This is Montana: Before YouTube

K. Ross Toole

K. Ross Toole

Sometimes we need to be reminded of the fact that not everything is on YouTube.

Rummaging through the shelves of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Library to find materials for a book I’m writing, I recently came across a stack of five DVDs. The makeshift case covers, titled “Montana,” lacked visual appeal, except for a pink warning sticker that indicated, “This DVD-R may not play on all machines.” Intrigued, I hauled them home and inserted the first disc into my laptop. Bam! The series of half-hour lectures hooked me just like Season 1 of “Homeland.”

What unfolded before me was one man’s account of the history of Montana, which he perceived as a story of colonial exploitation. On the recording, shots of a professor and his audience – students with teased hairdos and oversized glasses, holding notepads instead of smart phones – alternated with 1981 footage of smoke rising from sooty chimneys; farmers riding combines across dusty fields; people waiting at remote train stations. More captivating than the images, however, was the voice of the speaker: Montana’s celebrated historian, K. Ross Toole.

“There are, I think, undeniably new winds sweeping across America,” the voice said at the beginning of each episode. Its slow and rhythmic cadence reminded me of a John F. Kennedy speech I had to listen to on tape a zillion times for a research project in 1991. Like JFK, Toole enunciated each syllable, as if wanting to signify how carefully he had chosen the spoken words. The winds of change are gusty, he said. “And they will alter what happens in Montana, and whether for better or worse does depend on Montanans, and how they, or you, read those winds.”

A Missoula native, K. Ross Toole was a museum director and rancher before he became a history professor at UM. He died a few months after his final lecture in 1981. Some among you might remember taking one of his classes. Perhaps as a high school student, you answered quiz questions on his book “Montana: An Uncommon Land.”

Toole’s vision, including his early environmentalism, his skeptical view of unfettered growth and his contempt for political apathy, may be last-century news to you. As a recent transplant, on the other hand – I only moved to Montana from Berlin, Germany, in 2009 – I was happy to lend him a fresh ear. What was it about this stern-faced man in suit and tie that made him, by some accounts, the most popular professor ever to teach at UM? Perhaps what made him controversial also made him so successful. He wasn’t just a historian. He was an opinionated one.

From his lectern, Toole marshaled old newspaper editorials, statistical reports and biting humor to drive home his point: Montana’s wide open spaces, once its greatest curse because they caused huge distances to the markets, had become its greatest blessing, as the U.S. began to run out of quality lands. “It would be a terrible irony if we were to turn a curse into a blessing, only to turn it back into a curse.” Short-term booms apt to depreciate land values downstream should be outlawed, even if that meant slower growth, he argued: “We appreciate together, or not at all.” 

More than 30 years after his final lecture series, Toole’s prediction of the increasing value of pristine lands has proven true. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent restoring ecosystems damaged by mining. Yet it seems many of his students never got around to punishing elected officials who make decisions for their own rather than future generations. The state’s newspapers are no longer in the hands of the Anaconda Company. Instead, dark money rules campaigns.

Would students still hang on Toole’s words in an era of multimedia presentations and ubiquitous personal devices? I bet they would, even though they might not sit still in his lecture hall. With his elegant rhetoric and his ability to focus his argument, Toole would be the quintessential TED speaker. He might even become the star of one of those Massive Open Online Courses that today’s universities are eager to produce. As it stands, however, his final lectures aren’t even on YouTube. Until that changes, visit your public library if you run out of “Homeland” episodes to watch.

Henriette Lowisch | Graduate Program Director | University of Montana | School of Journalism