Winter 2021 Issue Written by Brian D’Ambrosio Photography contributed by Prairie County Museum
A Treasure Trove of Images of Eastern Montana from the 1900s
Several years ago, the negatives of the photographic jaunts of John Lawrence Breum (1881-1981) were discovered by his descendants in a shoebox covered with dust. Capturing the towns of Fallon and Terry, and the adjoining Badlands, Johnny’s photos, which include a self-portrait purportedly from 1902, linger largely unseen.
While many of them have yet to even be processed or digitized, approximately 70 of these pictures, striking representations of eastern Montana in the early 1900s, are on display at the Prairie County Museum, in Terry.
Indeed, Breum’s visuals of the settlers and pioneers and the mysterious adventures that descended on the plains and its adjacent Badlands in the early 1900s are not just visually stunning but significantly enlightening. Preserved in sharp feature, there are images of a load of XIT horses crossing the Yellowstone on Ed Weisner’s ferry, as well as pictures of a group of picnickers making the same crossing.
There is an image of a pair of dapper barkeeps and brewmasters positioned in the front of a tavern advertising “Golden Grain Belt Beers.” There are cowboys in white sheepskin chaps ready for work, or taking a breather, or unwinding at chow time. While many of the details about the subjects have been lost to history, there are a number of known facts to be shared about the photographer and the experiences of Breum’s vivid life.
John Lawrence Breum was born in Ord, Nebraska, on Jan. 13, 1881, of Norwegian parents, Gunilda and Louis Breum. The Breum family homesteaded at Taylor, North Dakota, in 1883. When John was orphaned at 5 years old, he and his seven siblings were divided among different families. Before he was a teenager, he was venturing through eastern Montana, employed as a trail hand, herding packs of horses originating from North Dakota.
Breum came to Fallon with his brother Herman and wife in 1893. According to journals on file at the Prairie County Historical Society, “Johnny had heard stories of sidewalks and bright lights. Actually they got off at Conlin in the tall weeds and saw only a section house. A friend rowed them across the Yellowstone River in a rowboat.”
During the winter of 1894 he attended a one-room school in Terry, working for his room and board in the Jordan Hotel.
According to the Breum family journals, John, an avid gardener and hunter, registered to vote in 1902, and he never missed a presidential election. John carried out ranch work for John Van for several years. “At this time there were huge stockyards in Fallon where the elevators now stand, the wings extended a quarter mile across the flat. Fallon was then the largest cattle shipping point in the northwest.”
In 1908, “Johnny,” as he was known to his family and friends, was appointed Fallon postmaster, a position he held until around 1914. The post office was located in his home, not an unusual arrangement at the time.
When he was 17 or 18, he played violin for dances in the Fallon area. He would travel to the local ranches on horseback with his violin strapped to his back. The plan would be to arrive at the ranch in time for supper, where many neighbors would be gathered for the dance. He and his fellow musicians loved to perform and socialize, so much so that the conviviality would sometimes extend from sunset to sunrise, and two days or more elapsed at breakneck speed.
He was a member of the Terry Montana Corn Belt Band, which formed in 1909 and re-formed in 1915. Breum and his ragtag pack of cohorts traveled to the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1927 to present President Calvin Coolidge a pair of chaps and perform at a celebration of his birthday. There were 70 people in the party, including John and Clara, who did the cooking for the crowd. The couple made the nearly 300-mile trip in a Model T Coupe, part of a caravan of 22 cars.
In addition to being a cattle rancher and a fiddler, Johnny, as it turned out, was an early incarnation of the documentary photographer, depicting things such as cowboys on the ferry, at the sleeping tent and bunkhouse, as well as the nature of ranching roundups and calf brandings. Through the scope and extent of Breum’s camera, we see sheep grazing near the headwaters of Cabin Creek and the men in primitive-looking machinery harvesting wheat in Fallon Flats in 1908, as well as XIT cattle obediently fording the Yellowstone River.
When the Milwaukee Road brought the railroad through the Fallon area in about 1906-1907, Breum was there to preserve images of the required digging, clearing, and construction. Perceptive to the archival and commercial nature of his photography, he even sold some of the images to the company and the crew. One existing photo, taken on the 4th of July, depicts the Northern Pacific Bridge over Fallon Creek.
While no record exists as to the basis of Breum’s initial introduction to photography, in one written account he noted that he used a camera with glass plates, 6 x 8, fixed on a tripod. South of the Fallon depot, he had built a tar-papered shack with a stovepipe for a chimney where he lived and developed his pictures.
Breum’s photography exposes his passion for the surrounding Badlands, their curious table-top rock formations, and their irregular (and seemingly endless) craggy nooks and stony alcoves, places that he labeled with names such as the Balanced Rocks, the Lion’s Lookout, and the Hole in the Wall. Some of Breum’s available photos include Custer’s Pillar near Glendive, Indian Creek Rock, north of Fallon, and a mammoth ice barge on the Yellowstone River.
Despite his evident affinity for this special territory, Johnny Breum and family moved from Fallon to Seattle in 1948, and he died in Washington state in 1981. Several years ago, Terri Smith, a friend of Johnny Breum’s granddaughter, Cheryl Breum, contacted the Prairie County Museum about the surprising discovery of his photography collection, an unorganized assortment of negatives said to be found in a small cardboard shoebox. Approximately 70 of them were eventually developed and then later compiled and self-printed in a thick portfolio booklet by Terri and Cheryl and were donated to the Prairie County Museum, in Terry.