Efforts Underway To Preserve Iconic J.K. Ralston Painting

The J.K. Ralston Preservation Committee is actively working to protect the iconic J.K. Ralston painting "General Sully at the Yellowstone" which is currently in the Nutter Building in downtown Sidney. Formerly the U.S. Post Office, the building is owned by Richland County and has housed multiple county entities over the years. It is now scheduled for some remodeling and potential new tenants.

Believing the arts were an important facet of life, the U.S. Department of the Treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Treasury Section of Fine Arts under the Federal Arts Project to create art for federally owned structures such as post offices and U.S. Department of Interior headquarters in Washington, DC.

"General Sully at the Yellowstone" is one of two works Ralston created under the Federal Arts Project. "The Fate of the Mail Carrier" which he painted first, is at the main post office in Sturgis, SD. Ralston painted the Sidney piece in 1942, depicting a scene from the General Alfred Sully Expedition into Dakota Territory in 1864. As in all his art, the scenes were historically accurate accounts of real life events.

Ralston is one of Montana's greatest treasures. According to his grand daughter A'Lisa Scott, he was born near the family ranch near Choteau where his grandfather had settled in the 1800s, a place now called Ralston Gap. In the early 1900s, when he was about nine years old, his father homesteaded at Charlie Creek in eastern Montana. He grew up during the open range days and was part of the Pot Hound Pool, a group of four or more ranches which would band together to round up their cattle from a 250 square mile area. He had an incredible memory and soaked in all the stories told around the campfires.

Ralston was always an artist, painting in oils by the age of eight or nine. He was also a historian, painting real life events and activities. He met his wife Willo in Miles City and they were married in 1923. They lived on the west coast for a few years where Ralston worked as a graphic artist but soon moved back to Montana. The family, now including two young children, moved back to the Charlie Creek ranch for a few years to help out when his father was ill. Imagine four adults and two children all living in a sod home in Eastern Montana! Scott's mother, Willo Marjorie (Margie) had strong memories of Charlie Creek and always said that's where she was from. The young family also lived in Fairview with Willo's family, the Arthauds, for three years during which time Ralston painted signs all over Eastern Montana for the Yale Oil Company.

In 1936, Ralston and his wife made the decision to dedicate their lives to his art and the family moved to Billings. He and his son built the log cabin which served as living and studio space in 1946. It is now part of the Western Heritage Center. According to Scott, they were, at times, 'poor as church mice' and sold illustrated greeting cards with poems to survive. From those humble beginnings grew an artist and historian beloved throughout the country. Ralston was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1978 and the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2012. He died in 1987 at the age of 91.

Scott is passionate about preserving not just her grandfather's work, but the history of Montana which it represents. She believes we all need to be stewards of our communities and that our history needs to be recorded, learned and heard. The tragic loss of the 33 foot long Ralston painting during the fire at the Jordan Inn in Glendive in 2023 was devastating to Scott and the art world. The J.K. Ralston Preservation Committee had just begun talks with the owners about preserving the painting.

She is honored and grateful that the Richland County Commissioners want to preserve the painting in the Nutter building. The commissioners are in phase I and, so far, have budgeted $3600 for Nikki Bailey-Will, MonDak Heritage Center director, and member of the J. K. Ralston Preservation Committee, to work with a conservator in Colorado to evaluate the possibility of extraction of the painting. If feasible, the project is estimated to cost approximately $100,000. Bailey-Will is also working with the J.K. Ralston Preservation Committee to locate grants to help pay for the project.

The commissioners also removed the 1931 Ralston painting "Buffalo Crossing the Missouri" from the courthouse during its remodel and relocated it to the MonDak Heritage Center for preservation. Having evolved from the original J.K. Ralston Museum, the MonDak has the largest public collection of Ralston art in the country according to Scott.


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