Tom Bansak, assistant director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station at Yellow Bay, is a big fan of Morton J. Elrod.
Bansak describes Elrod, the University of Montana’s first biology professor and founder of the biological station in 1899, as “a renaissance man of his time. I don’t think he ever slept; he was involved with everything.”
Elrod came to Missoula from Iowa in 1897. When he first had a chance to see Glacier country and Flathead Lake, he was astonished and deeply touched. He immediately made it his mission to study the area, understand it and protect it for the future.
A bit of background on Elrod’s personal life: In 1888, a decade before moving to Montana, he married Emma Hartshorn. According to data in Archives West, “They had two children; one died at birth in 1898. The other, Mary Elrod Ferguson, attended the University of Montana and became the assistant director of the university museum and Dean of Women.”
In the early years of the university, the campus closed down in summertime, giving Elrod the opportunity to explore the area for months at a time. His first priority was establishing the biological station, one of the first freshwater labs in the United States. Originally set up at the north end of the lake, he moved it to Yellow Bay around 1910.
That’s the same time Congress passed legislation creating Glacier National Park. Elrod, with his vast knowledge and passion for the park, was named its first official naturalist.
The late George Dennision, UM’s longest-serving president (1990-2010) wrote a fascinating book about Elrod a few years ago, called “Montana’s Pioneer Naturalist.” Of course, he was so much more than a naturalist. He was an avid photographer, started UM’s campus newspaper called the Kaimin, and in 1899 wrote a book called “Vacation in Montana.”
That book, one of Bansak’s favorites, promoted “nature-based tourism to Montana long before eco-tourism was a ‘thing’ or became popular.”
In addition to natural history, Elrod wrote about Native Americans, poetry and philosophy.
He hosted regular monthly meetings of the “Cosmos Club” throughout the early 1900s. Topics included “Our Destiny,” “The Nicaraguan Canal,” “The Education of the Greeks,” “Capital Punishment,” “Personalities of Musicians” and “Next Step In Education.”
He operated a weather station at his home for 37 years.
But aside from all that, his most celebrated and appreciated contribution to western Montana history was as a photographer. He documented campus life, western Montana scenery, and at one point even created a postcard business with some of his scenic shots.
Elrod’s photos of glaciers in the park became extremely valuable in recent years, giving scientists a visual comparison between the size and shape of today’s glaciers and Elrod’s photos from the turn of the century.
The professor’s wife, “Emma Elrod, died in 1938. Elrod suffered a stroke in 1934. This ended his teaching and photography career, but he lived until 1953 under the care of his daughter,” according to Archives West.
Tom Bansak says one of the most important missions of the Flathead Biological Station is its emphasis on “education and outreach for all ages.” As he puts it, “science in a file cabinet doesn’t benefit us very much.”
In 2021, the Station employs 40-plus full-time personnel, and “in summers with part-time ‘seasonals,’ we have nearly 90 persons on payroll,” said Bansak.
Now one would assume that among the top priorities of the Flathead Biological Station would be research into the famous “Flathead Lake Monster.”
Personally, Bansak doesn’t believe there is a dinosaur in Flathead Lake. But, he says, “there is an off-chance that there is a sturgeon in the lake” that could account for the numerous sightings over the years.
Bansak says if there is a “real monster” of the lake, it will come in the form of invasive zebra or quagga mussels that would cause irreversible damage.
“That would be a travesty,” he said. “That’s one of the things that the bio-station is doing: serving as the sentinel to the lake since 1899.”
Morton J. Elrod would be proud.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com.