Dawson Piano Given to Fort Benton Museum

By Joyce Clarke Turvey [early 1980s]

Negotiations and arrangements were recently completed for the return of the Dawson Piano to Fort Benton. The Dawson Piano was one of the very first pianos to come to the Montana Territory and was presented to the Fort Benton museum as a memorial to Isabel Clarke Dawson by Helene Dawson Edkins, the daughter of Tom and Isabel Clarke Dawson.

Arrangements were completed between Mrs. Edkins and Ken Smith, President of the CIA [Fort Benton Community Improvement Association]. On Sunday, August 27th, Mr. and Mrs. Ken Smith and Mr. and Mrs. Jon West made the trip to East Glacier to obtain and return the piano to Fort Benton, using more modern methods to haul the piano than by ox team, as in the past. The Dawson Piano was steeped in the history of the Montana Territory, the state of Montana, Fort Benton, Old Agency (the Blackfeet Reservation), and Glacier Park.

Tom Dawson, son of the manager of Fort Benton from 1854-1864, was born inside the adobe walls of Fort Benton on October 16, 1859. Isabel Clarke, daughter of Malcolm Clarke (one of Montana’s earliest and most noted pioneers) was born at her father’s ranch at Prickley Pear Canyon on August 25, 1861.

The killing of Malcolm Clarke in 1869 by Indians he had befriended later resulted in the lamentable Baker Massacre [actually, the Indians were relatives of Clarke’s wife]. As a result of witnessing her father’s death at the hands of the Indians, Isabel and her half-sister, Judith, were sent down-river to St. Paul, Minnesota.

There they lived with their aunt and uncle, General and Mrs. Van Cleeve, outstanding and wealthy citizens of Minnesota. This occurred in 1869, Isabel being eight years of age at the time. Isabel attended St. Joseph’s Academy while in Minnesota, graduating in music. In 1879 at the age of 18, Isabel returned up-river by steamboat to Fort Benton, where she spent some time with her brother, Horace, on his ranch in Highwood and the winter in Fort Benton. It can be assumed that the piano came up river at this time; later references state that the piano had been transported to Horace’s ranch at Highwood by ox team.

After spending the winter (1879-80) in Fort Benton, Isabel Clarke was employed as a governess to the family of Major Ronan, agent for the Flathead Indians. Later, Isabel was asked by Major Baldwin, agent for the Blackfeet Indians, to act as matron and teacher at Old Agency (the Blackfeet Reservation) on Big Badger Creek. Here Isabel was called Ok-San-Ski (Singing Woman) by the Blackfeet. At this time (approximately 1884-86), Isabel hired Joe Kipp, a trader and stockman at Old Agency, to travel to Fort Benton and Highwood by ox team to bring the Dawson Piano to Old Agency. Here the locals enjoyed the music of the piano for nearly five years.

In the spring of 1891, Isabel Clarke and Tom Dawson were married at St. Peter’s Mission near Birdtail Rock. Isabel met Tom Dawson at Fort Benton and the romance blossomed at Old Agency, where Tom Dawson and Joe Kipp were partners in a sawmill.

In July 1893 the Dawsons moved to their homestead on the east end of Marias Pass, near East Glacier. During this period, Tom Dawson was instrumental in the development of the great Northern Railroad through this area and in the development of Glacier Park. At this time, (during the early 1890s) the Dawson home was used as a place in which to hold church services to both the Indians and homesteaders in the area with the piano serving as an altar.

Here at East Glacier, the Dawson Piano remained for a period of some 80 years in the home of Isabel and Tom Dawson – which became the home of their daughter, Mrs. Helene Edkins. To quote Mrs. Edkins, “the Dawson piano is now returning home. I feel that Fort Benton is home for the piano – here it started its tour of history and to here it returns.”

Reference: Martha Edgerton Plassman
Tribune Historical Writer
G.F. Tribune April 5, 1935
Cut Bank Pioneer Press

Mrs. Plassman, daughter of Governor Edgerton, first Governor of Montana was a life-long friend of Isabel Clarke Dawson.