Exhibition

John Etchart and the Basque Legacy in Montana honors the legacy of John Etchart (1882-1943), one of the most influential and prominent stockman in Montana and the American West. Sponsored by the Montana History Foundation and curated by Dr. Iker Saitua, this exhibition traces the ranching career of John Etchart.

 

The exhibition draws on the research of historian Iker Saitua. Dr. Saitua is a postdoctoral fellow in history at the University of California Riverside and the author of Basque Immigrants and Nevada’s Sheep Industry: Geopolitics and the Making of an Agricultural Workforce, 1880-1954 (University of Nevada Press, 2019). 

At the dawn of the twentieth century, an 18-year-old Jean Etchart arrived in the United States from the rural town of Aldude in the Northern Basque Country. Jean was born there on August 2, 1882. As he reached adulthood, Jean decided to join his older brother Michel in America, who had immigrated to southern California some years prior. On his arrival to California in 1900, he began working as a sheepherder in the Santa Monica hills. In the following spring, he began working for another sheep ranch north of Burbank in San Fernando Valley.

As southern California’s rangelands became increasingly crowded, the now John and Michael Etchart moved to northeastern Nevada where they built a sheep operation of their own. In less than a decade, the Etchart brothers, along with their cousin Martin Chabagno, formed a sheep partnership in Nevada’s Elko County that grew from about 6,000 head of sheep to 20,000. In late 1909, they dissolved the partnership and returned home. Those Nevada years were crucial to John Etchart’s personal and professional development. He not only became a knowledgeable rancher, but accumulated enough capital to restart with a new sheep operation.

John Etchart, ca. 1903. Elko, Nevada. Source: Etchart Family

In spring of 1910, John was back in the United States. But this time he was travelling alone. His brother, who was conscripted into the French army, had to stay in the Old Country. In 1911, Etchart set up a sheep grazing business in Valley County, quickly becoming prosperous selling wool, lambs, and mutton through national markets.

 

Over the course of the next several decades, he acquired massive amounts of the land in Valley County and began producing hay as an insurance against the risk factors in the open-range livestock industry. He further purchased rich pastureland along Milk River. By 1920, Etchart’s was considered the county’s “largest sheep ranch” and yet continued to expand significantly buying more land.

 

In the early 1930s, just as the American economy was sinking into an economic depression and many farmers were going bankrupt, John continued expand. The construction of Fort Peck Dam –as a National Industrial Recovery Act project in 1933– wiped out large tracts of land customarily used for grazing. The loss of access to these pastures and the financial difficulties experienced during this decade forced many local ranchers to sell off their properties.

John took advantage of that opportunity to expand his business holdings and make it more secure by acquiring more land and capital. At that moment he also began combining sheep and cattle in his operation responding to a highly volatile market situation.

John Etchart's home ranch –the so-called Stone House– at the head of Willow Creek in south Valley County (Montana), ca. 1920. Source: Etchart Family

By the late 1930s, John Etchart was a noted member of the local business community of Valley County and further a prominent livestockman in the American West. From 1928 until he passed away in 1943, John was a board of trustees’ member of the Montana Wool Growers Association and in 1939 was named vice-president.  Moreover, in 1932, he became vice-president of the Northern Montana Stockmen’s Association and one year later president. 

John Etchart’s commitment to the livestock industry had a significant influence both at local and state level. Among other things, Etchart was instrumental in upgrading the quality of range sheep and cattle, facilitating deployment of modern agricultural technologies, and connecting the area to national markets. 

He always defended the idea that a close cooperation among ranchers was beneficial to everyone in producing and marketing livestock commodities more efficiently. 

John Etchart and his wife Catherine about 1940. Source: Etchart Family 

This exhibit will be first on view from August 28 through September 6, 2019 on the Goodkind Block Partners building located at 139 N Last Chance Gulch in Helena (Montana). This first exhibit will display artifacts and objects of John Etchart that contribute to the larger narrative of ranching in Montana and the American West. 

From September 6 to September 30, 2019, the exhibit will be at the City County Building of Helena located at 316 N Park Ave. This second exhibit will display informative banners on the life and times of John Etchart, from his childhood in the Basque Country to his ranching life in the far away lands of northeastern Montana.

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