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Mrs. Ballinger, the wife of a Farm Security Administration borrower, taken by John Vachon in March 1942 in the Flathead Valley. (Library of Congress photo)

Finding hope in hard times

By Evelyn Boswell

Say WPA, CCC or other three-letter combinations, and people in Montana tend to think about the federal alphabet programs that put people to work in the 1930s. Their thoughts may turn to roads, bridges, the creation of the Fort Peck Dam or the development of the Lewis and Clark Caverns. A few people may even know about the thousands of outhouses that were built in Montana during this time.

"They were very much appreciated," Mary Murphy commented about the privies that relieved countless Montanans in the 1930s and early '40s. Murphy, a historian at Montana State University-Bozeman, became fascinated by the project that sent four Depression-era photographers across Montana. In her book called "Hope in Hard Times: New Deal Photographs of Montana, 1936-1942," Murphy highlights the federal documentation of the conditions of the Great Depression in Montana.

The book was published this year by the Montana Historical Society Press in Helena. It contains more than 140 photographs, many of them never seen in public before Murphy ordered prints from the Library of Congress. The book looks at Montana during the Depression and the evolving mandate for the men and women who photographed the state for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, John Vachon and Marion Post Wolcott started out documenting the effects of the Depression in Montana and gradually shifted their focus to prosperity under Franklin D. Roosevelt and efforts to wage World War II. Along the way, the photographers fell in love with Montana scenery and the western way of life.

"My goal was to try and write stories of Montanans during the Great Depression and bring to Montana's attention these photos, only a few of which had ever run before," said Murphy who saw her book as a way to give back to a state that had shared its lives with the photographers. The photographers didn't have the means-or sometimes the names and addresses-to send copies of their photos to their subjects.

Murphy also wanted to give history lovers another reason to appreciate 20th-century Montana. People enjoy Montana history, but they tend to focus on early events rather than the last century, said Murphy who previously wrote a book on the mining culture of Butte and co-edited a book on major historical events in Montana's last 100 years.

The FSA photographers took black-and-white pictures in 40 Montana counties, and their work propelled them to become some of America's best-known documentary photographers. Murphy's book includes many of those photos. Nine-year-old Bess Harshbarger is shown on the cover as she stands by a stove in her Sheridan County home.

One photo reveals a shadowy figure reflected in the red-light district of Butte. Three dudes from the Quarter Circle U Ranch harmonize in the back room of a beer parlor, while others sing outdoors after a hard day's work. Indians in moccasins and sunglasses watch the Crow Fair of 1941.

Other photos show adobe houses built near Hysham for Mexicans who worked in the sugar beet fields, giant hay stacks in the Big Hole Valley, sawmill workers in Kalispell, Last Chance Gulch in Helena, a cricket trap in Big Horn County, freight trains in Havre, an FSA borrower in the Flathead Valley, a resettlement camp near Fairfield and an air raid shelter at Stevensville.

"Their pictures of Montana captured the dignity of its people as they struggled to scratch out livings from dried-up fields, nurture families in the shadows of Butte head frames, and foster communities on the vast expanses of the northern plains," editor Martha Kohl said about the book. "... These striking images, from cities like Butte to small towns like Terry, present an unforgettable portrait of a little-studied period in the history of Montana."

After working on the book since 1995, organizing a traveling exhibit on the photographs and speaking around the state for the Montana Committee for the Humanities, Murphy said her focus on the Depression may be coming to a close. However, her work has led and could lead to other related projects.

She offered a seminar on women's camera work during the spring semester at MSU. She is thinking about pursuing a project on historical artwork in the Pacific Northwest.

Funding for Murphy's Depression work came from a variety of sources. She received a Scholarship and Creativity Grant from MSU's Office of the Vice President for Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer and a Research and Creativity Grant from the College of Letters and Science. She also received funding from the Montana Cultural Trust and the Schnitzler Foundation.

Life on Ice | Big things from tiny technology | Avalanche Research | Searching Through Hell
Genetics are key to those amber waves of grain | From the bone beds and back
Finding hope in hard times | Group rethinks radar with lasers and crystals | Foreword | Home
Student passion, purpose create "Way of the Warrior"
Chemistry sounded good until the sinus infections
Research Notes | Faculty and Student Awards | Research Expenditures for Fiscal Year 2003

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