Photographer Robert Morrison’s Montana

The artist’s eye for the off-kilter and unusual offers a distinctive portrait of the West at the turn of the 20th century

(Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT)


Newlyweds in front of small brick church
(Maura McCarthy)

On their wedding day–Christmas Day, 1899–Clara S. Kelly and John Ramer trudged across the snow to pose in front of an elaborate brick...what? An old Montana farm woman I interviewed thought it might be a playhouse. But what about the steeple? A photo archivist at the Montana Historical Society suggested a crypt. Or perhaps it was a mini-replica of a chapel.

Ramer was a cowboy who’d herded cattle from Oregon to Montana. Kelly, even at 35, was quite a catch–she already had property of her own. She had come to Miles City from Pennsylvania in 1883 to keep house at her brother’s 80-acre farm. (Ramer had fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn under Captain Frederick Benteen, surviving the debacle.) After he died, in 1895, Kelly ran the farm on her own, but from a distance. She and Ramer moved to his horse and cattle ranch set against the badlands fifty miles south of Miles City—and worlds away from anything suggesting a genteel chapel of love.

She endeared herself to future generations in Miles City by planting a long row of cottonwood trees—shelter from the prairie winds—along the road leading from town out toward the cemetery. The photo also reveals the corner of a gazebo and a trio of wedding guests leaning against the farmhouse, waiting for the party to get started in earnest.


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