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Willard Fraser Papers

Retyped from mimeographed copy. Note attached to mimeographed copy stated, "written by Bob Smith." Robert Smith was a Professor of History at Eastern Montana College (now called MSU-Billings).

The Fraser Papers

Henry James once commented that "The historian, essentially wants more documents than he can really use..." Perhaps Mister James was right but no historian would admit it.  Historians strive for documents as others strive for wealth or comfort or security.  For documents, that is, letters, memoranda, reports, diaries, and so forth, are the raw materials from which history is written.

With this in mind a group within the newly formed Department of History at Eastern Montana College set out early in the fall of 1969 to establish a depository for documents of historical significance, an archives, at the college.  We were aware of similar programs at the University of Montana, the State Historical Society in Helena, and Montana State University. We were also aware that none of these institutions had been actively seeking material in eastern Montana.  On the contrary, many valuable historical records were being lost to the state in raids conducted by archivists from other states.  As we were about to take the step of establishing an archival program, we learned of a meeting to be held in Helena late in November which would be attended by a number of individuals associated with archival programs in Montana. We went to Helena.

We found that the problems which had been concerning us were shared by historians and librarians at the University of Montana, Montana State University, and the State Historical Society.  Furthermore, we learned that there had been difficulty in coordinating the efforts of the various archives throughout the state.  It was obvious that in a state of Montana the collection of historical material could more efficiently be carried out on a regional basis.  Four regional archives were established.  Eastern Montana College would be one of those four.  To facilitate research it was agreed that material collected at one archival facility would be made available to the other three on a loan basis.  We returned triumphant.  We went to Helena with an idea.  We returned with a regional archives and access to the large collections held at the other three archives.  There were two problems.

We needed a place to put the papers we hoped to collect.  Even more important, we needed some papers.  Those of us who had been involved in such projects elsewhere realized the magnitude of the task confronting us.  We could not demand badly needed space for something we did not have.  We could not solicit papers without being able to show potential contributors our storage and research facility.  We were determined to continue the project in face of these difficulties.  We ordered document cases to hold papers we did not have.  We gained access to a few small collections but still the program lacked the momentum it needed.  At this point Willard Fraser learned of our plight.

Willard Fraser was a well known figure in Billings and Montana.  His circle of acquaintances stretched far beyond the state boundaries and included individuals of national and international importance.  He had served multiple terms as mayor of Billings, but because of a serious fall and a long convalescence he had temporarily left the mayor's office.  Although someone else held the office, most of the people in Billings still thought of Willard, as he was called by everyone who knew him, as the mayor.  He had run for other political offices and had served on the staff of Berton K. Wheeler, a Montana Senator of great national importance.

Willard Fraser's importance went far beyond his political accomplishments.  He was a trained anthropologist; he was an authority on local history; he was a collector of interesting people. But most of all, he was a man who gave unselfishly of himself for his city, his state, and especially people.  When Mayor Fraser heard of our problems, he reached for the phone.  Early in 1970 we met with him.  To our surprise he offered to donate to our struggling archival program the papers he had accumulated during his terms as mayor of Billings.

We took possession of the papers that very week.  As we surveyed the mass of material which lay before us we realized that we had a collection of major importance.  It was what we needed to get our program off the ground.  Immediately we set about cataloging the mountain of memos, letters, proclamations, and memorabilia which made up the collection.  The process took over three months.  When the papers were ready, we found that the tightly packed document boxes which contained the collection occupied nearly fifteen feet of shelf space.  While processing the papers, we became familiar with them and learned their true worth.  Unfortunately, they could not be placed for immediate use.

When Willard Fraser decided to run for mayor in 1971, a decision was made to postpone any further developmental work with the Fraser papers for several reasons.  First, it seemed desirable to keep the papers well away from any political controversy.  Second, the mayor would need access to the papers from time to time and it would be inconvenient if they were being used by researchers at that moment.  Finally, it was expected that a great amount of material would be generated which would be included in the finished collection.  For all practical purposes, then, the papers lay dormant during the last half of 1971 and into 1972.  Still, we knew what we had.

The historical value of the papers cannot be overestimated.  The Fraser papers were the key to Billings' recent past.  No definitive history of Billings, the Yellowstone Valley, or indeed of Montana could be written without consulting them.  Besides providing a veritable treasure house of information for the already trained researcher, the papers could serve as a training ground for students as well.  There is enough material to provide the basis for a doctoral dissertation in either history or political science.  The fluoridation issue and the Indian Caves project are just two of many topics which could be developed into term papers, scholarly essays, and popular history articles.  The value of the Fraser collection is not limited to its physical contents.

Properly displayed, the papers will stimulate others to contribute their papers to Eastern Montana College.  Because of a catalytic effect created by the Fraser papers, the archival program at Eastern Montana College should become a truly important collection of regional, statewide, and even national significance.  Eventually researchers from all across the nation will be drawn to Billings and in the process enrich both Billings and Eastern Montana College. There can be little doubt that this was in Willard Fraser's mind when he first contacted the College and asked us to take the responsibility of preserving his papers.

Perhaps even more important, the papers will become an inspiration to many young people who will grow up in Billings in the future.  They will see that the written word is important; they will realize the importance of the mayor's office; and perhaps if they look into the boxes which house the papers, they will find that there was a man who lived in Billings who cared about children and young people and tried to make Billings a place where it was fun to grow up.  They would learn that had there been no Willard Fraser there would have been no Indian Caves, no float trip on the Yellowstone, no bike ride to Pompey's Pillar and no Smokey Lane.

Current planning envisions that the Fraser papers and the smaller collections in the archives, along with the White collection, will be moved to new facilities sometime in the first half of 1973.  The new quarters will be a multi-function installation.  As a special collection, it will house both archival material and books dealing with Montana and the West.  Research facilities will be available in the collection for those doing scholarly research.  Space will be allocated to memorialize those who have contributed significantly to development of the Yellowstone Basin.  It will be a place where those who share an interest in the history of Montana and the West can meet both formally and informally.  It will be a place where Montana's young artists will be able to display their works in rotating shows.  It will be a place above all where Montanans and all Americans will be able to come and reaffirm their faith in their state and their country.  In the more distant future it is hoped that contributions from interested citizens will enable the collection to sponsor research, support and stimulate interest in local history, and in general carry on in a small way the work to which Willard Fraser devoted his life.

Willard E. Fraser Homepage

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