Few men embody the West like Charlie Russell, and few Montanans rival him in fame. Over the last century, he has been the subject of countless books and documentaries. He is immortalized in art exhibits across the nation and through the C.M. Russell Museum here in the Treasure State. One does not call himself a Montanan before glimpsing a Russell. Now, red-blooded locals can visit the cowboy artist at home.
In 2017, the C.M. Russell Museum (in Great Falls) embarked on a project to preserve and reinterpret Charlie’s studio and the home that he and his wife, Nancy, built. After two years of extensive research, forensic investigation, curation, and reconstruction, the C.M. Russell Museum reopened these buildings to the public. With new, interactive components, the Russell House and Studio provide visitors a unique opportunity to connect with Charlie as an artist, friend, and spouse.
When Charlie Met Nancy
In 1895, Charlie Russell was experiencing something of a crisis. He was 31 and unmarried. The Open Range was shrinking. The West he knew was dying. He’d given up on being a cowboy. His future as an artist was unclear. That October, Charlie visited his friends Ben and Lela Roberts in Cascade and was introduced to the young woman living with them—Nancy Cooper.
According to Nancy, she and Lela were getting dinner ready when Ben entered the house with Charlie. The younger man took off his Stetson and shook hands with everyone in the house, including the youngest Roberts child, who was just a baby. As Charlie washed up before dinner, Nancy stole glances at him, noting his “snug-fitting” riding breeches and his gray-blue eyes.
While trying to get a look at him from the boots up, Nancy’s wandering eyes were met by Charlie’s. He laughed, and Nancy nearly dropped their dinner on the floor. One year later, on September 9, 1896, the couple met at the Roberts home again, this time to be wed. Charlie spent his last fifteen dollars on the ceremony—ten to the
preacher and five to bribe the town, who were set to serenade them with pans and kettles (as was customary at the time). Following the ceremony, everyone was served refreshments (prepared by the newlyweds), and then Charlie and Nancy walked hand-in-hand to their honeymoon cabin behind the Roberts’ house.