When 13-year-old Ethan McCauley stood in the lobby of the Lake County Courthouse on Dec. 19 dressed in his Eagle Scout uniform, he was stationed beneath a weary and mysterious traveler.
McCauley had read stories about the traveler and decided he would make it his goal, and his Eagle Scout project, to raise $10,000 on the traveler’s behalf. He had quite remarkably done so in less than a year’s time and now he stood, delighted, his goal achieved and his project complete.
More than 100 years ago, the traveler had been but a twinkle in the eye of an indulgent railway tycoon, born to pose with grace and beauty, greeting guests as they entered the tycoon’s gaudy new hotel. The traveler did this — did it well — for decades, and looked spectacular all the while: delicately feathered, vividly colored and measuring at least 10 feet wide.
Back then, the traveler was not supposed to travel at all.
Shortly after the tycoon died in the 1950s the traveler’s unexpected journey began in a most dispassionate way. The traveler was rejected, then disfigured, later discarded and finally left to rot. For all anyone knew, the traveler had disappeared forever.
It was not until 2012, as a family cleaned out a Billings garage, that anyone laid eyes on the traveler again. What they saw was not the shimmering traveler of old but a dusty relic, tucked into a corner, stained, creased and filthy. The family picked the traveler up anyway and set off on another journey, one that took many years, cost many dollars and touched many hands.
After being carefully guided through the many stops, the traveler, more than four years after being rescued from that Billings garage, arrived with McCauley on Dec. 19 at the Lake County Courthouse.
McCauley spoke, the crowd applauded and the traveler beamed. The traveler looked marvelous — looked young again — as the gathered guests gazed with admiration.
And, finally, for the first time in at least 60 years, the traveler was given a name.
“St. Mary Lodge,” the nametag said. 51 inches by 120 inches, it continued. Casein on canvas, it noted. Restoration by Joe Abbrescia, Jr., it remarked.
And the nametag said one more thing. It said a most curious and puzzling thing.
THERE MAY be no single person more responsible for the official designation of Glacier National Park than Louis W. Hill, the second son of the founder of the Great Northern Railway, James J. Hill.
The Hills were from St. Paul, Minnesota, but the son became fascinated with a particular corner of Northwest Montana as he extended his father’s railroad tracks farther west. The tracks wound through Montana, through his favorite plot of land, and eventually all the way to Seattle, creating what would become known as the “Empire Builder,” a line that still carries trains to this day.
Louis Hill’s infatuation with what would become Glacier Park — partly out of respect to its beauty and partly to encourage passengers to ride his company’s new rail line — led him to work alongside conservationists like George Bird Grinnell to designate the area as a national park. Through political connections and Hill’s substantial financial means, they and others pushed President William Howard Taft to anoint Glacier as the country’s 10th national park in 1910.
Around that same time, Hill was building some of the park’s iconic resorts, notably the Glacier Park Lodge in what is now East Glacier. Massive tree-trunk pillars framed the lodge’s several-story lobby, with wooden railings protecting balconies from the second and third floors surrounding the vast room.
The vastness left space for plentiful decoration, and Hill was a regular supporter of an Austrian-born artist named John Fery, hiring him to create paintings of Glacier’s magnificent landscapes as part of the railway’s “See America First” campaign. Fery was a prolific painter who at times worked exclusively for Hill and the railway, and created hundreds of works for train stations, train cars and the lodges themselves. When the Glacier Park Lodge opened, he was offered the job of painting several massive murals to decorate the walls.
Those murals would eventually be discarded, shoved in a Billings garage only to be recovered in 2012. If indeed Fery, now a much-celebrated artist, painted those murals in the early 20th century, the 15 paintings discovered in that garage would today be worth a small fortune. Fery’s “Avalanche Lake,” at 77 inches by 77 inches, sold for $117,000 at auction last year.
All 15 of the recovered murals are at least three inches wider.
Hipólito Rafael Chacón, a professor of art history and criticism at the University of Montana, is fairly certain, however, that despite some similarities in style and the artist’s regular work for the railway, Fery turned down the mural job.
“I was suspicious of the attribution to Fery because the medium was not right,” Chacón said. “(Fery) sketched and painted in oils and there are water-based pigments on the board mainly. And there are many stylistic anomalies that pointed to another artist.”
In a summer 2010 article in Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Chacón wrote, “In addition to Fery, a second artist’s work had an enormous presence in Glacier Park Lodge and the lobbies and public areas of other lodges for almost half a century. This skilled decorator, whose name has unfortunately been lost to history, covered hundreds of square feet with scenic views in the long, horizontal spaces above the wainscot.”
THE ARTIST’S name, of course, was not the only thing lost to history. The murals themselves were lost for a very long time.
Sometime in the 1950s, after Louis Hill had died, the new owners of the Glacier Park Lodge decided it was time for a renovation and ripped the murals down from the walls. As the story goes, the discarded paintings were at some point scooped up by Robert and Leona Brown, the owners of Brownie’s Grocery Store in East Glacier. They hung the murals in their store for years, according to their granddaughter, Leanne Goldhahn. Years later, when the grocery store closed, the Browns’ son, Leanne’s father, took the murals to his home in Billings.
There they remained until 2012, when Leanne Goldhahn’s father passed away and she and her husband, Alan, traveled from Bozeman to Billings to settle her father’s affairs.
“I was cleaning the garage and when I saw [the murals] they were rolled up in a ball in the garage,” Leanne Goldhahn said. “We were very lucky I think, too, to salvage them because they were on their way out the door.”
Leanne and her husband, rather than sending the oversized paintings to the dumpster, decided they were something worth keeping.
“They were beautiful, even in the condition they were in,” Goldhahn said. “They were beautiful and water damaged.”
Eventually, the Goldhahns brought the paintings to Jim Brown, the owner of an art gallery in Bozeman. He in turn contacted Chacón, and through other intermediaries the paintings were steered to Kalispell and the Hockaday Museum of Art whose mission is, in part, to “preserve the artistic legacy of Montana and Glacier National Park.”
SINCE 2012 staff at the Hockaday have been working on one front or another to turn the balled up paintings into the glimmering works of art like the one that was installed at the Lake County Courthouse.
The murals were unfurled and examined before making their way to Abbrescia, Jr., a fine art conservator in Kalispell. Abbrescia then began the arduous process of restoring massive paintings that he said were “in pretty bad condition.”
“Typically months go into it,” Abbrescia said of the restoration process. “What I’m basically doing is getting them back onto a mountable surface so that they can be displayed, and then going in there and reducing the appearance of whatever damage there is.”
The murals later have to be framed — no easy task for pieces that are up to 13 feet long — and safely transported, and the whole thing isn’t cheap. The $10,000 the Eagle Scout, McCauley, raised was simply to cover expenses related to the restoration and installation.
To date, eight of the 15 recovered paintings have been restored and installed. Four are at the Hockaday, two at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish, one at the Lake County Courthouse and another at the Goldhahn’s house in Bozeman, although that piece will eventually be deeded back to the Hockaday.
The museum’s goal is for all 15 paintings to eventually make their way to public places.
THE UNSIGNED works of art come with other questions, too.
None of the pieces, so far as anyone can tell, are named, so the Hockaday found local experts on Glacier National Park and asked them to try and identify the landscapes portrayed. Hence the murals now have names like “Lake McDonald Area,” “Grinnell Lake Area,” “Glaciers in the High Country” and the less specific “Mountain Landscape.”
The most precise identifying features are notes on the backs of some of the murals with phrases like “dining room,” ostensibly to remind the lodge where to place them more than a century ago.
Chacón, Jim Brown and others haven’t entirely given up the search for the mystery painter, but there are few leads to work with. Chacón even speculated the paintings could be the work of more than one person.
“There’s enough stylistic variation to indicate that a firm or group of artists did these and indeed there were decorating companies back east that did this sort of mural work, often based on photographs,” he said.
Despite the heretofore-fruitless search, the mission to fill in the holes in the story continues.
“Everyone wants to know who painted them,” Tracy Johnson, the Hockaday’s executive director, said. “We’re hoping that some day we might have someone who helps discover that eventually. You just never know who might go ‘hey, I have a picture of me standing in front of that when I was a kid.’
“Because it’s a personal connection,” she added. “That person-to-person story to find out who painted them and what year they were up there. Were they painted by the railroad? Was it a famous artist? Was it one of our women artists? We just don’t know.
“If we can find out that connection, I think that would be really exciting.”
Entertainment editor Andy Viano may be reached at 758-4439 or by email at email@example.com.