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New blood takes over the Blaine County Museum


March 26, 2019

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Blaine County Museum Director Jude Sheppard tours the museum on her final day of work Wednesday in Chinook. Sheppard retired at the beginning of the month, but has been training her replacement, Samantha French, on how to run the museum.

After 30 years as the director of the Blaine County Museum, Jude Sheppard has retired and turned the museum over to new director Samantha French.  

Sheppard said that she wanted to retire because she was been the Blaine County Museum director for such a long period of time. She added that she is glad to see some new blood in the position.

"It was time," she said.

Sheppard praised French.

"She is bright beyond words. I think she's a perfect fit for the job," Sheppard said. "I think she has the enthusiasm and love of history she is going to need. Just seeing that makes me feel better about saying 'Here it is. It's yours now, you take care of it.'"

French said she grew up in Havre and after graduating from Havre High School attended Carroll College, earning a degree in history.

She said she then took a year off, interning at the Butte Archives, digitizing photos for online use.

She added that after working at the Butte Archives she has grown an appreciation and respect for Butte's history.

After serving as an intern, she went to the United Kingdom, studying in a year-long master's program in art history, where she was trained in setting up exhibits.

"I'm excited to put that to good use here," she said.

French said she got into history at an early age. She said she always liked literature but in high school, her love for history was really sparked by former Havre High history teacher, John Ita.

"He was an excellent, excellent history teacher," French said.

She said that Ita took her class to the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama her senior year.

While in Washington, D.C., she went to the Library of Congress, she said, where she remembers a massive circular bookshelf for Thomas Jefferson's personal library.

"I thought to myself, 'Wouldn't that be amazing to be the person who takes care of Thomas Jefferson's library."

Her employment at the museum has brought her experiences and interests with historical preservation full circle to preserve local heritage.

French said she has big shoes to fill, but will do her best to live up to the task.

She added that she is really excited about the job, because Sheppard made it a good position to inherit.

Everything is very complete in the museum, she said, adding it's something to be proud of.

"I'm pretty honored to be chosen to be the caretaker of all of her work," French said.

Sheppard said the museum director does everything at the facility. The job involves dealing with finances and the book store, creating new exhibits, writing grant applications, acting as a guardian of the collection and taking care of the archive, she said.

She said she has tried to bring in a few volunteers to help her take on the workload, but did not have much success.

"It gives you a good idea why Jude may be exhausted," French said, "because she has done everything herself."

She said a variety of options are available for students and people over the summer months, which might make it harder to find volunteers, but she wants to continue looking.

"If I can find some students, not only in Chinook but in the wider area, that are interested in history and want to get some hands-on experience, I think this would be a really good place for them to get that," French said.

She added that she is excited about the position because it is an important part of Montanan and American history.

"Museums like this are overlooked, but I think they are really valuable," she said.

She added that not many people who come out of college are able to go right into the job field they studied for, she said. The job will give her great experiences that would be unavailable to her in bigger cities, she said.

Sheppard said that she is very happy with French's work and expects great things from her and the museum in the future.

"I just have a great deal of confidence in her that she is going to be a great director," she said.

Sheppard said she doesn't have a favorite part of the museum she has directed for three decades.

"I love it all, truly," Sheppard said.

She said Blaine County Museum is one of the best county museums, in her opinion, with a good collection of exhibits which are appropriately separated

Sheppard said she is also very proud of the connection she had with the community and the school children in the area. She said she enjoyed taking kids on tours through the museum and sparking their interest in history, adding that she has taken more than 1,000 children on tours while she worked at the museum.

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

New Blaine County Museum Director Samantha French peers around a doorway at the museum while following her predecessor, Jude Sheppard, around the building Wednesday in Chinook. French will be the first new director in decades.

Sheppard said many community members come to the museum researching genealogy. People come in looking for relatives or where their family originally homesteaded, she said, adding that the museum has a number of resources. People are thrilled when they find out where their grandparents lived, she said.

They have fun stories to share, she said, adding that that is one drawback to retiring.

"People. I think I'll miss meeting new people and kids," she said. "... Those are things I think I will truly miss."

She said she has already begun to travel, taking a trip to Hawaii at the end of February. She said, along with her plans to travel, something she wasn't able to do when she was the director, she will get to see her grandchildren more often.

"I'm ready for retirement," Sheppard said. "I worked enough in my life, and it's time to run my own show and do what I want to do."


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