BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) – Eleanor “Ellie” Hamilton Povah grew up in the 1920s and ‘30s spending every summer in Yellowstone National Park, and remembers watching her father trade with American Indians for beautiful baskets and beadwork in the family’s Hamilton Stores.
“They used to come into the park, driving,” Povah recalled. Indians would bring beadwork, leatherwork, clothing, “and ask Dad to buy it. That’s how we started our collection.”
Now 88 years old, Povah has donated more than 1,200 items from her family’s collection – from Indian crafts to a 1930s-vintage yellow Yellowstone tour bus – to the Museum of the Rockies.
“It’s really the place I wanted it to be,” Povah said recently at a museum reception. Other museums were interested, but, she said, “I felt holding it in Montana, near the source of the Indians who made so much of the collection” was “appropriate.”
“I am so excited,” said Shelley McKamey, the museum’s director and dean. “This is the most significant historic collection we’ve received since the founding of our museum” more than 50 years ago.
The Hamilton Stores company, founded by Ellie’s father, Charles, was Yellowstone’s concessionaire from 1915 – when visitors still traveled through the park in horse-drawn stages – until 2002.
The collection includes documents, Indian crafts, historic photos and several old vehicles. There’s a tow truck made from an old tour bus, and a cart that used to carry garbage to feed the park’s bears. A horse-drawn green Conoco gasoline wagon offers a reminder of the park’s first opening up to automobiles in 1916.
The public won’t be able to see most of the collection right away. It will take a few years to catalog everything and conserve things properly. Eventually it will become a traveling exhibit.
McKamey said many of her favorite pieces are buckskin or cloth Indian dresses, which are fragile. Some are decorated with porcupine quills or with metal thimbles.
Along with the collection, Povah gave the museum a gift of $250,000 over five years, which will be used to match federal funds and cover the costs of the collection’s care, storage, cataloguing and preservation, McKamey said. Lots of people want to donate things to the museum, she said, but it needs the resources to care for them.
“Ellie’s generosity made it possible,” McKamey said.
“This collection of artifacts and this funding is going to help us interpret the cultural history of Yellowstone National Park in a way it’s never been done,” said Michael Fox, the museum’s history curator.
Several Indian craft items from the collection were on display at last Thursday’s event. There was a beaded Indian vest with American flag and rose designs from the Nez Perce tribe, a Navajo wedding basket, Pueblo Indian bowls, and woven hats from the Hupa Indians of California.
Seated in a wheelchair, Povah said she’d broken her leg in a fall, but she has always been active. Last fall, she said, she took a trip to Africa with her kids and their spouses, and was only home in Santa Barbara, Calif., for a few days before packing up for a 10-day horseback trip in Mexico.
Did she ride horseback, too?
“Of course!” she said, laughing.
She was clearly enjoying the museum’s celebration of her donation.
“I think this is going to be a wonderful day,” Povah said.