Museum at Central School Celebrates 15 Years of John White Speaker Series

Montana history, culture presentations at the Museum at Central School kick off Jan. 8 with live history performance by Neal Lewing

By Clare Menzel
Neal Lewing will discuss Thomas Meagher, Montana’s first territorial governor, during the 15th annual John White speaker series. Courtesy Photo

After the Civil War, Irish-born Union Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher moved to Montana. Named as the year-old territory’s first governor, the fiery and occasionally controversial figure had his eye on statehood. He died in 1867, one year after he hosted a convention in an unsuccessful bid. But he had taken essential steps to draft a constitution, which, more than two decades later, helped secure Montana’s establishment as the nation’s 41st state.

Commemorated in bronze, Meagher’s statue presides over the front lawn of the Montana state capitol building. And on Jan. 8, with the help of singer-songwriter Neal Lewing, Meagher will be “brought to life” in front of an audience at Kalispell’s Museum at Central School as the first event in the four-part annual John White Speaker Series.

The historical and cultural speaker series was established in honor of John White, who museum Executive Director Gil Jordan said was a beloved custodian and bell ringer who worked at the museum for 30 years. This year’s talks mark 15 years of the program. The series has “caught on and become popular” over the years, Jordan said, because of an “intense interest in local history.” In its early days, the event drew around 30 attendees per presentation, but Jordan now recommends buying tickets in advance, as some events sell out early with attendance topping 70 people.

“It’s really gotten a following,” he said. “We’re proud of the fact that it’s so high quality.”

Part of the enduring appeal is the access provided by the small venue and format, according to broadcaster and newspaperman George Ostrom, the series’ most prolific speaker.

“I think that the series of lectures are just wonderful because they give you a chance to intermingle,” he said. “People, whether they’re old-timers here or they just moved here from way out of state, it gives them a chance to get direct personal contact with the person who knows of the subject, and to learn about the area.”

Jordan, who has served as the museum’s executive director for 12 years, says he has aimed to diversify the topics and speakers over his tenure. Sixty presentations have explored topics ranging from rural electrification and prostitution to labor violence and beer. Stories about Glacier National Park and Native Americans have been mainstays, with talks on wolves, birds, Blackfeet language and culture, and more.

The museum has hosted a who’s who of local speakers, including wildlife biologist Doug Chadwick, Polebridge Mercantile owner Will Hammerquist, and Blackfeet storyteller and musician Jack Gladstone. Jordan says that over the years, he’s made efforts to include more female voices, like those of Flathead Valley Community College President Jane Karas and University of Montana history professor Anya Jabour.

The 2017 series will continue on Jan. 22 with Jordan, who will trace the history of the Flathead Valley back to the retreat of the Ice Age, and will also review the beginnings of the museum and Northwest Montana Historical Society. Author and interpretive historian Ellen Baumler will on Feb. 12 present “Profiles of African American Montanans.” She’ll share the stories of more than 20 individuals who came to Montana among the very first waves of pioneers seeking to explore the unknown. A living history presentation by Mary Jane Bradbury will conclude the series on Feb. 26. Bradbury will impersonate photographer and homesteader Evelyn Cameron, who settled in eastern Montana in the 1800s.

Tickets are $6 for members and $9 for the general public. Gain access to the whole series with a pass: $20 for members and $30 for the general public. Call (406) 756-8381 for more information.

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