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