The Story of a Butte Walldog: Frank G. Meinhart, Sign Painter and Artist

“Walldog” is an old term for the sign, mural, and billboard artists who painted large scale advertisements on the sides of buildings throughout the country.  You can still find haunting evidence of their work in many of the cities and towns of Montana.   Uptown Butte is a particular treasure trove of these “ghost signs”.

These old advertisements are not usually signed, but I recently noticed that a couple of the more distinctive Butte signs that I’ve taken pictures of are signed with the name “Meinhart.”

The first one I noticed was on an advertisement for “Dry Climate” cigars:

union made cigar ad

I was initially focused on the fact that the cigars were “union made”, but then I noticed the “Meinhart” in the lower right corner.

I looked more carefully at my other Butte pictures, and discovered his name again once I zoomed in on an advertisement for Sweet’s Candies:

detail of Butte ghost sign 1

See it there in the bottom center of the sign?  So who was this guy who signed his work when most of his cohorts were content to stay anonymous?

I searched the Montana Historical Society research catalog, and discovered that they have two boxes of information on the Butte signpainter Frank G. Meinhart, including his obituary from May 22, 1947, when he died – by drowning – at age 73.

Frank Meinhart came to Montana from St. Louis when he was a young man, and lived and worked in Butte until about 1927, when he and his wife moved to Hamilton.  He seemed to do quite well for himself: the archives include many letters from the manager of a ranch he owned in the Wise River Valley, as well as references to other land that he owned near Bozeman. In fact, on the back of one of the letters, I found a couple of small sketches that Frank was obviously trying out for the Congressional campaign of Senator Thomas Walsh:

detail of drawings

There is even a little biographical note that Frank seemed to have written about himself in which he notes that he is a personal friend of Charlie Russell and E.S. Paxson, another well-known western artist.   He named his only son Russell, so if he wasn’t a friend he certainly was an admirer.   Tragically, young Russell died at only 8 years old from a tooth infection, and the Meinharts had no other children. The Photographic Archives of the Historical Society have the following picture of Russell, probably taken a couple of years before he died.   It’s an unusual photograph for the time — informal and truly boy-like — and I can imagine that Frank and his wife were thankful they had it:


Frank set up shop at 119 South Main Street in Butte.   The Photographic Archives also have a number of photographs of his work, including one of the interior of his workshop:


Included in the archives as well are a number of photographs of Frank Meinhart’s work and a work-in-progress.   He painted a number of walls for the Sweet’s Chocolates Company.



Looks like they’re painting over an old flour advertisement, doesn’t it? Also looks like they might need the services of “Sam R. White, Undertaker” if they don’t watch their step.   Here are a couple more from the archives:



Frank Meinhart painted landscapes and western scenes in addition to his sign painting work, and I would dearly love to find one of his paintings one day. Might just happen…

Three Generations of a 1905 Eastern Montana Homestead

Update, January, 2013:  Earlier this month the new owner of the Borntrager homestead burned the old house down.   It was not in good shape, so the decision is understandable, but it’s sad.  The house was my husband’s grandparents’ house, and was the home where his mother and his many aunts and uncles grew up.    So this post is in memory of the original Mennonite homesteaders and the wonderful house they built and lived in for nearly a hundred years. 

(The following information on the Borntrager homestead is based on the chapter on Mr. and Mrs. Glen Borntrager in the wonderful book As I Remember…Stories of Eastern Montana’s Pioneers, by Mrs. Morris (Glady Mullet) Kauffman.  Vol. 1.  Glen and Cora Borntrager were my husband’s grandparents.)

Glen Borntrager, 16 years old

On an afternoon in September, 1905, 19 year old Glen Borntrager and his father Joe loaded up their wagon in Glendive, Montana, and headed out for Thirteen Mile Creek, about 30 miles to the northwest.   It was a long trip, and when they reached Morgan Table and were overlooking the valley, Glen was not impressed. He thought that turning around and going back was their best option.  The yipping coyotes were not reassuring, either. But Joe knew that there was no reason to go back.

He had sold off his land and belongings in Illinois, and had hired Isaiah Kauffman to build a house for the Borntrager family on the homestead on Thirteen Mile Creek.

And this was not the typical homesteader’s shack.  The Borntrager house was a well-built two story, Prairie-style farmhouse.

The Borntrager farmhouse in the 1940s

Joe Borntrager left Fayette County, Illinois to homestead in Montana. He homesteaded his quarter section, and within a couple of years Glen filed on a quarter section just north of his father’s section. The Borntragers were Mennonite, and there were other Mennonite families in the neighborhood, including the Eli Chupp family. Glen courted Cora Chupp, and they were married in 1907. They spent their whole married life in the farmhouse that the Borntragers had built in the summer of 1905.

Glen had four brothers and one sister, but he was the only one of them who stuck it out in Montana through the rough years of drought, cold and grasshopper infestations.  He and Cora had seven children: Floyd, Elmer, Oscar, Mahlon, Esther, Lillie and Lena.   Floyd took over the family farm, and farmed until old age, when he moved into Glendive.   Lillie and Lena – who were twins – both married and stayed in the farming

Lillie and Lena in 1920

community that they grew up in, while Esther married a Mennonite preacher and moved to western Montana.   Oscar and Mahlon both farmed in the area, and Elmer became a Mennonite preacher at the little church that his father had helped build.   The church, which was called Red Top because of its red roof, is still there today.

My husband’s mother Lillie, and her husband raised four boys not far from the home she grew up in.    Here they are in 1957, along with Grandma Cora:

A Winter Search for Estella’s Cabin: Looking for the Belmont Mine

Estella and William Muth lived in the tiny mining town of Belmont, Montana in 1881.  Belmont no longer exists, but I did find the Belmont Mine on a map, and today we decided to put on the snowshoes and see if we could find the mine, and maybe even a cabin or two.

We started off at Ottawa Gulch, right above the town of Marysville.  Marysville was a booming town of about  4,000 in the 1880’s, and Estella Muth often mentioned heading “downtown” from her house in Belmont.  Marysville had a drug store, grocery, churches, a number of saloons, and a post office, which was serviced by a train that came from Helena.   Today fewer than 200 people live there.

We snowshoed uphill, working our way southwest through the forest, and after about an hour of hiking we found a small structure:

 Not sure what this building was used for, but right below it was a small stamp mill:

The "stamps" inside the mill: used to crush the ore

The stamp mill crushed the ore so that the gold could be extracted.  Large stamp mills must have been incredibly noisy; the stamps pounded on the ore day and night.   I’m sure that the pounding of the crushers was a constant soundtrack to Estella’s life in Belmont.   Indeed, Estella mentioned in her diary that the mill kept running even after the six men were killed in the “Belmont disaster.”   The Belmont stamp mill was a large one, with 30 stamps, and I learned today that it was destroyed in 1944 as a training exercise for a demolition team from nearby Fort Harrison.  So this little mill that we found was not the one for the Belmont Mine. Nonetheless, it was an interesting discovery.  Here are some more pictures of the stamp mill:

Interior: the big chute for the ore

Big wheel for the flat belt that transmitted the power from the steam engine

Another shot of the interior

We didn’t find any standing cabins on this trip, but we plan to return in the summer and continue the search!

If you’re interested in more detail about how the stamp mill worked, Wikipedia has a great article.

Here are a couple of shots of Marysville today:

Estella Amanda Muth’s Diary

What would it have been like to be a 25 year old wife and mother, living in a tiny Montana mining town in 1881?

Estella Muth’s diaries give us a glimpse into that life.   Estella was married to William Muth, a businessman who had moved to Helena in 1873.  In 1880, according to the census, he was working as a “merchandiser” in the little town of Belmont, Montana, about 20 miles from Helena.   His life intersected with Isaac Greenhood’s in 1893, when he was named the receiver for the property that Ike lost to the Merchant’s National Bank.

Estella Hoyt and William Muth were married in 1875, and in 1880 they had two children: Bess (3) and Roy (6 months.)  The household in Belmont also included a servant named Minnie, who was 17 at the time of the census.  There were about 250 people in the little town of Belmont in 1880, mostly miners and laborers, along with the occasional butcher, carpenter or blacksmith.  The town was definitely mostly men,  but the census does list 16 women in addition to Estella who were “keeping house,” so she did have other women to talk to.     Estella and William eventually had two more boys:  William Herbert and John Freeman.   Before she married, she graduated from Helena School District 1, where she was noted as “a model student in every respect.”     I wasn’t able to find any photographs of her, but here’s the Estella of my imagination:

Estella’s diaries reveal an intelligent, curious, and occasionally self-critical young woman.   Here’s an entry from January 30, 1881:

“Sunday.  As usual kind of a loafing day.  Nothing done.  Wish I could employ my time better.  What am I good for?  Knowing there is a God, I fail to serve Him.  Will he be any better to me?  I hope He may.  I will try to do better in the future.” 

She also seemed to suffer from fairly chronic ill-health. Many of her entries in 1881 concern her tiredness and a general malaise, and she occasionally complains that Will is not as understanding as he could be:

“Will thinks there is nothing the matter with me.  I wish he could have a little sympathy for me.”  (February 15, 1881)

Despite not feeling well in February, Estella and Minnie planned a birthday party for Estella’s 25th birthday on February 11, which included baking all day on the 9th.  Her birthday, however, did not go as planned:

February 11:  “My birthday. (25 years old.) The most terrible one I ever spent.  At four this morning Mr. Trent came and woke Will.  Told him the mine was on fire.  The men came out to eat their lunch at midnight.  They made a fire to warm it and went back to work leaving their fire burning.  It caught the blacksmith shop.  They smelled smoke and two of them rushed through the fire and escaped.  Another tried to follow, fell, and was burned to death.  There was great excitement all day.  Toward night they got to where the men were and found five dead.  The other body was not found.  The men were Tom Woods, Pat Laughlin, Hugh McDonal, Breslin, James Keegan, and Jack Shorter.  The men who escaped were Dan McKay and E. Innis.  It has only burned No. 3 and will not stop the work.  The mill stopped until after the men are buried.  I also gave up my birthday party.  Everyone seemed to feel it so much.  There is much sympathy for the widows, Mrs. Woods and Mrs. Laughlin.  They are little more than brides.  It is called the Belmont Disaster.” 

There is something touching about the detail Estella included in this entry, and the way she made sure to list the names of the men involved, as well as their wives.  But she sounds like the young person she is when she adds “I also gave up my birthday party.”

Estella’s days are mostly taken up with sewing, and helping Minnie with the baking and washing.  It seems that Minnie does most of the cooking for the family, since Estella never mentions preparing any meals.  She attends the “Ladies Society”, and church, and occasionally attends theatre productions that she usually enjoys.    She seems to enjoy being in the outdoors, because her longest entries include details of horseback rides or picnics.  For example, June 23rd, 1881:  This afternoon went down town and out to ride to a lovely place near the Diamond Springs.  There was a stream of spring water and some nice trees.  Did not get home till half past eight.”    And on July 1st:  “The warmest day yet.  We went for a picnic.  I never suffered so much with the heat in Montana.  The comet is still beautiful at night.”    [Note: I did a little research, and in1881 there was a comet that was visible in the western United States for most of June and July.]

She also writes a detailed entry about an eleven day fishing trip that she and Will took in August, 1881, up Canyon Creek, during which they “had so much fun.”  They read around the campfire at night, the men did the cooking, and even though the road was rough and frightening, Estella had a grand time.   She finishes the entry with “All things must end, and our fishing trip is at an end.  When will we see another?”

In October, Minnie married and moved back East, which was difficult for Estella.  The following July, she wrote:   “I never missed anyone more than I missed her.  She was always so good to me.  Since then I have had almost as many girls as there have been months.”

I don’t have a picture of the Muth’s Belmont home, but here’s what it might have looked like:

Estella continued to keep her diary sporadically through 1886, with particularly detailed entries whenever she and Will took fishing or camping trips to Canyon Creek or the Blackfoot River.  In 1886 they moved back to Helena, building a large home there in 1889.   In August of that year  she and Will went on a 10 day trip to Yellowstone National Park, and Estella kept a wonderfully detailed diary of that trip, as well.  The Muth house in Helena is still standing.   Here it is:

Estella died on December 29, 1905, from diptheria, just a week after the death of her son John Freeman, also from diptheria.  She was 49.


Ignatz Weil: from Vienna to Helena to Sandpoint

Ignatz Weil, the salesman who supposedly had a mortgage on Ike Greenhood’s house and land on Dearborn Avenue, was one of a number of travelling salesmen who worked for Greenhood, Bohm, and Company.   According to his biography in the  History of the City of Spokane and Spokane County, 18 year old Ignatz immigrated from Vienna, Austria to San Francisco in 1871.  In 1882 he moved to Helena to work for Greenhood and Bohm.    Ignatz travelled all over Montana and northern Idaho, hauling trunks of samples and soliciting orders for the the clothing, tobacco, and liquor that Greenhood and Bohm sold.    And we was busy.    His letters to Ike Greenhood from his trips are in the Greenhhod, Bohm and Company records at the Historical Society, and he seemed to be rarely back in Helena. In fact, in the City Directories from the mid 1880’s, his address is listed as “on the road.”   He wrote to Ike nearly every night, reporting on his latest sales.  Here’s an excerpt from one of his 1887 letters, written from The Grand Hotel in Billings:

“Dear Ike,

I arrived this evening from Melville (?) and herein enclose Hickox order amounting to $1800.  On account of high water I could  not go to Melville…will stop there however tomorrow on my way back….I will go tomorrow to Big Timber, next day to Bozeman or Helena.  Sold so far on this trip a trifle over $10,000.”

And here’s a photo of the letter:

Can anyone decipher the name of the town Ignatz couldn't get to?

$10,000!  That’s a lot of cash in 1887 dollars.  He seemed to be one of Ike’s top salesmen, and from the letters the two exchanged it’s clear that they liked and respected each other.  Many letters include questions about the Greenhood children, and Ignatz often gave Ike advice about running his business.  Indeed, between 1889 and 1891, the Helena City Directory shows Ignatz boarding at the Greenhood residence on Dearborn Avenue (our house!)

In 1891 Ignatz left Helena and headed for Sandpoint, Idaho, with the intention of going into business for himself.  He was in Sandpoint on that February evening in 1892 when Isaac was busy mortgaging his property to Ignatz.  Ignatz stayed in Sandpoint, and ended up becoming one of the founding fathers of the town.  According to the History of the City of Spokane and Spokane County, which was published in 1912, Ignatz Weil “has acquired extreme holdings in the property of this vicinity…and is recognized as a man of clear judgment, foresight, and rare business sagacity.”  In 1900 he became the United States commissioner of the district, and in 1907 he was appointed the auditor, recorder and clerk of the district court.

The biography also notes that Ignatz married “Miss Irene Henry, of Kentucky” in 1886.  Ignatz was still in Helena at that point, but I cannot find any mention of Irene in either the Helena city directories or the Helena newspapers.  They were probably listed in the 1890 census, but since all records of that national census were destroyed in a fire, we don’t have access to that information.  By 1900, however, both Ignatz and Irene are listed in the Sandpoint, Idaho census.  I did find a picture of their Sandpoint home:

Pretty nice, eh? Not bad for an immigrant boy who arrived at 18 with pretty much nothing to his name.

Ignatz died in 1931 and Irene in 1945.  They had no children, and both are buried in Sandpoint:

Max Kahn, Ignatz Weil, and legal troubles for Isaac

On the evening of February 12, 1892,  Ike and Sallie Greenhood were busy at the Lewis and Clark County Recorder’s office, filing a mortgage on their property on the west side of Helena to Ignatz Weil, one of the key salesmen in the firm of Greenhood, Bohm and Company.   With them was Max Kahn, a bookkeeper for the firm, who served as a witness to the transaction, and the recorder, J.S. Tooker, as well as the Deputy Recorder, S.O. Danforth.   It was 8:50 p.m., well past normal working hours for the Recorder’s Office.  Specifically, Isaac mortgaged “lots 2 and 3, Blook 18 of the Storey Addition”  in Helena, for two years, and if the loan was not paid back at that time, Ignatz Weil could claim the property.   Ignatz Weil was not present.  In fact, he was not even in Montana at that time.

A photograph of the original mortgage document that was filed at 8:50 pm on February 12, 1892

If the late hour for this transaction doesn’t make it suspicious, the events of the next day certainly do.  On February 13, 1892, the Merchants’ National Bank filed a complaint against Isaac Greenhood and Ferdinand Bohm for the recovery of $35,945.48 that Greenhood, Bohm and Co. owed the bank.  In the legal action that followed, Greenhood and Bohm were accused of making a  “pretended, fraudulent, and fictitious assignment of their debts” “for the purpose and with the intent to hinder, delay, and defraud this plaintiff and the other creditors.”   The quickly executed mortgage on Isaac’s home is just a piece of the story, and Max Kahn plays an important role.    According to the summary of the legal case (Merchants’ Nat. Bank v. Greenhood et al., Review on Appeal, Supreme Court of Montana, July 22, 1895, The Pacific Reporter, Vol.41),  Max Kahn was assigned the job of outlining Greenhood and Bohm’s assets, and listing the creditors to whom Greenhood and Bohm had obligations.  The accusation is that the report Max prepares is so woefully inaccurate that it amounts to fraud, and that the mortgaging of the property on February 12 was also “fictitious” and fraudulent.

The trial lasted 21 days, and was, according to the Pacific Reporter, “long, laborious, and hotly-contested”, and resulted in 60 separate “findings of fact” by a jury of “unusual intelligence.”   Basically, the court found in favor of the Merchants’ National Bank, and the property owned by Greenhood and Bohm was put in care of a court-appointed receiver.  Max Kahn is described in one of the findings as “a man without means, and pecuniarily and wholly irresponsible”.  The next finding states that Isaac Greenhood and Ferdinand Bohm asked Max Kahn to make the assignments with the “intent to hinder, delay, and defraud and plaintiff….and other creditors.”    The court was kind to Ignatz Weil, however, and found that he knew nothing of the execution of the mortgage on the Dearborn property, and he was therefore not implicated in the fraud.

So, Isaac Greenhood built his house on Dearborn Avenue in 1888, and by 1892 he was busy hiding the property from the bank.    The trial took place in April, 1892, with the judgment in favor of the bank, but Ike and Ferdinand appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, which didn’t render a decision until July of 1895.   The court-appointed receiver took over ownership of the property in 1895, but the Greenhoods continued to live in the house until 1897.  It looks like Ike Greenhood, to whom I’ve become pretty attached, was actually not such an upstanding guy!

I’m not sure what happened to Max Kahn after the trial, but Ignatz Weil, who had actually set himself up in business in Sandpoint, Idaho by 1891, went on to become quite successful.  I’ll continue his story in my next entry.