MONTGOMERY, Minn. – A chance encounter by some intrepid travelers has led to a homecoming of sorts here for the work of photographer Edward S. Curtis.
Curtis is the most celebrated photographer of North American Indians from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
He made thousands of images on glass plates for a 20-volume publication sponsored by the early Wall Street banker and financier John Pierpont “J.P.” Morgan.
Among Curtis’ most iconic portraits are those of the Apache warrior Geronimo and the Nez Perce tribal leader Chief Joseph.
That 65 of his photographs found their way onto the walls of a narrow, brick building in Montgomery is a story of coincidence and curiosity.
It begins in 2008, when Anita Janda and her traveling buddy, Joe Boettcher, flew to California to see the Rose Parade.
On a layover in Phoenix, they were browsing through some shops and discovered a large coffee-table book of Curtis’ photographs titled “The North American Indians.” While flipping through the pages, Janda saw that Curtis had grown up in Le Sueur County.
That made him a former neighbor for Janda, who lives in the county seat of Le Center, and for Boettcher, who at the time was the county treasurer. Their interest in Curtis remained latent over the decade but rekindled in 2018 when they took a road trip to Boston for the Fourth of July.
Along the way, they rode the ferry across Lake Michigan and stumbled into the Muskegon Museum of Art, which has 723 of Curtis’ original portfolio gravures.
Janda said they bought some prints and a book about Curtis and resumed their journey. When Janda got home, she called her friend Kathy Mentjes, a retired librarian from Cordova, Minn., to talk about Curtis and his time in Minnesota.
Curtis was born in 1868 near Whitewater, Wis. His grandfather bought property on the shore of Lake Francis, near Elysian, Minn., in 1872. Curtis’ own family moved there and tried unsuccessfully to farm.
Then his father, a preacher and shopkeeper, moved the family to Cordova, where they remained until he was 17, when they moved to Washington state. That’s where Curtis began making portraits.
Janda said Mentjes told her that although “he’s very famous, no one here knows who he is.”
So they decided to change that. The women worked for 18 months to assemble a homecoming exhibit. They quickly learned that they couldn’t afford to rent the original images. The curator said it would cost $10,000 for 100 photos, and they would need to be displayed in a room with humidity controls and security.
“There isn’t a building like that in Le Sueur County,” Janda said. “We didn’t want to take it to Northfield or St. Peter — we wanted to keep it here.”
She said the curator of the collection in Muskegon suggested sending them digital copies, which they could get printed themselves.
Janda, a dietitian, said she’d done some volunteer work but nothing on such a grand scale. Even so, she and Mentjes set out to raise money for the project.
They got their first grant — $2,000 — from Minnesota Valley Electric’s Operation Round Up program, which is funded by having customers round up their monthly bill to the nearest dollar.
The Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation put up $4,000, Janda said, and a private party contributed $500.
They bought a hard drive for the digital images, hired By All Means Graphics in Northfield to do the printing, and mounted 65 photos in inexpensive, light frames so the exhibit can travel.
“We had a hard time narrowing it down,” Janda said, recalling the hours she spent poring over the images.
The exhibit opened Jan. 2 in the Arts and Heritage Center of Montgomery, about an hour’s drive south of the Twin Cities, and continues through the end of February.
It’s booked into the Le Center Sportsman Club on May 17, Janda said, “because a lot of my elderly friends can’t get over here.”
After that, she said, the schedule is open, but she’s already had inquiries about setting up exhibits in New Ulm and Blue Earth County.
More than 200 people have viewed the exhibit, Janda said, including 50 last Sunday when an article about it appeared in the Mankato Free Press.
Busloads of schoolchildren have visited, including teacher Jason Hollom’s sixth-grade class from Tri-City United Le Center on Thursday.
The students studied books about Curtis and scrutinized the clothing and hairstyles of the people he photographed. Mentjes quizzed them about their observations afterward.
“Everybody that comes is just amazed,” Janda said. “We had a gal on Sunday, she was from the Ojibwe people.
“She said what struck her was that there were a lot of subgroups [Curtis photographed] that she’d never heard of, because a lot of those groups are gone — tribes that no longer exist.”