This post is preparation for a talk I will give at the Gear Jammers’ Convention in East Glacier on September 9. The Gear Jammers drove the famous red tour buses in Glacier Park and returned many summers, observing local development.
When Thad and Wessie Scriver’s two sons were adolescent in Browning, Montana -- white boys on the Blackfeet Reservation -- they were not all that different from each other. Both were excellent musicians, both were hunters, both were good students and both were full of beans. But Harold was the older boy and earmarked to join his father in the family business. Robert was the younger and would have to find some other career. The possible interests and talents included art, music and taxidermy.
No one took taxidermy very seriously and his mother was indignant at the very idea of art, which to her meant a ne’er-do-well life. But she liked the idea of music -- she herself had a little musical talent -- if only it would yield a living. When Robert’s music teacher in the Browning schools pointed out that Robert had major talent and volunteered to help the boy at Dickinson State Teachers’ College where the teacher was going for more training, she agreed. In fact, later when she Robert went on to the Vandercook School of Music on the south side of Chicago, she went along to interview Mr. Vandercook herself and was entirely charmed.
Harold had been sent to Kinman Business College in Spokane, where he did fine, though he would really rather have been a rancher. Each young man embarked on his career well aware that they were meant to stay in Browning with their parents. Then came World War II and it was no longer a matter of choice in their minds: they both enlisted. Robert was already married with a daughter, teaching in Browning and then in Malta. Harold married when he was home on leave.
When the intake questionnaire was filled out, Harold had answered honestly that he was a skilled big game hunter and a crack shot. He was assigned to Patton’s forces in North Africa and refused to ever discuss it. Afterwards he returned to a quiet life managing the Browning Mercantile. Eventually he bought a small ranch on the edge of town. He ran the store alongside his father until his father’s death, then until his own death.
When Robert joined the military, Harold made him promise to answer every question with “musician.” Robert’s marriage fell apart during the war. Stationed in Edmonton, he had been assigned to the Alaskan Division of the Army Air Force Band in which he was the first chair cornet. When possible Robert, now “Bob,” played in clubs and gave private lessons. He also began to look into such projects as mink ranches and fur buying. He married a French-Canadian girl, Jeanette, in an effort to get at least partial custody of his children. Jeanette claimed that if Edmonton had been big enough to support a symphony orchestra, Bob would have stayed there. In the end he returned to Browning and resumed teaching, but it didn’t work. He began to think seriously about what sort of business he could create.
Right after WWII the national parks began to attract much attention, partly as a matter of patriotic pride and partly because the newly reunited families finally had access to tires and gasoline. It was the age of the “woody” stationwagon and the family camping vacation. Eisenhower was creating the major highway system that would unite the nation and that included the Al-Can Highway -- the ambitious route from the US to Alaska across Canada. Browning and Glacier Park were on that route through Alberta, which meant much traffic, both tourists and hunters.
Bob and Ace Powell, co-conspirators, began to think about how to produce tourist items. Ace had some training in forming plastic but it would be too expensive, so they turned to a kind of plaster as hard as ceramics. Bob went back to Vandercook for his Master’s Degree in music, just in case the idea didn’t work. Scouting the industrial south side of Chicago, he found Koroseal, a new kind of flexible material for molds, and p300, a latex mixture that could create unbreakable antlers for small game figures. These “secrets” gave him an advantage.
The experiment was launched in an old service station and seemed to work well enough to justify investment in two lots on the highway across the boundary street from the Museum of the Plains Indian; an ancient warehouse belonging to J.H. Sherburne (originally built by an earlier Indian trader), a collection of basic tools like crowbars and nail pullers, and an old red truck. Bob and his crew, mostly former students, took apart the warehouse, hauled the lumber to the lots, straightened the nails, and put together the first part of the complex that would become the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife.
In 1952 the first floor included a little sales shop, an alcove where a giant grizzly reared, and a workshop. Upstairs was storage for plaster castings and a paint booth for lacquering them with an airbrush. In the basement was a pole rack for scraping the fat off bear hides and an ancient wine vat where hides soaked all winter in mild acid to tan them. Taxidermy and small plaster casting went along together, completing each other. On a selling trip one fall Bob and Jeanette received so many orders for the little figures that they had to add staff and spend the winter working hard to cast, trim and paint them.
In 1958 the second section built was the major hall of the museum where the goal was to present an excellent example of each of the major trophy species of Montana, plus a collection of birds and small mammals. Because they needed a big high space with no columns supporting it, Jimmy Fisher suggested the rafters be designed like bridge supports. The plan was to include lectures on animal anatomy and maybe wildlife movies. By 1960 the third section to the west was two rooms, one a gallery for Bob’s sculpture and guest painters, and the other for miniature dioramas of the game animals. This last was finished in 1962.
After that came work spaces: an unheated shed for saws and plaster storage and the first version of the foundry, which was the old coal shed from the Browning Merc, expanded on the north end with a cement block space for baking molds and melting bronze. Bob’s own house, the first he had owned, was also built in the backyard, which was so crowded by this time that he considered just roofing the whole thing over.
Instead, across the highway at that time was a motel and cafe, and he bought land behind it. By 1966 this became a corral with the moved-in addition of the old stable that had sheltered the Browning Merc delivery wagon and faithful horse, Old Rock. In time he bought the motel/cafe and moved it out to his ranch west of town. When the owner of the concrete tipi threatened to demolish it, he bought it and moved it across the street from the museum, where eventually the Circle K was built. In 1988 he gave the concrete tipi to the Town of Browning and it was moved back to its original location. One might call it the creeping tipi.
By then the bronze business was major. Bob bought out his neighbor to the east and added a steel building to house a two-story gallery. Upstairs presented an example of each of his works and downstairs was an elegant setting for his portraits of Blackfeet. To the north, out back, the foundry was rebuilt, a far more ambitious and spacious industrial factory capable of casting heroic-sized bronzes. He rehung the massive skulls that gave the foundry its name: the Bighorn Foundry. When he bought a ranch west of town, called the Flatiron Ranch, the outbuildings were soon filled with molds for full-mounted animals, old farm and ranch equipment, a spring wagon, a sleigh, and a restored buggy.
By the time Bob Scriver died in January, 1999, the value of his estate was in the multi-millions. It was dispersed quickly, awkwardly and inexpertly. His sculpture molds were destroyed as he had requested and evidently the taxidermy molds were unrecognized and dumped as junk. I don’t know what happened to the original plasters. Eloise Cobell, with her usual resourcefulness, managed to preserve local ownership of the Flatiron Ranch by arranging cooperation between the Nature Conservancy and the Blackfeet Land Trust. The museum complex was sold to the Blackfeet Tribe and became the Blackfeet Heritage Center. The bronze portraits of Blackfeet went to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton. The rest of the estate went to the Montana Historical Society where it is stored in a warehouse next to the Fish and Game complex by the airport. All the full-mounts went to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation which already has a huge collection of such figures. The paintings, whether by Russell, Remington, Rungius or Fery, were dispersed in two auctions, one in a major Coeur d’Alene Galleries Auction held in Reno and the other in a near-private auction in Kalispell.
A great deal of Blackfeet artifact material remained even after Bob sold the Scriver collection to the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton. Much of it was intercepted and impounded at the Canadian border on one pretext or another. Some of it was stored at the Montana Historical Society alongside impounded materials from other people. Anything more than that is undisclosed. Whether all or part of it was “repatriated,” in the sense that it was given to enrolled Blackfeet members, is not known. Scriver’s personal Thunder Pipe Bundle which was never sold in his lifetime, disappeared. The judge who presided over his probate hearings lost the next election and left.
Rumors continue to circulate that millions are missing. Bob’s fourth wife’s lawyers hint that the money went to her brothers when she died in 2003, but that’s unconfirmed. Since they live in Vancouver, B.C. and are quite wary, it’s hard to investigate. There is a small “Scriver Family Trust” with a lawyer in Helena that grants an annual modest bursary to art students at Carroll College. Each of Bob’s grandchildren received $10,000, as did Bill Byrne, the student who helped demolish that original old warehouse.
After Harold’s death, the Browning Mercantile was owned and run by his daughter, Laurel, who eventually sold it. Not long afterwards it burned to the ground. The land was sold to the United States Postal Service which built a big new Post Office there. The house where Harold and Robert grew up is now the Eagle Calf Medical Supplies business managed by Leland Ground. Right next door is Cuts Wood Nitzipuwasin Real-Speak Immersion Blackfeet School. And so it is that times change. Between 1951 when Bob was 37 and 1999 when he died at 85, he created thousands of sculptures, some of them classics, mostly in storage -- unseen.