Curator's Corner Blog

Monthly Archives: April 2014

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