Saving the Mandan: The near death of a historic Montana symbol

Posted October 25, 2022

This article originally appeared in the Helena Independent Record on April 21, 2022.

“Toward the end of the busy tourist season of 2021, Fort Benton faced a critical decision: Should the keelboat Mandan be saved?

The Mandan, built for the 1952 filming of famed author A.B. Guthrie’s classic movie, “The Big Sky,” has graced the historic levee at Fort Benton since 1964. Yet, in the fall of 2021, it was clear that without care and preservation, the keelboat had reached a stage where many were saying, “Tear it down.”

A few others responded, “Well, not so fast, after all it represents an important era in our past heritage.”

Meanwhile continued inaction threatened to solve the dilemma as snow, ice and rain further rotted the core to total ruin.

So, through the pages of the Fort Benton River Press I posed a question to the community: “What do we lose if we tear the Mandan down?” I suggested it’s a movie prop, more representational than real keelboat. Its wood is rotting and its mast endangered. It’ll cost much to belatedly begin to preserve and protect it. So, shall we let it go — maybe even replace it with a real keelboat?

But, I advocated, not so fast.

Before we destroy the Mandan, let’s think about what it represents. What does the Mandan mean to Fort Benton, all Montana, and to the nation? Can it be saved? But first, let’s look at a touch of history.

Joel Overholser, Fort Benton’s journalist-historian, wrote, “The keelboat Mandan was built as a lead character in the movie, ‘The Big Sky’ by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.” His book, “The Big Sky,” came out with acclaim in 1947.

When Guthrie received a Pulitzer Prize two years later for his follow-on book, “The Way West,” many believed the prize was one book too late.

In the words of a reviewer: “The (Big Sky) novel is stunning in its descriptions of the (Missouri) river and of the large lonely places, mountains, wildlife, and seasons of the West… I enjoyed this Western with the grandeur of its portrait of the West and with its portrayals of a rare, flawed and wild way of life. This is a book for reflective readers of American literature and for lovers of the West.”

Just over 50 years after Guthrie created “The Big Sky,” highly respected Montanan scholars William E. Farr and William W. Bevis surveyed Montana literature over the previous five decades and concluded:

“For better or for worse, A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s The Big Sky has been … the master narrative, the canonical text of texts of modern Montana literature and historical thought, since its initial publication in 1947. As such, for those of us intimately involved in regionalism in its manifold forms it has informed and influenced much of our thinking — overtly or insidiously, depending upon one’s perspective — over the last five-and-a-half decades. It taxes the imagination to perceive of another 20th century literary work that has had a similar impact on the inter-mountain West’s collective consciousness. There simply is none.

… though Montana’s literary outpouring has been nothing short of astonishing over the last half century, if you only have time ever to read one novel about Montana, read The Big Sky.”

In 1952, “The Big Sky” movie was first released in Chicago and then New York City. The “western premiere” of “The Big Sky” followed at the Civic Center in Great Falls a few days later in August 1952, with a parade, a speech by Gov. John W. Bonner, and a Blackfeet tribal initiation.