Trunk is a treasure trove of Glendive history

Hunter Herbaugh Yellowstone Newspapers
Friday, June 14, 2019
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These trunks found in the Charles Krug House, now called the Charley Montana House, were filled with Glendive history.

The Charles Krug House, now called the Charley Montana, recently sustained significant damage following some bursting pipes, but that damage has revealed a deep look into Glendive’s history from the viewpoint of the people who actually lived it. As repairs began, the house’s current occupants discovered two large trunks hidden underneath some furniture. Looking inside, the trunks contain a myriad of items dated from as long ago as the very late 1800’s to as recently as 2008.

Newspapers from the 1940’s, tour brochures from all over Montana, photos of prominent historical figures and more can be found in the trunks, but the most intriguing find is undoubtably a full play, created and performed in 1956 for the 75th anniversary of Glendive. It’s title: “Glendive Creek to Gate City.”

Described as a “colorful, historical drama of Glendive,” the show was produced by the Diamond Jubilee Committee and sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, however, it was a sixth-grade class that made it all possible. In 1956, Mary Harstad’s sixth-grade class at Sacred Heart School obtained information from historical records that confirmed the first Northern Pacific Railroad train arrived in Glendive in 1881, establishing the town. The class then wrote about their findings to the Chamber of Commerce, noting that 1956 was the 75th anniversary of Glendive’s founding and the 150th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806. The Chamber quickly decided to sponsor a huge celebration for the event, including the play, a pageant and a big parade.

The performance tracks Glendive’s history, beginning from when Meriwether Lewis camped near what would later be named Glendive Creek, chronicling the arrival of the railroad, all the way to 1951 when oil was first found in the county. It was a massive project that couldn’t be contained to a stage, so it was performed at Perham Field. The cast and crew was easily built out of hundreds of people.

Fayette Miller, curator of the Frontier Gateway Museum, was a little girl when she saw the play, saying it was one of the most impressive things she had ever seen.

“I came from a tiny town in Minnesota and I was very impressed. I had never seen anything like it,” Miller said.

The 66-page script is a love letter to those that came before us, celebrating their tough natures as they carved out their home in the badlands. The dedication reads: “It took perception to see the beauty and possibilities in the ‘badlands’, the big sky and wide open spaces of Eastern Montana in the 1880’s. Those who first looked upon the valley of the Yellowstone and found it good were not drawn to this country because they expected to get rich, strike gold or even oil, but they came and stayed because they liked it. Because of what they did, we like it here too. As a humble tribute to their stout hearts, high spirits and foresight, we dedicate this play to ‘The Old Timers’.”

Among the many local historic figures featured in the performance were Henry Dion (played by his grandson, Henry Dion), Dominic Cavanaugh, Pierre Wibaux, General Haskell and many others. Other historical figures that appear include Theodore Roosevelt, Lewis and other members of the expedition, and Sitting Bull is mentioned, though not shown.

The most interesting character, however, is the Narrator. The Narrator served as the lens that the audience looked through to see the historical events unfold, but he also puts it all in context, as the characters in the play, being from their own time, saw the world differently than how the audience got to see things. The audience had the luxury of being able to study the events being portrayed as well as everything that came before and after. The audience could also see the events from multiple viewpoints, something the people of the time just couldn’t or, sometimes, wouldn’t do.

For example, in one scene, set in 1888, the people of Glendive become alerted when they learn that Sitting Bull is leading his tribe off the reservation on a war path and could possibly be coming to Glendive. The characters in the scene become scared of the idea that an actual battle could be coming but also confused as to why the Indians would bother, as they most likely had no chance at winning.  

The narrator breaks down the wider context of the scene, saying, “The men were more aware of the pending danger, for they knew how deeply the Indians resented the white man’s intrusion into the buffalo hunting grounds which had been the source of their livelihood. That this might actually result in blood shed between the two races was hard for them to believe, for they knew that the Indians could only lose in the end. Furthermore, they saw no reason why this land was not justly their own, for it had official sanction of the United States government. That there was an element of unfairness in aggressively taking over lands that had belonged to the Indian Tribes since time immemorial did not enter their consciousness. They simply did not, could not, or would not understand the Indian’s point of view.”

The scene ends with a scout arriving with the news that Sitting Bull was killed in battle and the threat was over. The people rejoice and celebrate that they’re still alive and they were safe. The Narrator then reminds everyone that, no, Sitting Bull wasn’t killed. He was captured in Wyoming a few days after the Battle of the Little Bighorn and then released by the Army on promises of good behavior. Sitting Bull wouldn’t die until two years later.

Overall, the Narrator provides the perfect look at how the people of the time could look back and examine the past, seeing it from multiple viewpoints. However, at the end of the play, the Narrator introduces an event that had the audience looking forward into the future.

The play ends with a brief scene in 1951, five years before the play was performed, when oil was found in Dawson County. Now the characters represented the people of the time, full of optimism that this discovery would bring wealth and prosperity to Glendive, saying that Eastern Montana would become “more famous as an oil country than Texas or Oklahoma ever dreamed of being.”

Now it’s our turn to look back and examine how the people of the 1950’s saw things. Did Eastern Montana become rich with oil money? The answer is... kind of. While sporadic oil booms have given Eastern Montana’s economy a jolt on a few occasions over the years, most recently being the Bakken Boom that peaked in 2012, Montana’s biggest industries are still agriculture and tourism, according to the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development.

In the end, the play was deemed a success, attracting between 6,000 and 7,000 viewers, according to the Ranger Review at the time. The money that was left over from the play — $1,217.48 — was then used as seed money for the Frontier Gateway Museum, which opened in 1963.