Montana Episode

From Treasure State to Big Sky:
Montana's Naturally Inviting and EZ 2 LUV State Nicknames and Mottos

by Brian Shovers

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 53 (Spring 2003), 58-64; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2003.

License plates, along with maps, travel brochures, motel signs, and even mud flaps, have etched the nickname "Big Sky Country" into the American consciousness. Credit: MHS Museum, Helena

Tourism promotion depends upon evocative imagery and a catchy phrase or nickname. Florida advertises itself as the Sunshine State, California as the Golden State, and New Mexico as the Land of Enchantment. Montana is known the world over as the Big Sky State, a name that the director of the Montana State Advertising Department, Jack Hallowell, borrowed from The Big Sky, A. B. Guthrie, Jr.'s bestselling fur trade novel. Given the success of Hallowell's twenty-year promotional campaign that has identified Montana as the epitome of unspoiled western space, it may come as a surprise that the effort to coin the perfect catchphrase for Montana began much earlier.1

Though the "Shining Mountains' reference to the Rocky Mountains dates to the 1740s, the "Treasure State," first used in an 1895 guidebook, found a wider audience and remained in the popular lexicon for several decades. Credit: MHS Library, Helena

In 1865 Granville Stuart published the first book to promote Montana, Montana as It Is, and in it he referred to the territory using the Shoshone expression "Toyabe-Shock-up," translated as the "country of the mountains." Add publicist to gold miner, cattleman, and Butte librarian on the list of Stuart's unprofitable careers; needless to say, promoters did not adopt the expression.
Thirty years later the state's first nickname to gain wide appeal appeared on the cover of a promotional booklet published by the Montana Bureau of Agriculture, Labor, and Industry. For more than a half century Montana would be known as the Treasure State because of its status as the country's foremost producer of metallic treasure--gold, silver, and, most importantly, copper.2

The enticing Treasure State nickname had stiff competition, however. The same 1895 guidebook that introduced it also referred to Montana as the "Land of Shining Mountains," a phrase with even earlier origins. In the 1740s brothers Pierre and Chevalier Verendrye, French Canadian fur traders and explorers, gazed upon the snowcapped northern Rockies and dubbed them the "Shining Mountains."3

MHS Library, Helena

Apparently, according to historian Joaquin Miller's 1894 history of Montana, Native tribes also referred to the Rockies as "the Shining" because of their glittering snow.4 The Land of Shining Mountains remained in the popular lexicon for several decades, but the Treasure State proved its greater staying power.5
Probably the oddest moniker attached to Montana over the years was Stubbed-Toe State, found first in the 1922 edition of the World Almanac. The only explanation available comes from the Dictionary of Americanisms's assertion that the nickname refers to the mountainous region of western Montana where the multitude of rocks might pose a hazard to the novice hiker. Montana boosters understandably also distanced themselves from this nickname.6

Promotional slogans entered a new era in the 1940s and 1950s as the average American's rising income and an upsurge in the use of automobiles for leisure travel resulted in an increasing number of people visiting Montana. One of the most resonant Montana epithets-"Montana: High, Wide and Handsome"-first came into use during this time. The phrase graced the cover of a Montana Highway Department publicity brochure in 1940, three years prior to the publication of Joseph Kinsey Howard's treatise by the same name. Its original source is unknown, although evidence points to C. B. Glasscock, who stated that "Life in Butte was high, wide, and occasionally handsome" in War of the Copper Kings published in 1935. Both this lovely phrase and the Treasure State, which appeared on every Montana license plate made between 1950 and 1966, remained relevant throughout the 1950s, a golden period for the Hollywood Western and an era that glorified the mountains and open spaces of places like Montana.7

The Montana State Advertising Department borrowed the Big Sky theme from A. B. "Bud" Guthrie, Jr.'s historical novel about the fur trade, The Big Sky, which RKO Radio Pictures made into a movie. The movie still shown above depicts the trappers' ascent of the Missouri River on the keelboat Mandan. Other popular nicknames appeared on promotional materials featuring beautiful scenery complemented by cowboys, Native Americans, and wildlife.
Credit: Promotional brochures from MHS Library, Helena
Credit: Movie photo from MHS Photograph Archives, Helena

As Americans' infatuation with the West intensified in the 1960s, Montana promoters took notice, crafting a new image that gave a nod to Hollywood.8 In summer 1961 Jack Hallowell hosted writer John Weaver of Holiday magazine, who asked to meet Montana's premier author of historical fiction, A. B. "Bud" Guthrie. During the course of their conversation at Guthrie's Choteau ranch, Hallowell casually asked if Guthrie would object to the state advertising department using "Big Sky" to promote tourism. To Hallowell's surprise Guthrie granted his permission on the spot. Ironically, the title of the classic novel of the American fur trade originated with Guthrie's editor, Bill Sloane, because Guthrie submitted his manuscript without a title. Guthrie had sent biographical notes, including the exclamation-"standing under the big sky I feel free"-that his father made during his first day in Montana.9

For more than thirty years Montana Highway Commission road maps, travel brochures, motel signs, laundromats, license plates, and even mud flaps etched the phrase "Big Sky Country" into the American consciousness. In 1970 Montana native son and television news anchor Chet Huntley obtained permission from the State of Montana to name his new ski area south of Bozeman Big Sky Resort. Fearing the Big Sky slogan might be confused with advertising for the increasingly popular resort, state promoters sought a new slogan in "Montana-Naturally Inviting" in 1985. Three years later the State Tourism Advisory Council opted for "Montana-Unspoiled, Unforgettable."10
To date "Big Sky" persists on the state's license plate along with Charles M. Russell's trademark buffalo skull. Finding a nickname to unseat "Big Sky Country" from Americans' imaginations has proved difficult. The state tourism office's 1995 promotional phrase "EZ 2 LUV," derived from a Montana State University student's vanity plate, did not stand the test of time, but the search for the perfect slogan continues.11


The search for the perfect slogan and image for promoting tourism continues, but many fine examples of past efforts are found in the Montana Historical Society Library files. Credit: All illustrations MHS Library, Helena

BRIAN SHOVERS is the Montana Historical Society reference librarian.

1. Marta Weigle and Peter White, The Lore of New Mexico (Albuquerque, 1988), 77-82. New Mexico traces its use of Land of Enchantment to the 1930s and to the proliferation of automobiles and auto tourism. Jack Hallowell to Steve Shirley, October 25, 1989, Montana Mottos Vertical File, Montana Historical Society Library, Helena.
2. Granville Stuart, Montana As It Is (New York, 1865), 5; Dave Walter, "Chronological List of Nicknames," Montana Mottos Vertical File, MHS; Montana Bureau of Agriculture, Labor, and Industry, Montana "The Treasure State": Some General and Statistical Information Relating to Its Resources and Productions (Helena, Mont, 1895), 1; Michael Malone, The Battle for Butte: Mining and Politics on the Northern Frontier, 1864-1906 (Seattle, Wash., 1981), 54. This article is based on Walter's chronology of nicknames.
3. Michael Malone and Richard Roeder, Montana: A History of Two Centuries (Seattle, 1980), 19-20.
4. Joaquin Miller, An Illustrated History of the State of Montana (Chicago, 1894), 9-10.
5. As a part of the effort to promote Montana as the Treasure State, the Bureau of Agriculture, Labor, and Industry began its annual report in 1900 with the poem, "Its Treasures a Wonder, Its Scenery Sublime, Its Climate Perfection, Its History a Romance, Its Wealth a Surprise." The promotional zeal continued several pages later with the claim that "Winters are capricious, but they are sunlit, warm and inviting, and the occasional cold snap but adds vigor to the universal energy of the people." Seventh Report of Bureau of Agriculture, Labor and Industry (Helena, Mont., 1900), 4-10.
6. Walter, "Chronological List"; Mitford Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (Chicago, Ill., 1951), 1667.
7. Montana Highway Department, Montana: High, Wide and Handsome (Helena, Mont., 1940); C. B. Glasscock, War of the Copper Kings: Builders of Butte and Wolves of Wall Street (New York, 1935), 97.
8. Walter, "Chronological List."
9. Hallowell to Shirley, October 25, 1989; Charles Hood, "Hard Work and Tough Dreaming: A Biography of A. B. Guthrie, Jr." (master's thesis, University of Montana, 1969), 51.
10. Walter, "Chronological List"; Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune, October 31, 1989; Helena (Mont.) Independent Record, March 8, 1988.
11. Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune, May 27, 1990.


From Montana The Magazine of Western History,53 (Spring 2003), 58-64; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2003.