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Harmon’s Histories: Montana Historical Society’s journey from ashes to 21st century icon

Granville Stuart, 1883 photo by L.A. Huffman

“The Montana Historical Society is the guardian of Montana’s memory. Established in 1865, (it is) one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the West,” in its own words.

It had a rough start, though. Just eight years after its establishment, the entire collection was destroyed by fire.

Historical Society president W.F. Sanders and corresponding secretary Granville Stuart wrote an open letter to Montanans on January 15, 1874, acknowledging: “The destruction by fire on (January) 9th of the archives and the library of the Historical Society is a loss we will not attempt to disparage.”

Still, they were positive. “While nearly all the society had accumulated was destroyed, the society is confident that it will be able to replace what was lost, with the exception of a few manuscripts and some of the early newspapers of the Territory.”

They reached out to editors and publishers to help replace what they considered their “greatest loss” by sending “volumes of their papers” predating the fire.

The journalists responded with volumes and volumes of newspapers dating back to the very first publications in Virginia City in 1864, supplying this contemporary journalist with endless fodder for historical look-backs.

From Missoula alone, the Historical Society has copies of dozens of publications, including the very first issue of the very first local paper, the Missoula and Cedar Creek Pioneer, dated September 15, 1870.

Other local contributions were the Missoula County Times (1883-1888), Missoula Gazette (1890-1892), Missoula Weekly Democrat (1897), Montana Fruit Grower (1895-1900), Montana Populist (1893-1896), and a single copy of the Missoula Mountaineer, dated April 30, 1890.

“Over 821,927 full-text searchable pages from more than 140 newspapers (1873-2018) are available at MONTANA NEWSPAPERS.”

“Another 377,700 pages from over 90 newspapers (1864-1963) can be found at Chronicling America.”

More obscure sites, like Small Town Papers, include publications of the Blackfoot Valley Dispatch in Lincoln, Montana, and the Winnett Times from Roundup, Montana.

Wilbur F. Sanders photo from Montana Memory Project

The mission of the Montana Historical Society has been “to save Montana’s past, share our stories, and inspire exploration, to provide meaning for today and vision for tomorrow.”

The society has “vast historic collections of artifacts, photographs, and documents … exhibited in six extraordinary galleries. In 1969, we became the official state Archives and the repository for state agency records of permanent value.”

Now, construction is underway on a brand new home for the Historical Society collections, the $81 million Montana Heritage Center.

The 66,000 square-foot building at 225 N. Roberts St. in Helena will likely open in late 2024 or early 2025. The Dennis Washington Foundation has already chipped in $25 million to help fund the project.

The chairman of the Montana Historical Society Board of Trustees, Hal Stearns, was quoted in media coverage of the recent “topping out” ceremony, as saying it was a “fabulous” day (and) “a testament to Montana’s amazing story.”

Montana Heritage Center Drawing by architectural firm Cushing Terrell

The society hopes, by 2025, the Heritage Center will be “a world-class destination and community hub connecting thousands of people annually to Montanan’s rich history.”

The society plans to “engage more Montanans than ever in exploring our shared history by developing opportunities that are inclusive, welcoming, and stimulating to people of all ages and backgrounds.”

Wilbur F. Sanders and Granville Stuart are likely smiling.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.