Butte public archives ‘a little gem of Montana’

BUTTE—Six years ago, when she was still teaching English and history for Billings Catholic Schools, Stella Burke organized a two-day field trip to Butte for about 80 seventh-graders.

There, among other activities, her pupils went into an underground mine and visited the mansion of Copper King William Clark. But the highlight of the trip, she said, was spending time in the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives.

“The archives really kind of brought everything together for us,” Burke said. “It really helps kids understand how important Butte was, not just to the state but to the whole country.”

Burke has been selling real estate for the past two years, but BCS seventh-graders are still making that annual trip, with the next one planned for May.

“The people at the archives were so great,” Burke said. “They’d give us a little introduction and then just let the kids dig in.”

Letting people dig into the history of Butte is what they’ve been doing at the archives since it was established by the Butte-Silver Bow Commission in 1981 as a repository for non-current government records. It was also charged with collecting and preserving historical documents, photographs and manuscripts dealing with the history of Butte-Silver Bow (so named because of its combined city-county government).


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Ellen Crain has been the director of the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives for 25 years.

The archives are located in a fire hall built in 1900 at 17 W. Quartz St. in Uptown Butte. In 2007, Butte-Silver Bow voters approved a $7.5 million bond issue to renovate and expand the archives, a project that included the construction of archival-quality vaults. The new addition was opened to the public in 2010.

“It doubled our size,” said Ellen Crain, who has been the director there since 1990. “It was a hugely successful public project because it was on time and under budget.”

The archives house 500 collections of photographs, a library of books that drew on the archives’ holdings, hundreds of bound volumes of Butte newspapers, coroners inquests, naturalization papers, maps, blueprints, labor records, records of the Anaconda Co. and countless genealogical materials.

Last year, the archives purchased the C. Owen Smithers Photograph Collection for $122,000. The collection of 15,000 negatives provides an exhaustive documentation of Butte during much of its rich history.

Crain said the archives serve as many as 5,000 people a year, including people who “travel from all over the world to research family members.”

Kim Kohn, the archives technician and scheduler, said she helped a man from Ireland last week, who came in with his son, a resident of New York. The Irishman wanted to learn what he could about the death of his great-uncle. It didn’t take him long to find the coroner’s report that detailed his ancestor’s death in a Butte mine.

Crain said people doing family research make up about 40 percent of visitors to the archives. The others are researching subjects other than family history and include scholars, writers and moviemakers. Another 1,000 people a month access the archives’ online collections, and the staff regularly fields inquiries by phone or email.

“It’s a very busy little spot,” Crain said,

The busyness is one of its attractions. Dennis Swibold, a professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism, spent a lot of time in the archives in preparation for writing “Copper Chorus: Mining, Politics, and the Montana Press, 1889-1959,” published in 2006.

“I really liked just being there and overhearing conversations and watching people doing research,” he said.

He recalled two old sisters who found a newspaper photograph of their mother as a teenage beauty queen, and of visitors who were trying to find out how their uncle died as a toddler in early Butte. They discovered that he’d pulled a tub of scalding-hot water off a stovetop.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The archival vaults contain hundreds of ornately bound governmental documents dating back to the earliest days of Butte.

Best of all, he met an old-timer who remembered as a boy having seen William Clark. That made the past come alive for Swibold as he wrote “Copper Chorus,” in which Clark was a major figure.

“There was a picture in my head I could write to,” he said.

Many visitors to the archives have lost themselves in the extensive collection of bound newspapers, including the Butte Miner, Butte Intermountain, Butte Daily Post, Anaconda Standard, Montana Standard and the New Northwest.

There are also microfilm records of the Butte Bulletin, the Independent and the Walkerville News, going back to the 1870s. They also have scattered copies of Croatian, Finlander and Serbian newspapers.

In the new archival vaults, kept at a paper-friendly 62 degrees and 30 percent humidity, there are tens of thousands of government records, including one of Kohn’s favorites: the complete daily diaries of Maybelle Hogan, county school superintendent from 1931 to 1970. The meticulous, typed diaries were bound in black leather.

Crain said the archives take in about 300 collections a year, ranging from a single sheet of paper to 150 boxes of materials. Everything that comes in is sorted and processed by a staff of seven, aided by 40 to 50 volunteers.

“We’ve only been in here 4½ years,” Kohn said, gesturing around the new vaults, “and we’re already saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re running out of room.’”

Swibold said an important feature of the archives is Crain’s deep experience and eagerness to help.

“She has been so important to so many people who have used it,” he said. “She knows her stuff and she’s so welcoming.”

Burke, the former schoolteacher, said her pupils enjoyed the archives so much because “the staff was so good to us.”

“It’s just a little gem of Montana,” she said. “I wish everybody could get there and appreciate it.”

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