The Montana Historical Society's Treasure State Treasures Survey asked Montanans what they consider the state's treasures to be. This circa 1908 photograph picturing the punch bowl from the U.S.S. Montana silver service, with the irresistible seven-week-old Catherine Moore Cox cleverly posed inside, both depicts treasures and is a treasure itself.

MHS Photograph Archives, Helena


From Montana The Magazine of Western History, Volume 53 Number 3(Autumn 2003), 63-65; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2003

Treasure State Treasures Survey

by Kirby Lambert

This past April the Montana Historical Society (MHS) Museum opened Treasure State Treasures, a temporary exhibit designed to showcase some of the Society's most remarkable collections. Given the incredible trove of artifacts held by MHS, staff often had to make difficult choices in determining what could be fit into the gallery. While setting criteria for the selection process, someone mentioned how challenging it would be to pick the "best" of Montana's past if the field were broadened to include all historic resources in the state, not just those housed at MHS. While such gems as the Fort Benton levee or the Snowden Bridge could obviously not be placed in the exhibit, the topic seemed worth pursuing.
As a result, the museum staff decided to conduct an informal statewide poll to see which physical remainders of the past Montanans treasure most. To do this, MHS announced the Treasure State Treasures Survey in the Montana Post and sent press releases to all of the state's seventy-eight newspapers. The word was also spread by e-mail, posted on websites, announced in the newsletters of the Montana Arts Council and the Montana Committee for the Humanities, and distributed as a flier at MHS events and statewide meetings of the museums association and archaeological society.
This poll made no pretense about being scientific, though it did hope to be inclusive. There were no rules except that responses had to focus on tangible items or places (rather than historical figures or abstract themes) that are still in existence. People were encouraged to include explanations of why they made their selections. Responses ranged from single-word entries to multiple-page essays.
Nominations covered all geographic regions of the state and ran the gamut from the commonplace (old farm machinery) to the extraordinary (the Beartooth Highway), the mundane (outhouses) to the sublime (Glacier National Park). Because replies were so varied and included so many historic gems, the staff members compiling the results grouped responses to gain a sense of the types of treasures citizens value most. Ranked in descending order, here are the six leading categories-along with the top two selections in each group.
Historic places: The most frequently cited historic treasures were the places where history left an indelible mark on the built environment. Survey respondents loved visiting places that retain the physical appearance of earlier times. The The two top individual vote-getters in the survey were Virginia City (above, 1866) and Montana's favorite cowboy artist, Charlie Russell. At left Russell parodied himself in I Rode Him (undated, watercolor and ink, 14" x 10"). MHS Photograph Archives, Helenahistoric mining camps of Virginia City and Nevada City easily topped the list. In a three-way tie for second place, survey respondents showed equal support for Bannack, the Grant-Kohrs Ranch in Deer Lodge, and Uptown Butte.
Museums: The second most popular category included institutions devoted to preserving and interpreting Montana's cultural heritage. While respondents lauded museums from Polson and Missoula to Miles City and Glendive, the two top choices were the Moss Mansion in Billings and the Charles M. Bair Family Museum in Martinsdale.
Natural features: Respondents embraced Montana's famed rivers, mountains, and geological formations as the third most meaningful link to the past. Like the top nominee in this category, Pompey's Pillar, many of these natural features had ties to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Others, including runner-up Glacier National Park, provided citizens with an opportunity to witness the same landscape enjoyed by those who came before us.
Historic images: The visual record left behind by earlier generations received the fourth largest number of votes. The paintings of "Cowboy Artist" Charlie Russell easily bested all other nominations in this category. Russell's legacy tied with Virginia City and Nevada City as the single largest vote-getter in the poll. In second place, vintage photographs-taken by both amateur and professional photographers-were valued for their ability to provide a glimpse into the past and document the "vision of early day Montanans."
Buildings: Specific structures or types of structures constitute the fifth-ranked group. Individual buildings received praise for their beauty, architectural significance, or importance in the life of a community while common kinds of buildings-pioneer cabins, for example-signified a shared heritage to MontanansThe two top individual vote-getters in the survey were Virginia City (above, 1866) and Montana's favorite cowboy artist, Charlie Russell. At left Russell parodied himself in I Rode Him (undated, watercolor and ink, 14" x 10"). Great Falls Elks Club Collection, MHS Museum, Helena across the state. The building most frequently listed was Montana's century-old, but newly restored, state capitol. The Billings Depot was the second most-valued structure.
Native American heritage: The sixth most-popular category encompassed the legacy of Montana's first peoples. Responses split equally between prehistoric resources and the sites and artifacts relating to more recent episodes of the Treasure State's story. Pictograph Caves near Billings led this category while the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument near Crow Agency and Chief Plenty Coups State Park near Pryor tied for second place.
While these six categories include the majority of the survey responses, the list continues with an impressive array of less frequently mentioned-but no less significant-treasures from Montana's past. Although respondents did not agreed about what represented the "best" of our heritage, they did concur that the varied remnants of the past play a significant and ongoing role in defining Montana today.

KIRBY LAMBERT is curator of art for the Montana Historical Society Museum.

The Montana Historical Society's Treasure State Treasures Survey asked Montanans what they consider the state's treasures to be. This circa 1908 photograph picturing the punch bowl from the U.S.S. Montana silver service, with the irresistible seven-week-old Catherine Moore Cox cleverly posed inside, both depicts treasures and is a treasure itself.


From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 51 (Summer 2001), 70-73; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2001.