28 April 2010

When Old Fort Shaw Was Montana’s Social and Entertainment Center

By Mrs. Martha Edgerton Rolfe Plassmann

With dinners, dances, luncheons, teas and card playing for the officers, and target practice, drills an inspection for the privates, and occasional church-going for both, the list of amusements at Fort Shaw, in the days when it was a frontier post, is by no means exhausted.

There were private theatricals given by the officers and their wives, assisted by some of the non-commissioned officers and the post orchestra, which at one time numbered twenty pieces, and was probably the best musical entertainment in the Territory.

These entertainments were decidedly popular among the settlers in the vicinity, who came for miles around, as to a country dance, to attend them. Of one of these amateur affairs Mrs. Roe Writes, “It was surprising that so many of the Sun River and ranch people came, for the night was terrible, even for Montana, and the roads must have been impassable in places.” This was in 1879, an unusually severe winter. Mrs. Roe continues, “Even here in the post there were great drifts of snow, and the path to the theater was cut through banks of snow higher than our heads. It had been mild and pleasant for weeks, and only two nights before the entertainment we had gone to the hall for rehearsal with fewer wraps than usual. We had been there an hour, I think, when the corporal of the guard came in to report to the officer of the day that a fierce blizzard was making it impossible for sentries to walk post. His own appearance told better than words what the storm was. He had on a long buffalo coat, muskrat cap and gauntlets, and the fur from his head down, also heavy overshoes, were filled with snow, and at each end of his mustache were icicles hanging. He made a fine, soldierly picture as he brought his rifle to his side and saluted. The officer of the day hurried out, and after a time returned, he also smothered in furs and snow. He said the storm was terrible and he did not see how many of us could possibly get to our homes.

Nevertheless, those who were rehearsing were willing to essay it and all managed to reach their homes in safety. Those living in the garrison found their way, notwithstanding the fierce wind that was blowing, as they had the now banks along the walk to guide their way; but their progress was seriously impeded by the blown snow which filled the path.

Others, however, were not so fortunate. “Major Peirce undertook to see Mrs. Elsmere safely to her home at the subtler’s store, and in order to get there they were obliged to cross a wide space in between the officers’ line and the store. Nothing could be seen ten feet from them when they left the last fence, but they tried to get their bearings by the line of the fence, and closing their eyes, dashed ahead into the cloud of blinding, stinging snow. Major Pierce had expected to go straight to a side door of the store, but the awful strength of the wind and snow pushed them over, and they struck a corner of the fence farthest away—in fact they would have missed the fence also if Mrs. Elsmere’s fur cape had not caught on one of the pickets, and gone out on the plains to certain death. Bright lights had been placed in the store windows, but not one had they seen.”

The fact that the lights were invisible is not remarkable, if the two wanderers continued to keep their eyes closed, as when they set out. Such a storm as is here described cannot be said to be a common occurrence in Montana, and a winter of great severity is frequently followed by one milder than any known in the East. The winter of 1926 was an instance of this.

It is not strange that the settlers in the neighborhood of the fort should have availed themselves of every opportunity offered there that would serve to relieve the monotony of their existence. They were no weaklings, and never hesitated to go forty miles to a dance no matter what the weather. And this was long before the day of the automobile, when old Dobbin constituted the motive power.

Towards the last, there were bona fide plays given there by trained actors. In 1880, Katie Putnam and her company came up the Missouri [by steamboat] to Fort Benton, where they played for one night—not in a theater, for there was none there—but in a warehouse. The next day the company started for Helena, where they had an engagement; but learning that the Helena opera house would not be ready for use within ten days, they stopped over at Fort Shaw, where they played for a week. Their acting there was done on the credit system, the sergeant of each company listing the men who attended and deducting what they owed for tickets from their next pay. It worked all right, and the actors were not losers; on the contrary, they realized a goodly sum from their stay at the fort.

The story is told that Mrs. Gibbon, wife of General [John] Gibbon, then in command at Fort Shaw, was the first to being professional actors to the fort. It is said that she and her daughter, while passing through Prickly Pear canyon, noticed a new cabin there. Going to the door, they knocked, and were surprised when a woman confronted them. She was, as they later discovered, an actress who, together with her husband, an actor, had come from Europe to visit relatives living in that region.

This chance meeting with Mrs. Barr—for that was the name of the actress—led to her husband and herself leaving the canyon to make their home for the next two years at Fort Shaw. Their household goods were removed there in ambulances by the soldiers. The first play given by the Barrs, after their arrival at the post, was “Ingomar” with Mr. Barr as Ingomar, and his wife, Parthenia.

The playhouse was about 125 feet long, with the stage 35 feet wide and 24 feet deep. Dressing rooms and property room were in ell addition. The floor was of earth, and the scenic effects were not of the best, although they excelled those of Shakespeare’s time. When the footlights needed to be lowered, the orchestra turned down the kerosene lamps in front of the stage. It is perfectly safe to say that this rude hall always held an uncritical audience. It was ready to applaud enthusiastically any acting, however poor it might have been. But real artists visited it. Among these were Parepa Rosa and her husband Karl Rosa, the violinist.

In these days, when royalty deigns to visit this country at frequent intervals, few can understand the excitement caused by the arrival in America, for the first time in the Republic’s history, of an heir to the British throne. Albert Edward, however did not go West, and its inhabitants were thus unable to visualize the fact that princes, even those of Wales, do not differ in appearance from ordinary men, although their attitude towards the world is said to be of another character. They are the product of their environment, rather than of their inheritance.

Following the example of their liege lord the scions of aristocratic families confined their American investigations largely to the Atlantic coast. The great beyond, reaching to the Pacific, until recently saw but little of them.

Imagine then, in what a state of mind the garrison at Fort Shaw was thrown, when it became known in September, 1881, that the Marquis of Lorne, son of the Duke of Argyle and the son-in-law of Queen Victoria, the Governor-General of Canada, who was on his way east, would spend the night at Fort Shaw.

The whole post was in a fever of preparation the officers making arrangements for his reception and their wives devising menus and setting their quarters in order for the entertainment of nobility. The Marquis had as escort a company of the Canadian “Mounties,” arrayed in their brilliant uniforms, and with their queer little caps precariously set on one side of the head.

They were mounted on scrubby Indian ponies, which somewhat detracted from the effect they produced, as preceding the Marquis, they rode onto the parade ground and there separated into two lines, facing one another to permit the Governor and his staff to pass through. There was the usual ceremonious reception. In the midst of which the regimental band struck up that melody, said to have been composed in Germany, but now a national anthem of both England and America. With the first bar of “God Save the Queen,”—our own “America,” every Englishman and Canadian removed his head covering, whatever that happened to be, in silent testimony of their loyalty to their country. We are told that it was an impressive sight.

What I have given in this and foregoing sketches are but casual glimpses of Fort Shaw in its palmy days, in the hope that they will enable those who visit its site today to vision it as it once was in all the picturesqueness and its activities of its military existence. [Montana Newspaper Association Whitefish Pilot 4 April 1927]