Stories of Montana’s history come alive in a new book, “A History of Montana in 101 Objects: Essays from the Montana Historical Society.”
Published by the Montana Historical Society Press, “A History of Montana in 101 Objects” showcases the remarkable collection of artifacts preserved at the Montana Historical Society. Since 1865, the Montana Historical Society has pursued its mission to collect and protect items of significance to Montana’s past for the pleasure and education of residents and visitors. This assemblage of objects and interpretive essays draws attention to the diversity of experiences — the triumphs and the sorrows, the everyday struggles and joys — that made Montana.
Take, for example, a 1908 electric bathrobe. Once the height of technology and luxury, this electrified bath coat was manufactured by General Electric and belonged to wealthy businessman and Helena resident Thomas Cruse. The Electro Thermo Coat symbolizes the opulence and eccentricity of one of Montana’s most prominent figures.
Cruse was an Irish gold miner who struck it rich in the small town of Marysville. He married in 1886 in an event heralded by the New York Times as “the most brilliant of its kind ever held in Montana.” But his happiness was short lived, as his beloved wife died after giving birth to their only child just 10 months after the wedding.
His daughter grew up in protective isolation, with her domineering father fearing she would be a target for kidnappers. She eventually left home, and after a string of marriages and estrangements was found in a roadhouse outside Butte in 1913, quite ill and apparently addicted to alcohol. She died at the age of 27.
Heartbroken, Cruse turned to religious devotion and sank money into the development of St. Helena Cathedral. His was the first funeral mass held there.
Cruse’s story is just one in this lavishly illustrated, full-color book that showcases the remarkable collection of artifacts preserved at MHS. Other stories detail the contributions made by individuals ranging from cowboy artist Charlie Russell to statesman Lee Metcalf; groups including the Indigenous peoples who were the first to call this place home and Hmong refugees who arrived in the 1980s; and even animals like sled dog Kenya and famed white buffalo Big Medicine. The short essays accompanying the photographs come from 21 different authors.
“This book has been in the making for some time. It was unimaginably difficult to choose only 101 items from our vast collections of objects, art, photographs, books and archival materials,” said MHS Director Molly Kruckenberg. “The book, in honor of our remarkable history, is definitely worth celebrating.”
A Farcountry Press companion publication, “Montana History for Kids in 50 Objects,” helps even the youngest citizens understand that historical objects are key pieces of Montana’s past. Written by Steph Lehmann, this delightful guide also offers 50 fun activities for children.
Both books are available at the Historical Society, 225 No. Roberts in Helena, or online at mt.gov/shop/mhsstore.