By Brad Reynolds (Originally published in 2016)
Mother of the Russell Auction
If you don’t recognize Norma Ashby from the Russell Auction, perhaps you know her from television. For 26 years she was the co-host of Today in Montana, a live talk show broadcast by Great Falls’ KRTV. Over the years, Ashby interviewed a wide range of local and nationally known celebrities, including Evel Knievel, Pat Nixon, Johnny Cash, Joan Crawford, and Clint Eastwood. Ashby’s favorite guest was Bob Hope but her most memorable guest was probably Raynesford rancher Cyril Colarchek, who gutted a live rattlesnake on air, spilling thirteen live hatchlings onto the set. Many of these adventures in broadcasting are detailed in Ashby’s memoir, appropriately titled Movie Stars and Rattlesnakes: The Heyday of Montana Live Television.
The book, which was published in 2004, not only describes Ashby’s interviews, but the many other highpoints in her career. For instance, it was Ashby who prompted an informal citizen’s election to pick the Montana state fish (the winning candidate being the cutthroat trout). Along with her work on Today in Montana, Ashby also produced 22 TV documentaries, one of which was narrated by NBC Evening News anchor Chet Huntley. Over the years, Ashby received many awards and honors for her work and in 2010 became the first living woman (second overall) to be inducted into the Montana Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame.
Apart from her life as a TV personality, Ashby’s contributions to the state have had lasting effects, particularly her involvement in the C.M. Russell Art Auction, an event that has endured more than 50 years and spawned an entire week celebrating Western art.
Funny thing is, it almost never happened.
“The Russell Auction was initially established to replace the Great Falls Ad Club’s Cadillac Dinner,” Ashby explains. The dinner was a highly successful fundraiser, providing the club with money to operate on, as well as underwriting a major scholarship. The reason it was so popular was because everyone who bought a ticket to the dinner was eligible for the chance to win a Cadillac; however, in the late 1960s, new state regulations ruled this illegal. “With the Attorney General’s crackdown on gambling, the event was declared a lottery and had to go,” says Ashby.
The club was now in a bad position; they couldn’t forego their biggest fundraiser of the year. They needed to come up with a fun, innovative way to make money.
Ashby suggested an auction. She had only been to one in her life—an estate auction in the Geraldine High School gymnasium—but it had enthralled her. “It had all the makings of a great event,” says Ashby. “It was exciting, fun, and it made money.”
Ad club members Joe Aberle and Bill Gue had also been to an auction—the first art auction they had ever heard of. Aberle and Gue suggested that the club hold an art and media auction, selling donated items from businesses around the area as well as some Western art. It was a good idea and it gave Ashby another.
“I thought of the person who brought more fame to our city than anyone,” Ashby remembers. “I confidently proposed the idea of celebrating Charlie Russell. The board looked at me with blank faces. They asked, ‘Who would want to celebrate a dead artist?’”
Thankfully, Ashby is a believer that with perseverance, you can do anything you set your mind to. She met with Ad Club President Bill Samson and Vice President Tom Johnson to discuss how they could make the idea resonate with the board. After some brainstorming, they came up with the idea that the auction would not only honor Charlie Russell but also showcase up-and-coming artists, with proceeds benefitting both the Ad Club and the Russell Gallery (now the C.M. Russell Museum).
The trio presented their idea to the Ad Club board. According to Ashby, they said, “Okay, we’ll try this once…”
The Ad Club had less than three months to plan the first C.M. Russell Auction. Around thirty committees were formed to handle all the different aspects of the event. “Everyone was made to feel that their job was the most important,” says Ashby. “It made for an exceptional auction.”
Although everyone was important, some key figures stepped up to make the auction a success. One such figure was Fred Renner, the foremost authority on Charlie Russell.
Renner had grown up in Great Falls, collecting Russell’s art and studying his life. He had since moved away from Montana but remained a dedicated Russell collector and historian. Having met him once in a New York art gallery, Ashby had Renner’s contact information and asked him if he’d be willing to assist the Ad Club in their C.M. Russell Auction. Not only did Renner give them a list of buyers interested in Russell, he brought to town an exhibit of 21 original Russell paintings to promote the event. (At that time the Russell Gallery was under construction so the exhibit was displayed at the Montana Bank in Great Falls.)
The Ad Club made Fred Renner their first honorary chairman, and he continued to work with the auction in the years to come. (And it’s a good thing too, because Fred met his wife, Ginger, at the Russell Auction the following year.)
For their first auction, the Ad Club chose to display the auction art at the Great Falls National Bank and later had it transferred to the Rainbow Hotel for the event. To protect the art, the club hired the Cascade County Sherriff’s Posse to act as guards. The posse wandered the lobby with guns at their hips (which must have contributed to the ambiance as well as the security). The posse earlier had carried a message from the mayor of Great Falls all the way to Helena on horseback—a proclamation declaring March 1969 as Charles M. Russell Month.
All-in-all, roughly 400 Western art enthusiasts from seven states showed up for the first Russell Auction on March 6, 1969. Norma Ashby emceed the event while Fort Shaw auctioneer Jack Raty sold off seventy-seven works of art to the highest bidders. The auction ran until just before midnight and raised $20,160 (gross), with $10,872 going straight to the Russell Gallery.
“When it was finally over we went to Borrie’s for a late dinner. I was so exhausted that my head fell onto the plate,” says Ashby. “The day after we were already planning for the next auction.”
Art Show Expansion
The C.M. Russell Auction remained at the Rainbow Hotel from 1969-1973. A lot of fine-tuning was done in those formative years to make each auction more successful than the last. “One thing we discovered early on was that some artists were selling more out of their hotel rooms than they were at the actual auction,” explains former Auction Chairman Joe Aberle. The Ad Club didn’t want to tell artists that they couldn’t sell art, but they also didn’t want these private sales to take away from their fundraiser. So, they came to a compromise. “The Ad Club decided to purchase a block of hotel rooms and sell them to artists as exhibit rooms,” says Aberle. “That way, we were all working together, it was professional, and everyone made money.”
With the Russell Auction expanding to include an art show, it was clear that the growing event needed a larger venue. In 1974 the auction was moved to the newly opened Heritage Inn, where it remained for several decades.
Along with the additional space, the Ad Club needed an extension in time. In 1975 the one-day event evolved into a three-day “happening” that included exhibit rooms, two major auctions, and a number of special events.
While the auctions themselves packed the Heritage Inn with as many as 1,500 people, other activities brought in crowds as well. One highly popular event was the Quick Draw, where artists would have 30 minutes to create a work of art in front of a crowd of spectators. Once time was up, the pieces were auctioned off to the highest bidder. This event model can be seen in art shows all over the country today, but back in the 1970s, it was a brand new idea.
“The Quick Draw was started by a Helena painter named Bob Morgan in 1977,” explains Aberle. “Norma heard about it. At an Ad Club meeting she proposed that the Russell Auction have a quick draw. One member spoke up and asked, ‘What if someone gets shot?’ We had no idea at that time what a Quick Draw event was.”
The Quick Draw was successful in part because it had an interactive component; spectators enjoyed watching the artists work, and this often influenced people to bid when the pieces came up for auction.
“The artists and spectators always had a good time,” says Audrey Stratford. From her 42 years working the auction, Stratford has many fond memories of the event. “One time Jerry Snodgrass was creating a sculpture of a cowboy,” she reminisces. “He peeled off the cowboy’s mustache and took off the cowboy’s coat. It wasn’t a cowboy; it was a cowgirl! Everyone watching had a good laugh.”
At another Quick Draw, Dave Maloney and Bob Kercher decided to provide added entertainment by trading paintings halfway through and finishing each other’s work. The crowd was very enthusiastic, and the paintings sold well because of it.
In 1991, Julie Jeppsen surprised the Quick Draw crowd by painting her model, a live wolf, right inside the hotel!
With the success of the Quick Draw, other events were designed to form connections between artists and visitors. Paint with the Pros was a seminar in which numerous Russell Auction artists would invite attendees to take turns painting on a large canvas. At the end of the event, each participant was given a signed certificate of recognition which read “I painted with the pros.” The painting was then donated to the Children’s Ward of Benefis Hospital.
In 2000, Stratford served as the Russell Auction Chair and developed a similar event called Amateur Artists Paint by Numbers. This event allowed participants to create works of art with straightforward guidelines. “It was something fun for people who were interested in art but not highly skilled at it,” says Stratford.
Even children were encouraged to participate in the fun and excitement of the Russell Auction. Starting in 1970, the “I Like Charlie Russell Because” essay contest was launched to get Cascade County fifth graders interested in Great Falls’ beloved cowboy artist. The city and county winners would read their essays on Today in Montana and at the Russell Auction’s Chuckwagon Brunch. “One of my favorite statements about Charlie was written by Josh Canada from Cascade,” says Norma Ashby. “He said ‘I like Charlie Russell because I know talent when I see it.’”
For some, going to the Russell Auction wasn’t about participating in events; it was about taking in all the Western culture the auction had to offer. For this reason, Chief Earl Old Person and the Blackfeet Indian Dancers were honored guests at the Russell. Year after year, they would come dressed in authentic tribal attire and perform the traditional dances of the Blackfeet tribe. These performances were particularly fitting given the auction’s namesake and his regard for Indian culture.
Adding further to the ambiance were the Russell Auction’s hostesses. “Hostess” was the title given to a woman who carried art at the auction, but the job went far beyond that. Hostesses were expected to engage and entertain the audience, adding to the fun and excitement of the show. Often they wore glitzy costumes, centered on a theme (dancehall girls, for instance).
“It was such an awesome thing,” says former Ad Club member Sherry Beaver, who served as a hostess for many years. “We always dressed fabulous. I felt like a queen for a day. It was like Hollywood, and we treated everyone like royalty.”
Big Names and Surprise Appearances
Notable figures were always showing up for the Russell Auction. Going above and beyond, the Ad Club did everything it could to accommodate its distinguished guests. “We’d meet big wheeler dealers at the airport with a band and a personal driver,”
says Sherry’s husband, Ray Beaver. “We started a transportation committee just to accommodate everyone. The whole city would help out. They’d offer up rooms in their houses and cars to visitors.”
“We met so many outstanding people—kind and humble art dealers, famous people,” says Sherry beaver. “I felt so honored to take them around and show them our city.”
Echoing this sentiment, Norma Ashby says of the auction’s guests, “They were already in love with Charlie Russell. It wasn’t hard to make them fall in love with Great Falls.”
Of all the people to show up for the Russell Auction, award-winning country star Charley Pride was one of the most popular. The twice-honored guest was a big star in the 1970s, famous for hit singles like “Just Between You and Me” and “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’”. Pride’s attendance at the Russell Auction brought in a whole lot of fans and he helped raise a great deal of money for the C.M. Russell Museum. In addition to mingling with the crowd and signing autographs, Pride performed both times he attended the auction, and in 1983 he even posed for an artist. Cody Houston sculpted a bust of Charley Pride, and 125 people each paid $125 for a casting of the piece. In half an hour the auction netted over $15,000.
While big names like Charley Pride, Hoyt Axton, or Denver Pyle enticed crowds, other celebrities were more incognito. One year, William Harrah, the owner of Harrah’s Hotel & Casino (in Reno, Nevada) flew in on a private plane to attend the Russell Auction. He ended up buying a large Russell—so large, in fact, that it wouldn’t fit in his plane. He had to have a larger plane fly in to pick it up.
One of the biggest surprises of the auction came in 1985, when representatives of National Geographic arrived to cover the event. In the January 1986 issue of National Geographic (Volume 169, Number 1), Bart McDowell writes, “The C.M. Russell Auction of Original Western Art in Great Falls, Montana, once a year and for a brief weekend turns Charlie’s hometown into one of the world’s most lucrative art markets.” The article spanned 36 pages, with images of Russell’s work, historical photographs, and photos by National Geographic’s Sam Abell. The cover of the issue even featured Russell’s “Bronc to Breakfast”. (This was the first time a piece of artwork appeared on the cover since the magazine’s founding in 1890.)
In 1988 a freelance writer with the Wall Street Journal, Ruth Rudner, again validated the Russell Auction on a national platform. She writes, “[The C.M. Russell Auction] seems to have more in common with Woodstock than with Sothebys. The connection to that gentle cowboy artist felt by so many coming to Great Falls each year makes Russell fully present. He only died. He never left.”
Charlie Russell’s legacy was also carried on, in part, by his son, Jack Russell. On several occasions, Jack attended the auction with his wife, Lucille, and in 1970 the couple was presented with the first Scriver Bronze. This gift was initially awarded to someone with a special connection to Charlie Russell. It was designed by Browning bronze sculptor Bob Scriver and depicted the buffalo skull which Russell incorporated in the signing of his artwork.
In 1970, when Ashby interviewed Jack Russell on Today in Montana, she asked what his reaction was when he saw that skull – the symbol of his father’s work. “I’m so proud of that,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Going Once. Going Twice. Sold!
You can’t have an auction without an auctioneer, and the Russell Auction has had some great ones throughout the years.
In 1969, when the Ad Club was working to assemble the first auction, Norma Ashby’s husband, Shirley, suggested that the club hire Jack Raty of Fort Shaw.
Raty had grown up around auctions. His father, Horace Raty, raised and sold horses (and would later go on to be inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame). Jack Raty would ride his father’s horses (many of which were not broke in) around the sales ring as they were auctioned off. “I kept seeing what the auctioneers were doing, and I thought I should do that instead of riding these horses,” says Raty.
At 19, Raty was newly married and his wife had to get a job so that the couple could put him through auctioneer school in Billings. At first, it didn’t seem like the investment was paying off. “When I got out of school I couldn’t find any work,” says Raty. “They wouldn’t let me be an auctioneer because I was too young. Nobody wanted to hire a kid.”
It was ten years before Raty finally broke into the business and even then, it was a struggle. “It wasn’t easy,” says Raty. “I couldn’t take a full time job because I worked to promote myself as an auctioneer. I had to wait for jobs to come.”
Eventually Raty’s perseverance paid off. By 1969, Raty had grown into a successful farm auctioneer. Tom Johnson, Bill Samson, and Norma Ashby met with him in the Rainbow Hotel coffee shop to see if he was up to the challenge of auctioning art.
“We asked him to sell the sugar bowl on the table,” says Ashby. “He immediately went into his rapid chant, and we hired him on the spot.”
Raty had never sold art before the Russell Auction, but his colorful personality and Western style got crowds excited about the event and allowed the Ad Club to raise over $20,000 that year.
“It was good for them but it was good for me too,” says Raty. After his first few Russell Auctions, he started getting calls from all over the country asking him to auction off art.
Raty remained with the Russell Auction for 27 years before deciding to turn the job over to someone new. “It was a fun auction but I wanted to quit while I was ahead— while I was still a good auctioneer,” he says.
After Raty retired from the auction, Bruce Brock of Iowa took over. Having won titles as World Champion Auctioneer and International Champion Auctioneer, Brock picked up where Raty left off, maintaining the success of the show.
In the 42 years that the Ad Club ran the Russell Auction, they raised more than $5 million in donations for the C.M. Russell Museum.
Growth of the Museum
After Charlie Russell’s death in 1926, his wife, Nancy Russell, offered to donate Charlie’s log cabin studio (and its contents) if the City of Great Falls agreed to purchase the Russells’ home and its two adjacent lots. A committee of the Great Falls Chamber of Commerce took up the challenge to raise an additional $5,000 for a Charles M. Russell Memorial. In 1930, the committee opened Russell’s studio with its gallery addition.
Later, a separate building—the C.M. Russell Gallery—was built to house the collection of Josephine Trigg (a longtime friend of the Russells). She had agreed to donate her family collection of Russell originals once the City had built a fire-proof building to display them in. In 1953, the C.M. Russell Gallery was opened to the public and in 1969, the Ad Club showed its support, donating proceeds from the inaugural Russell Auction (and every auction since).
Donations from the Ad Club helped fund C.M. Russell Museum building projects (such as the 1998 expansion) and educational programs, as well as covering some of the everyday operating costs. To this day, the Russell Auction (now officially called “The Russell: An Exhibition and Sale to Benefit the C.M. Russell Museum”) continues to grow in its efforts to keep the legacy of Charlie Russell alive.
Even after the Russell Auction’s move to the Heritage Inn in 1974, it was apparent that the ever-growing event didn’t have room for every artist that wanted in. As a result, new art shows sprang up to accommodate the overflow.
“At first, some of us were upset about there being other art shows,” says Sherry Beaver, “but we grew to embrace it. We didn’t have enough room for everyone so we were glad there were other places for artists to go.”
Instead of fighting the competition, the Russell Auction chose to market all of the shows as one event—Western Art Week.
“It’s been thrilling to watch,” says Ashby. “There’s art for everyone at every level. It’s been really good for Great Falls.”
Today, Western Art Week incorporates more than a dozen art shows (and several gallery exhibitions), spread throughout the city. Artists and collectors from all over the world travel to participate in the many events, and to enjoy the community that Charlie Russell called home.
Parting Words from the Man Himself
Before his passing in 1926, Charlie Russell completed a book titled Trails Plowed Under, recounting (with flair, of course) some of his personal experiences and cowboy lore he’d picked up along the way.
Russell begins the book with the following introduction—words which remind us why so many have loved and continue to love Great Falls’ famous cowboy artist:
The papers have been kind to me – many times more kind than true. Although I worked for many years on the range, I am not what the people think a cowboy should be. I was neither a good roper nor rider. I was a night wrangler. How good I was, I’ll leave it for the people I worked for to say – there are still a few of them living. In the spring I wrangled horses, in the fall I herded beef. I worked for the big outfits and always held my job.
I have many friends among the cowmen and cowpunchers. I have always been what is called a good mixer – I had friends when I had nothing else. My friends were not always within the law, but I haven’t said how law-abiding I was myself. I haven’t been too bad nor too good to get along with.
Life has never been too serious with me – I lived to play and I’m playing yet. Laughs and good judgement have saved me many a black eye, but I don’t laugh at other’s tears. I was a wild young man, but age has made me gentle. I drank, but never alone, and when I drank it was no secret. I am still friendly with drinking men.
My friends are mixed – preachers, priests, and sinners. I belong to no church but am friendly toward and respect all of them. I have always liked horses and since I was eight years old have always owned a few.
I am old-fashioned and peculiar in my dress. I am eccentric. (That is a polite way of saying you’re crazy.) I believe in luck and have had lots of it.
To have talent is no credit to its owner; what man can’t help he should get neither credit nor blame for – it’s not his fault. I am an illustrator. There are lots better ones, but some worse. Any man that can make a living doing what he likes is lucky, and I’m that. Any time I cash in now, I win.
Charles M. Russell Great Falls, Montana
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2016. Ray Beaver, Audrey Stratford, and Jack Raty have since passed.