Treasure State to Big Sky:
by Brian Shovers
From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 53 (Spring 2003), 58-64; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2003.
Tourism promotion depends upon evocative imagery and a catchy phrase or nickname. Florida advertises itself as the Sunshine State, California as the Golden State, and New Mexico as the Land of Enchantment. Montana is known the world over as the Big Sky State, a name that the director of the Montana State Advertising Department, Jack Hallowell, borrowed from The Big Sky, A. B. Guthrie, Jr.'s bestselling fur trade novel. Given the success of Hallowell's twenty-year promotional campaign that has identified Montana as the epitome of unspoiled western space, it may come as a surprise that the effort to coin the perfect catchphrase for Montana began much earlier.1
In 1865 Granville Stuart published the first book to promote Montana,
Montana as It Is, and in it he referred to the territory using the Shoshone
expression "Toyabe-Shock-up," translated as the "country
of the mountains." Add publicist to gold miner, cattleman, and Butte
librarian on the list of Stuart's unprofitable careers; needless to say,
promoters did not adopt the expression.
Apparently, according to historian Joaquin Miller's 1894 history of Montana,
Native tribes also referred to the Rockies as "the Shining"
because of their glittering snow.4 The Land of Shining Mountains
remained in the popular lexicon for several decades, but the Treasure
State proved its greater staying power.5
Promotional slogans entered a new era in the 1940s and 1950s as the average American's rising income and an upsurge in the use of automobiles for leisure travel resulted in an increasing number of people visiting Montana. One of the most resonant Montana epithets-"Montana: High, Wide and Handsome"-first came into use during this time. The phrase graced the cover of a Montana Highway Department publicity brochure in 1940, three years prior to the publication of Joseph Kinsey Howard's treatise by the same name. Its original source is unknown, although evidence points to C. B. Glasscock, who stated that "Life in Butte was high, wide, and occasionally handsome" in War of the Copper Kings published in 1935. Both this lovely phrase and the Treasure State, which appeared on every Montana license plate made between 1950 and 1966, remained relevant throughout the 1950s, a golden period for the Hollywood Western and an era that glorified the mountains and open spaces of places like Montana.7
As Americans' infatuation with the West intensified in the 1960s, Montana promoters took notice, crafting a new image that gave a nod to Hollywood.8 In summer 1961 Jack Hallowell hosted writer John Weaver of Holiday magazine, who asked to meet Montana's premier author of historical fiction, A. B. "Bud" Guthrie. During the course of their conversation at Guthrie's Choteau ranch, Hallowell casually asked if Guthrie would object to the state advertising department using "Big Sky" to promote tourism. To Hallowell's surprise Guthrie granted his permission on the spot. Ironically, the title of the classic novel of the American fur trade originated with Guthrie's editor, Bill Sloane, because Guthrie submitted his manuscript without a title. Guthrie had sent biographical notes, including the exclamation-"standing under the big sky I feel free"-that his father made during his first day in Montana.9
For more than thirty years Montana Highway Commission road maps, travel
brochures, motel signs, laundromats, license plates, and even mud flaps
etched the phrase "Big Sky Country" into the American consciousness.
In 1970 Montana native son and television news anchor Chet Huntley obtained
permission from the State of Montana to name his new ski area south of
Bozeman Big Sky Resort. Fearing the Big Sky slogan might be confused with
advertising for the increasingly popular resort, state promoters sought
a new slogan in "Montana-Naturally Inviting" in 1985. Three
years later the State Tourism Advisory Council opted for "Montana-Unspoiled,
BRIAN SHOVERS is the Montana Historical Society reference librarian.
From Montana The Magazine of Western History,53 (Spring 2003), 58-64; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society. All rights reserved, © 2003.