he spots you!