Permission to post the history of the Silver Set
granted by the Billings Gazette, Billings, Montana.

Story by Lorna Thackeray.

The silver service from the cruiser USS Montana returned to the state in 1963 when the USS Helena CA-75 was decommissioned.
The pieces are shown in a 1908 photo by Tribune Publishing Co. U.S. Naval Historical Center.

When the USS Montana pulled into a foreign port, its 40 officers could entertain the locals in style.

The armored cruiser, built in a flurry of military buildup to enforce Teddy Roosevelt's "big stick" theory of international
relations, had been generously equipped with a spectacular silver serving set donated by the cruiser's namesake.

The 1907 Legislature, wallowing in Montana's still-new status as a state, had authorized a $6,000 appropriation for a
custom-made formal silver service - an enormous sum in the turn-of-the century economy.

"Montana was kind of gung ho after the Spanish-American War, the first war after Montana became a state (1889),"
said Susan Near, museum-services administrator at the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena, where the
silver service will be on display until spring 2006.

"There was a lot of patriotic fervor," she said. "When the Navy decided to name a ship after the state, the whole state
was really proud."

She could find no evidence that anyone had objected to the expense.

Theodore Brantly, former chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court, was appointed to head a three-man committee
tasked with producing a "suitable set of silverware."

The committee members took their job seriously, Near said. They roamed the state in search of ideas on how best to
design a set that would truly represent Montana. They listened to the advice of Admiral George Dewey, hero of the
Spanish-American War (1898), who recommended a service with larger pieces, since smaller ones tended to be pilfered as souvenirs.

The set would contain 19 large pieces, including an enormous punch bowl and a smaller one, a coffee urn, a pair of candelabra,
two sandwich trays, two fruit baskets, two serving trays, two bottle holders, a cigar box and two compotiers, or serving dishes.

Silversmiths at Reed & Barton in Touton, Mass., were hired for the work through their Montana agent, Huber Brothers of Dillon,
Near said. The committee wanted to invest in quality and beauty, and Reed & Barton could deliver, she said.
The firm also had experience, Near said.

Every state honored with a ship considered itself obliged to donate something that could adequately show the state's pride. It became
kind of a competition among the states to produce the most elegant and elaborate set.

The Montana pieces were handcrafted from 1,587 ounces of silver, and the adornments were carefully selected to represent both the
Montana and maritime spirits.

Judge Brantly insisted that they be engraved with four works by Montana artists Charles M. Russell and Edgar S. Paxson, including
Russell's "Unwelcome Visitor" and "The Buffalo Hunt," Edgar Paxson's "Custer's Last Stand" and "The Surrender of Chief Joseph."

Other pieces included the Navy and state seals; the bitterroot, Montana's state flower; engravings of the ship; dolphins; sea horses;
and seaweed.

The set was a masterwork, displayed proudly first in New York City, then at Dillon, Butte and Helena, before it was transferred to the
USS Montana at Norfolk, Va., on Nov. 11, 1908.

Judge Brantly made the official presentation, and the entire set was laid out on the deck of the new ship. Brantly and the ship's
commander marked the occasion with speeches.

Jack Green, public-affairs officer for the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., said the silver would have been stored in the
ward room where the officers took their meals and hosted social functions when the ship represented the United States at foreign ports.

The service would have been removed from the ship in times of war, he said.

President William Howard Taft may have picked a cigar out of the silver box when the USS Montana served as an escort ship during
his November 1910 inspection tour of the Panama Canal, then under construction. Taft sailed on the USS Tennessee, but it is likely
he visited the Montana during his 12-day tour.

Green said providing a namesake ship with a silver service is a tradition that continues to this day. The Navy has someone assigned to
manage all of them, he said.

When there is no ship bearing the state's name, the silver is usually loaned to the state for official functions or for display.
Montana's silver service was returned to the state in 1963.

In 1997, the Navy donated the entire set to the Montana Historical Society, which has periodically displayed it in the museum.
Visitors can see it through spring 2006 as part of a Treasure State Treasures exhibit.

The set has been used for special state receptions. But, because it has to be polished for each use, the occasions have to be
important, Near said. Too much polishing can damage the delicate silver pieces, she said.

The USS Montana, was renamed the USS Missoula in its waning years. Green said that Congress had decided that only battleships
would be named for states. The Missoula was decommissioned on Feb. 2, 1921. It was struck from the Navy list on July 15, 1930,
and scrapped in October 1935.

The Navy kept the silver set when the Montana/Missoula was decommissioned. It was transferred to the USS Helena, a light-draft
gunboat that had been part of the fleet since 1896, Near said. When the gunboat was decommissioned in 1932, the silver set got
a new home on a cruiser also named the USS Helena.

The new Helena was docked at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, and sustained heavy damage. The cruiser
was repaired and returned to service, but was torpedoed and sunk at the Battle of Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands on July 6, 1943.
The silver service had been safely stored on land when hostilities began.

Near said another ship named Helena was launched in 1945 and served through the Korean War. It was decommissioned in 1963,
and the tea service came back to Montana, she said.

Montana is the only one of the lower 48 states that didn't have a battleship named for the state, although two were on the drawing
board. The slight isn't likely to be remedied any time soon.

The Navy doesn't operate battleships anymore. The last one, the USS Missouri, was built in 1944.

Lorna Thackeray can be reached 406-657-1314 or at

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