Historical Center Embarks on Archive Preservation Project

Montana Memory Project to preserve town history

By Katie Moen, news@wyellowstonestar.com

WEST YELLOWSTONE – In its heyday, the heavy steel door to the bank vault guarded some of West Yellowstone’s most valuable possessions. Now though in the bank, long-since converted into a library, the doors to the padlocked room still help to protect a hidden treasure of an entirely different sort.

“The archives were moved into the vault several years ago when we realized that the museum was just too difficult to keep properly heated in the winter,” said Ellen Butler, curator and fundraising assistant for the Yellowstone Historic Center. “This works out really well because, obviously, this is one of the safest places in town.”

To walk into the vault today is to be greeted by a fantastic assortment of odds and ends that, when put together, bring the storied past of West Yellowstone to life.

On one shelf, for example, is a carton reading “Union Pacific brakeman’s hat.” It rests beside an old fishing creel. Near the back, family photo albums from the 1920s tell the story of what it might have been like to visit Yellowstone National Park in the days before cars were allowed to pass through its gates.

Up front, nestled in next to a uniform worn by one of the original Union Pacific Dining Hall singing waitresses, is a curious box labeled “Snaggletooth skull. Do not throw out.”

When asked about the box and its intriguing contents, Butler laughed.

“Oh, that’s Snaggletooth… or at least what’s left of him,” she said. “He was a dumpster bear that used to wander around town in the 1960s or 70s looking for snacks. Obviously, people don’t do it anymore, but they used to set food out to try to get the grizzlies to come into town as a tourist attraction. This guy was sort of a town favorite. He was killed by poachers, but people couldn’t let him go, so he was taxidermied and we have him on display over in the museum. We kept his skull, too, apparently, and now it’s in here.”

Though it would be all too easy to spend a cozy afternoon pouring through the archives and getting lost in local history, the collection, unfortunately, is not currently very accessible to the public.

“People love being able to come in here and see all of this stuff, but we can’t let anyone without supervision,” said Butler. “These things are very delicate, and we have to do everything that we can to protect them until we have either the space or the opportunity to display them.”

To make the archive a bit more readily available to curiosity seekers and local history buffs alike, Butler said the Center is currently embarking on a new digitization project designed to bring the incredible collection and all of the stories behind to life.

“We’re working with the Montana Memory Project to get as much of this online as possible,” said Butler. “We want people to be able to have access to all of this stuff, but we just don’t necessarily have the physical space to display it all at once.”

The Montana Memory Project (MMP) is an online library of digital collections relating to Montana’s cultural heritage.

“In part, these collections document the Montana experience,” the MMP homepage states. “Access is free and open through the Internet. Many of these items are digitized copies of historic material, some items are contemporary. All serve as a resource for education, business, pleasure, and lifelong learning. Contents may include maps, copies of photographs, rare books, historic documents, diaries, oral histories, audio and video clips, paintings, illustrations and art.”

Included in the Center’s unique contributions to the MMP, Butler said, would be items ranging from captioned postcards dating back to the earliest days of Yellowstone National Park, historic maps of the West Yellowstone region, snapshots of daily life during the hardscrabble first few winters in the west, train schedules, local artwork, park guidebooks from the turn of the century and any number of other unique materials.

“We also have over 150 recorded oral histories from local residents, business owners and anyone else who seemed to have a good story to tell,” said Butler. “It’s a lot of information to process, but by getting it all out of this room and onto the internet, people will have the opportunity to sort through it as they want to and pick out the pieces that interest them most.”

Digitization efforts will begin in earnest as soon as the Center is able to secure the requisite funding for the project, Butler said.

“Our goal for the first stage is to raise $10,000 through grants, donations and other contributions,” she said. “We were able to bring in about $2,500 of that during our end-of-the-year fundraiser in 2018, but we have a ways to go before we can really get this thing off the ground.”

Initially, Butler said, the project will focus on documents, photos and maps, but could eventually branch out to include detailed photos and descriptions of some of the collection’s more tactile items as well.

“Some of our board members have been tossing around the idea of establishing our own online archive one day, but that would be much further down the line,” she said. “For now, out goal is to make all of this information as accessible as possible without biting off more than we can chew from a financial perspective. We’re really excited about this. We know it’s going to be a lot of work, but people should be able to check this stuff out. It’s all part of why we’re here.”

For more information on the archive project or to make a contribution to the Yellowstone Historic Center, visit www.yellowstonehistoriccenter.org.

[As seen in the West Yellowstone Star February 21, 2019.]