Montana Room

About the Montana Room

What will your find in the Montana Room? Books about the people, places and events that shaped and continue to shape Billings,Yellowstone County and the state of Montana. Microfilm of Billings newspapers from 1882 onward. Yearbooks from city high schools. City directories and old telephone directories. In short, the resources you need to learn about your community. Materials in the Montana Room are not available for checkout, but many of the titles are also available in the nonfiction collection.

Tales From the Archives

These stories come from the archives at Billings Public Library. Buried deep in file cabinets for decades, they are emerging as library staff sort through, re-organize and index them. Some come from newspaper stories from around the state. Some are from correspondence, pamphlets, newsletters or other sources. They tell fascinating stories about the lives and experiences of our fellow Montanans. A new story will be featured most weeks.

Paul Cyr

Paul Cyr was born in the northern tip of Maine in 1832, in a community that had become a refuge for Acadians fleeing British persecution in Canada. Like his French-Canadian family then, half of the people in the tiny town of Grand Isle still speak French at home. There he grew up and attended local schools. In his early twenties, he left Maine to go west, and landed in Helena, Montana Territory, in 1856.

Like many others, he headed for Butte to work in the various placer mines around the new settlement. While in Butte in 1867, he wrote a poem about his experiences of coming to the young territory of Montana. As was natural to him, he wrote the verses in French, and entitled the poem “Chanson de Montana” or “Song of Montana”. As he played the violin, he wrote the verses as a song, and set them to the tune of another popular song of the day called “Charming Eric.” As far as is known, this was the first poem to be written about Montana.

The verses were translated by Louise P. Arnoldson, a French instructor at the University of Montana and read:

 “Let us sing the muses of a pilgrim,Cyr_ChansondeMontana
Of a traveler in the mountains,
Camped in a little ravine,
Along with simple country folk,
Where there’s neither milk nor wine to drink,
Nor faces to see save that of men.

“Among the miners, strangers all.
Each one performs his little task.
Few give a thought to autumn near
If there’s enough to drink and eat.
And even those who work with zeal
Do it to keep their muscles fit.

“You have to cross the western states
To see wild goats and buffalo,
The riches of our Uncle Sam
Are spread upon the prairies there
And ‘long the Mississippi banks
And on the broad Missouri shore.

“Many dangers did we face,
Crossing the river and the plain –
The Indians kept us on our guard,
At moments when least in our minds –
Even at supper, while we ate,
They came and stole our mules away.

“Dwelling near the Missouri,
In these famous mountains,
Twenty-six hundred miles from St. Louis
Where they dare to build their dykes
During the winter’s labors,
Digging in the earth and rock.

“In these mountains, reared so high,
The climate’s all heart can desire.
In January the grass still grows,
However improbable that may seem.
Nevertheless, it is the truth,
Which is very easy to verify.

“In this region that is half wild,
I swear to you, one walks on gold –
In these great mountains, veiled in clouds,
One finds much gold—gold that is pure.
And rubies, too, one finds in them,
Whose worth is also very great.

“The valleys are of beauty rare.
They teem with riches admirable.
They yield good wheat in harvest time,
And give us pasture lands as well.
The mountains give us wood and gold.
And there each one can choose his fate.”

Leaving Butte, Cyr moved to the Missoula area and took a placer mining claim on Cedar Creek.He returned to Maine in 1872, leaving his claim behind, but returned after only a few months. He moved to the Kalispell area, where he taught school briefly. He then moved into the town of Missoula, building a stone house there, and entertaining his friends with his music and stories, and scrambling to make a living. 

In December 1892, he had an almost fatal accident, fording an icy river on horseback. The horse slipped and fell. Cyr could not swim, so held onto the horse. After some time, the river was shallow enough for him to wade out, but he was stranded and soaking wet. Another man heard his shouts and picked him up in a boat, barely in time to save him from death from exposure.

When he was 76, in 1907, his health began to fail, and he prepared to leave Montana for Boise, where relatives were living. One of the things he did before he left was to give a friend, W.C. Peat, two copies of his poem. Peat gave one copy to the University of Montana, but it was lost at some point. Peat was deeply proud of his own copy and treasured it. As far as is known, this is the only poem that Cyr ever wrote, though he composed his own music for his violin. Cyr died in Boise in 1908, and Peat wrote a heartfelt tribute to his friend, which was published in the Missoulian.

Sources: 

Missoulian, “First Montana Poet Remembered,” October 18, 1908
Missoulian, “Grass Valley,” January 3, 1893
Missoulian, “’Song of Montana,’ First Poem About State, Written in 1867,” February 27, 1928
Rocky Mountain Husbandman, “Montana Song Made in 1867,” August 3, 1933

Photo Credit:

Missoulian, October 18, 1908

Previous Tales from the Archives

We are in search of yearbooks!

We need yearbooks from Billings Central, Senior, Skyview and West High Schools! We are working on digitizing our yearbook collection and adding them to the Montana Memory Project but we have some gaps that we would like to fill.

We are looking for yearbooks that have minimal to no writing in them and do not have missing or torn pages.

The years that we need are:

Central High School – 1945-1946, 1948-1953, 1957, & 1968-current.

Senior High School – 1909-1911, 1913, 1917, 1919, 1943, 1956, 1958, 1972, 1980, 1985, 1994, 1997-1998, 2002, 2011-2012, & 2016-current.

Skyview High School – 2014 & 2016-current.

West High School – 1963, 1967, 1974-1975, 1986, 1990-1992, 1994-1996, 1998-current.

Drop off at the 2nd floor help desk or for more information call Cassie at 657-8258!

Montana History & Local History Online

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