Rediscovering Montana – The Expedition to 1910

When high school students examine their communities as they were in 1910, they learn what life was like in 1910 as well as why some things are the way they are today.

Montana Heritage Project students have researched topics such as education, entertainment, notable citizens, and music. They have investigated major events like the wildfires of 1910, fights between towns over which would become a county seat, and the progress temperance reformer Carry Nation made in Montana (which, according to most of the newspaper articles students have discovered, wasn’t much).

Though students around the state researched many different topics, some of their findings can be grouped into common topics or related insights. Here’s a sample of such topics: Homesteading and Agriculture

Chester, 1909 (left) and Chester, 1910 (right). Students Mitch Violett and Cary Kolstad researched the growth of Chester between 1909 and 1910 and concluded the growth was due to the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909. People were moving to Chester to farm. Photos courtesy of the Liberty County Museum.

Triggered by the Enlarged Homestead Act passed by Congress in 1909 and the promotional material promoting the wonders (mostly agricultural) of Montana, a flood of immigrants came to the state beginning in 1909. According to Simms student Lisa Halseth, between 1900 and 1910, the population of the U.S. increased by 21 percent, while the population of Montana increased by 54 percent.

Photos of Chester taken in 1909 and 1910 bear this out. Mitch Violett and Cary Kolstad, who were both in Renee Rasmussen’s junior English class, did background research on photos that were found at the Liberty County Museum. The photos were probably taken by C.E. Morris, a photographer who “cowboyed” with Charlie Russell.

Comparing the two photos, it’s clear that Chester experienced quite a lot of growth from 1909 to 1910, and Mitch and Cary researched why. They came to the conclusion that, “The population sky-rocketed mainly due to the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909. In 1909 the population was approximately 100, but by 1910 when the town was incorporated it reached 800. Word got around that the Chester area was a prosperous place for people trying to start farming.”

Mabel Ireland of Simms, 102 years old, remembered being a young girl in Bedford, Minnesota, when her father started receiving “a whole bunch of papers, all kinds of literature. They said you could even grow bananas in the Sun River Valley.” The exaggerated promotional material lured Mabel’s family to Montana. They were not alone.

Corvallis students Megan Monahan and Jaylene Swanson found this photo in the book My Bitterroot by Henry Grant. They used the photo to disprove the assertion that “you will find the best soil” in the Bitterroot Valley. Photo courtesy of Jaylene Swanson and Megan Monahan in “Soil Falsehoods”

Corvallis students found the same thing when they studied a magazine supplement published by The Western News to lure homesteaders to the Bitterroot Valley. Teacher Phil Leonardi invited each student to find a fallacy in the promotional pamphlet and then to find a photo and do the research to show that the actual circumstances in the Valley were quite different than those portrayed in the “booster” publications.

Megan Monahan and Jaylene Swanson focused on the claim that in the Bitterroot Valley “you will find the best soil” and that “Corvallis, in the heart of the valley, is one of the prettiest and oldest communities in the state…[with] deep, rich soil and level land…”

In fact, the most notable characteristic of land in the Bitterroot Valley may be how rocky it is.

In a book published around 1910, My Bitterroot by Henry Grant, they found a photo that perfectly illustrated the actual condition of the soil.

They noted that when Lewis and Clark visited the valley, they observed that the hills were “high and rocky” and that their “horses frequently fell.” The students concluded that “descriptions of the rocky soil in this area were glossed over so as to not impede the promotional efforts of development in the Bitter Root. A resident by the name of Harley Sargent told of a man who was trying to sell his apple orchard. The orchard had abundant apple trees but many rocks. The man decided to take a pitchfork and arrange the rocks into rows. Another man came to look at the land and thought it looked good except for the vast amount of rocks. The seller told the potential buyer that he purposely placed the rocks because heat from the rocks was what made the apples so red.” Infrastructure

The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 brought an incredible influx of people to Montana in 1910 and an infrastructure needed to be built to accommodate them. Several recent discoveries, like the internal combustion engine, made building that infrastructure a little easier. Other recent discoveries, like electricity and telephones, needed an infrastructure of their own before people could use them.

Among the projects underway around the state, the “Big Ditch” was completed in the Bitterroot Valley (above) and telephone lines were strung in Libby (below). Once the telephone lines were strung in Libby, the telephone company made connections with Troy and Eureka. Now people could visit without driving long distances. Photo of the Big Ditch courtesy of Phil Leonardi. Photo of the Libby telephone lines courtesy of the Western News.

Because of the explosive population growth in 1910, communities across the state began building or upgrading electricity plants, water and sewer systems, irrigation projects, roads and sidewalks, and telephone systems. It’s difficult to imagine a world without the things we now consider necessities, but in 1910 a great many communities were living without such amenities. Those communities that were building them were touted as examples of progressiveness.

Libby student Anders Larson did his 1910 research using the local newspaper. In the May 12, 1910 issue of Libby’s Western News, he found an article about the Libby Town Council passing an ordinance that provided for cement sidewalks. According to the article, this was “the most important council meeting since the town of Libby was organized.” The council planned four and a half miles of cement sidewalk at a cost of $34,799.00. The article went on to say that “employment will be given throughout the season to a large force of men; it means that property values will be increased and the desirability of the town as a place in which to live will be greatly enhanced; it means that Libby will be pointed to by outside localities as an example of progressiveness, for there are few if any towns of equal size in the country that can show such a fine system of sidewalks as this town will have if the contemplated work can be carried out, and the way is now open to have it done.”

During this time, many irrigation projects were also started. These made agriculture much more feasible in the semi-arid climate. The Flathead Irrigation and Power Project on the Flathead Reservation and the Sun River Project in the Sun River Valley both began about 1907 and were well under way in 1910. The Bitterroot Valley Irrigation Company’s “Big Ditch” was completed in 1910. According to The Western News, this project was “one of the most expensive (both in total cost and in cost per acre for water) ever completed in our country. It ultimately involves an expenditure of about three and one-half millions of dollars. It ranks, therefore, as unique in the matter of expense as well as in reclaiming the largest single body of fruit lands to be found in the Pacific Northwest.” Sports

The Townsend Butter-Makers sometime between 1907 and 1910. Townsend student Bobby Foster put the history of baseball in Radersburg, Winston, Toston, and Townsend in the context of national baseball history. Photo courtesy of the Broadwater Historical Society.

Students learned that sports were as important to Montanans around the turn of the twentieth century as they are to contemporary Montanans. Evidence for this can be found in the many newspaper articles and photos students researched.

Bobby Foster of Townsend focused on the history of baseball for Darlene Beck’s English III class. He researched the origins of the sport, rivalries between local and national teams, and he described some of the exciting games that were played early in the century.

When baseball became a recognized professional sport around 1871, there were four bases in a diamond shape, nine players on a team, three outs, and nine innings. Players wore team uniforms and spiked shoes (although Bobby pointed out that by the 1920s, shoes had to have flat spikes as opposed to pointed spikes). Except for some fine-tuning of equipment such as the adoption of balls with cork cores in 1911, baseball really hasn’t changed much. According to Broadwater Bygones, at early twentieth century ball games, beer was the beverage of choice. Bobby’s conclusion was that the fundamentals haven’t changed all that much in the last 100 years.

The 1917 Montana State College Inter-Collegiate Tournament second place team from Broadwater who, according to Townsend student Gregg Feddes, “defeated Billings and then upended Anaconda in a tight contest with a score of 19 to 18.” Photo courtesy of the Broadwater Historical Society.

Anders Larson of Libby found a March 17, 1910 article in Libby’s Western News with the headline “Libby Girls Win Game.” Libby had played a basketball game against Kalispell that was “fast and excellent.” It seemed important to note that there was “no more roughness than is necessary in a fair game.” A footnote added that “Miss McCarthy was badly hurt in the first half by banging her head against the wall but stayed in the game throughout and played fine basketball.”

One might be a bit suspicious about the outcome, since “no one knew who was ahead at the end of the first half until Scorekeeper Melter announced 10 to 8 in favor of Libby.” Nevertheless, it was officially reported that Libby went on to win 16 to 11. Crime and Punishment

Several students focused on such social issues as crime and how well residents of the valley got along. Corvallis student Carmen Burdette set out to confirm or disconfirm several statements in The Western News supplement, including the claims that “Every man is pleased to meet his neighbor on an

This “invitation” to the execution of John Burns for murder, was issued to Robert Nichols. It seems to prove the case of student Carmen Burdette of Corvallis that not all residents of the Bitterroot Valley were peace-loving citizens. Photo courtesy of Carmen Burdette.

equality,” and “The only case of capital punishment by the populace, in the early days of the Bitter Root valley, was the hanging of an Indian, Pete Matt, by an assemblage of the people.”

Carmen observed that although “in a utopia, neighbors might get along well…in reality, conflicts always exist.” She told of a 1903 argument between neighbors that began over water rights and ended with one killing the other. She learned that, also in 1903, a young boy who had been sexually assaulted and mutilated was found dead. A man was arrested and jailed for the crime but “a mob of 150 masked men took [him] from his cell and hung him on a crosspiece of an electric pole in front of the Ravalli Hotel.”

In Libby, Anders Larson researched a 1910 case that was touted as Libby’s “trial of the century.” Vera Prosser was accused of shooting her husband to death in their private car aboard the Great Northern train. Anders described Mrs. Prosser as a “deadly mix of beauty and deceit.” After the shooting, she “calmly stepped off the train at the Libby depot, leaving her husband’s lifeless body on board.” In reading through the history of the event, it seemed clear that Mrs. Prosser charmed the citizens of Libby—particularly the male citizens. Anders said that after “quite a lengthy” trial with a “large amount of evidence against her,” the jury did not convict her. Anders said, “Vera Prosser charmed her way out of a guilty verdict and left Libby aboard the Great Northern train, an ‘innocent’ woman.” The Business Community and Social Organizations

The First State Bank of Chester under construction in 1910 (top) and the same building in 1999 (bottom). Chester students were successful in placing the building on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999—a first for a high school class in Montana. Photo of the bank in 1910 courtesy of the Liberty County Museum.

Many students focused on the astonishing growth of the business community. Though mining had caused earlier booms, the widespread, sustained growth across the state was unprecedented in Montana’s history. Whereas talk about growth today focuses on foreign markets and fiber optics, in 1910 the talk was about when the next train was due, when a town could expect electric or telephone service, or the number of modern brick buildings that were being built.

Students in Dillon researched the histories of the ten oldest buildings in their town. Brittny Jones found that the history of the O.E. Morse Dingley building, built in 1889, directly reflected Dillon’s history. The top floor was used as a brothel while the bottom floor has always housed wholesale and retail businesses. To visit the upper stories today is to travel back in time. When you are at the top of the building, you find yourself reflecting on the state as it was during the early mining period. By the time you work your way downstairs, you’ll end up in Radio Shack.

Students also learned that around the turn of the century Americans faced troubles caused by social chaos that were quite similar to those we face today. Rapid industrialization and heavy immigration created enormous problems. The people of those earlier generations, thinking of themselves as “progressive,” faced those problems with optimism and invented social institutions to solve them. Those social institutions played a critical role in the development of early Montana, including the Boy Scouts (1910), Girl Scouts (1912), 4-H (1914), Kiwanis (1915), Rotary Club (1905), and Jaycees (1915). Many older organizations also experienced significant growth during this time such as the Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks, the Loyal Order of Moose, and the YMCA. Students found ample evidence of Montanans organizing to face the challenges of life in the twentieth century. Transportation

The railroads were instrumental in the homesteading of Montana. Not only did they provide most of the transportation to the state and access to national and world markets, they also created many of the promotional brochures extolling the virtues of living and working in Montana because they were also in the real estate business.

Students learned that the first train to stop in Townsend was carrying the President of the United States. The date was September 8, 1883 and according to student Grace Wilbur, it was a huge event for Townsend. She said, “many came from far off just to see the first train and hear the President bless the new town. Hundreds of people stood on the platform for hours awaiting the arrival of the train and the President.”

By 1910, a train stopping in town was just another daily occurrence. But trains disgorging ever increasing numbers of homesteaders was something new. Many homesteaders came to Montana because of brochures such as the one distributed by the Montana-Milwaukee Land Company that claimed land in Montana “produced 10,764,000 bushels of grain for 1909 and brought Montana pre-eminently to the head of all states in values per acre of farm products.”

James J. Hill, owner of the Great Northern Railway along Montana’s Hi-Line, did his share of promoting his railroad and the land surrounding it as did the mammoth Burlington system and the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. Many of the towns and homesteads built during this period have all but vanished, leaving their poignant traces on the landscape.

Automobiles began showing up in Montana in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, according to Townsend student Micah Eich, a major transformation was underway. “People started buying more cars and using horses less and less.”

However, horses were still a mainstay for farming until the late 1910s and early 1920s. Scott Ward, also of Townsend, found that many farmers quickly came to believe that “Tractors were faster and more efficient than plowing with horses. Tractors also made life easier for the farmer and his time in the field more profitable. A farmer with a tractor could plow three to six times faster than a farmer with a horse and, because of this, more and more ground went under the plow. The dream was that if a farmer could grow more and more crops he could make bigger and bigger profits.”

Above: The first train to stop in Townsend. It carried the President of the United States. Photo courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.
A promotional flyer from the Montana-Milwaukee Land Company extolling the productivity of bench land in Montana. Photo courtesy of Nancy Widdicombe.
: A promotional flyer from the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Railway written in Czech to target Bohemian settlers. Photo courtesy of


Top: A scene from the Lead King Mine in Garnet, Montana in about 1900. Photo courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. Middle: The logging sled was just one of the many types of horse-drawn logging vehicles used in the Libby area around the turn of the century. Photo courtesy of the Heritage Museum. Bottom: An oil rig in the Bitterroot? Corvallis students discovered that there was in fact an oil well in the Bitterroot Valley in the early twentieth century. Evidently, after drilling and coming up dry, the owners would dump oil into the casing to show potential investors how “productive” the well was. Photo courtesy of Phil Leonardi.

To many people, the history of Montana is the history of mining and logging. While both industries are still important to the local and state economies, they’re a shadow of what they were around 1910. Most people know that mining built Butte but mining was also an integral part of Roundup’s, Libby’s, and Dillon’s economies, to name a few. The timber logged in the western part of the state and along the Continental Divide was used in many of those mines, as well as for bridges, railroads, and buildings.

Students in Libby used newspapers to learn about the mining industry in their town. They found an article from the Western News, dated March 10, 1910, about how the “American Kootenai mine…and other buildings at the mill had been wrecked by a snowslide. The slide came down in the night and some of those at the mine had narrow escapes from death or serious injury. Another slide caught the Blacktail mill and damaged it considerably.”

They also found an article dated August 25, 1910, that told of the Lincoln Gold Mining Company’s recently completed stamp mill and the buildings and machinery of the Shaughnessy Mining Company that were destroyed by the devastating forest fires of 1910. As if that weren’t bad enough, the entire town of Sylvanite was destroyed—though all of the residents made it to safety.

In Roundup, students found that coal was discovered along the Musselshell River in 1873. The U.S. Geological Survey mapped the area between 1907 and 1909, and the Roundup Coal Company was created to supply the needs of the railroad and the towns. According to student Wyatt Schaffer, the company opened its first mine, called Republic Number One, in 1907 (this mine was closed in 1912 because the coal seam ran about 200 feet under the Musselshell River and the mine flooded) and in 1909, a second mine, the Number Two, which was commonly called the Klein Mine.” According to three of the sources Wyatt used for his research, the “Klein was reported to be the deepest coal mine west of the Mississippi, reaching some 387 feet deep.”

As impressive as all of this research is, it’s just a sampling of the work Montana students have done as part of the Expedition to 1910. The Expedition is ongoing, and teachers or students who want to come along are welcome to do so. Together, we’re building a web site intended to permanently preserve information about the Montana of 1910 for future generations.

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