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'Very tough': Famous painting lost in Glendive's historic hotel fire

Ralston's Mural
Posted at 12:17 PM, Oct 28, 2023

A 33-foot mural that served as the bar back in the Jordan Inn bar was lost in the fire that destroyed the building.

The mural, which was painted by well-known Montana artist J.K. Ralston, was titled, 'A Herd Swims The Yellowstone,' and was an intricate part of the building's structure.

For many Glendive residents, such as former bartender Shadd Kauffman, that painting represented many great memories.

Jordan Inn Fire

Kauffman worked at the Jordan Inn for more than 15 years and he said the masterpiece was often the reason people visited the bar.

"People would actually come into the bar to see the painting," Kauffman said. “You could see the brush strokes, you could feel the brush strokes. It was an amazing piece of art."

Kauffman is one of the many Glendive residents that worked at the Jordan Inn, which in it's hay day, was a staple of Eastern Montana.

“I think that was half the town’s first job,” Kauffman said. “I literally spent a quarter of my life working in that place."

Jordan Inn

Another former employee, Karen Ryan, worked there for more than 20 years. She said the owner made sure all employees understood the history within the hotel's walls.

“That place was so much of my life for so long,” Ryan said. “Everyone knew the history of all the murals and of the agates and of the hotel it’s self."

Ralston painted all of the murals inside the Jordan Inn, but none were more impressive than the massive mural behind the bar. Ralston's granddaughter A'lisa Scott recognized that value and that's why she began forming a group last year that was working to remove the final piece of art from the building, which had been condemned for 10 years and was beginning to fall apart.

“It meant so much to so many people,” Scott said. “I would say we were making progress. We were very well we were probably going to have to take the wall out because the painting could not come off the wall."

Ultimately, their efforts came up short as a fire broke out in the building last week, completely destroying the structure.

Fire Destruction

 “When you think about a painting like that in a bar like that in a small town like Glendive, that’s where everyone had their first beer,” Scott said. “For that kind of history to just be gone, all of the sudden, it’s mind boggling and it breaks your heart. I wanted to throw up."

 Her emotions were felt by many.

“It just, yeah, it really tears at my heart,” Ryan said.

 "Very emotional. Very tough,” Kauffman said.

The history behind the painting is a big part of what makes it so special. Ralston plastered the canvas directly onto the wall before painting it, which is why it would have been difficult to remove safely.

Ralston, who is one of the most well-known western artists of his time, worked out of a log cabin. That original cabin now sits at the Western Heritage Center in downtown Billings and still features much of his artwork and the same furniture it always had.

Ralston's Mural

 Western Heritage Center director Kevin Kooistra said his art made a massive impact on many.

"I can't put him in the same conversation as C.M. Russel, but that's really how close he was," Kooistra said. "He's one of the state's last artist that made work directly related to the time period that lived that lifestyle."

A true Montana treasure now gone and the history along with it.

“The state of Montana has lost a gem of our recording of what we were, when we were beginning to become a state," Scott said. "It breaks your heart."