Montana goose hunt yields a historical treasure for the Eagle County Historical Society
By Kathy Heicher
A couple of months ago, my husband and our exuberant two-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever headed to Montana for a goose hunt with our oldest son, grandson, and their two dogs. The cat and I stayed home in our cozy house in Eagle, Colorado.
Typically, these annual bird hunts yield lots of fun for men, boys, and dogs, and a half-dozen zip-lock freezer bags full of goose meat which (in theory) is edible.
This year’s hunt yield was different. While the hunt was underway, I received a phone call from John Sullivan, a retired community newspaper editor in Livingston, Montana who wanted to donate an artifact to the Eagle County Historical Society. He described a large oil painting of a miner and his burro trekking toward the Mount of the Holy Cross, Eagle County’s iconic landmark. The artist was Roy Kerswill. “Google him,” urged Sullivan, granting me a couple of days to figure out if the painting belonged in the ECHS archives.
I did so and discovered that the late Kerswill was an artist of considerable reputation whose work chronicled the West and its people. Kerswill was an Englishman who grew fascinated with the American West after a post-World War II canoe trip along the Lewis and Clark route. The adventurous Kerswill worked as a river guide, a cowboy, and a hod carrier. But his passion was art.
“I paint with the same need as I eat. I paint because it is an adventure into something strange and beautiful,” he once said.
Favoring bold colors, Kerswill painted the history of the West with images of covered wagons, cowboys, pioneers, Native Americans, wildlife, and soaring mountains. He was particularly known for painting the Teton mountain range in Wyoming, where he lived for many years.
Kerswill also spent some time in Denver, where he sometimes produced artwork for the Denver Post newspaper. He gifted the Mount of the Holy Cross painting to Post Editor Bill Hornby, who happened to be John Sullivan’s stepfather. Sullivan inherited the painting and hauled it to Montana where it hung in his newspaper office for decades.
I assured Sullivan that the ECHS wanted the painting. Like many retirees, he was downsizing his possessions. He believed the painting belonged in Colorado. An internet search led him to the Eagle County Historical Society.
But there was a caveat: He understandably did not want to deal with the challenge of wrapping and shipping the valuable artwork to Colorado.
Aha! The stars were aligned. For once, one of my husband’s wild goose chases was useful to me. I advised Sullivan that I happened to know a truckload of bird hunters and hunting dogs who would be passing through Livingston, Mt. within a couple of days, then put the men in touch with one another. Sullivan packaged the painting in cardboard and the returning hunters packed it in their truck amid the dogs, shotguns, and dead geese.
Once they returned to Eagle, we eased the painting out of its box, revealing a bold image that links Eagle County’s famous landmark with its mining history. The Kerswill painting is truly a treasure.
“It belongs in Eagle County, “ said the gracious Sullivan.
While the ECHS historical museum is closed for the winter, the painting is temporarily hanging just behind the checkout desk at the Eagle Public Library. A small exhibit detailing the history of the Mount of the Holy Cross and the Holy Cross City mining camp is displayed upstairs in the library’s History Department. And look around the upstairs walls for more Mount of the Holy Cross memorabilia.
Please stop in, take a look, and enjoy this unexpected treasure. And email the ECHS if you have a good recipe for Canada goose.
(Editor’s note: Kathy Heicher is the president of the Eagle County Historical Society and the award-winning author of four local history books.)