For decades, the videos and films collected dust in their storage space hidden away in the basement of the Ravalli County Museum.

No one knew for sure exactly what historical treasures they held.

“They had never been catalogued, never identified,” said Dan Rothlisberger. “No one understood what we had here. People just walked by them on their way to the newspapers.”

About two years, Rothlisberger and two other men, Bob Hafer and Bob Nicholls, began the laborious chore of cataloguing the hundreds of videos and other films stored in the museum’s vault.

They have been amazed at what they found.

The films date back to the early 1900s and include scenes for the life of the rich and famous Daly family as they swam in their plunge, hunted ducks and galloped along on their fine horses.

“There is almost a Charlie Chaplin kind of feel to those early silent movies,” Hafer said. “They are fascinating to watch.”

Beyond the Daly family home movies, there are others that document the huge public auction in 1986 that sold furnishings from the Daly Mansion in order to pay Montana state taxes owed by the Daly family.

And then there’s a collection of movies taken in the 1950s and early ’60s by famed still photographer, Ernst Peterson. The Hamilton native apparently packed a movie camera on his excursions around the area that he used to shoot moving pictures of the some subjects captured in his most well-known still photos.

The heart of the collection is large series of videos that began in 1977 when retired California television producer and Emmy award winner, Layton Jones, began an effort to bring public television to the Bitterroot Valley.

For a time, Jones set up his studio on the Ravalli County Museum’s gift shop. That work constitutes the core of the early material in the museum’s video library.

Through the 1980s, Jones, Helen Bibler, Jim Parker and Nicholls worked together to create BVTV, which for a time broadcast the “Bitterroot News” on Thursday nights to over 3,000 local TV subscribers.

Unable to meet the escalating costs of production, BVTV ceased operation in 1990 and turned over its equipment to the Bitter Root Historical Society/Ravalli County Museum.

Bibler and Parker put that equipment to work to record a “Sunday Series” that lasted 18 years. It featured guest speakers, musical performances and educational presentations by many well-known people from the valley.

All of those videos from those different efforts are part of the museum’s video library.

“Up until this point, it really hasn’t been used at all,” Rothlisberger said. “It’s amazing what we’ve found. It was an undiscovered treasure.”

Nicholls played a role in producing some of the video that explores a wider range of topics than people might imagine.

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“We have people who live here that are from all over the world,” he said. “We have world renowned scientists who work at the Rocky Mountain Lab and others who retire here and were willing to share their knowledge.”

It’s not been easy accessing all that information.

Technology has never stood still when it comes to producing moving pictures. With each change, equipment came and went.

Finding the right kind of equipment to play all the different formats was a challenge. Some of the equipment was stashed away in the basement and others had to be sought out.

The long term plan calls for eventually digitizing all the different formats so they can be copied to disks for public and private use.

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But that is not an inexpensive process.

“Our best estimate at this point is that it would cost about $350,000 or more to digitize all the videos, film and photographs,” Rothlisberger said. “That’s money that we don’t have now.”

That’s one of the many reasons the men hope the community will get behind a levy request by the museum in the June election.

“At this point, we can do a little bit here and there,” Nicholls said. “If the levy passes, we would be able to save more of this valuable piece of our history.”

At this point, the men have been able to catalogue the collection, which opens the door for the public to take advantage of what’s there.

With the system they now have in place, people type in a subject or person’s name and locate the videos that match.

The films and videos have a way of making history come alive.

Hafer said that’s something he sees happen almost every time that he has a chance to provide a tour the county museum.

“There’s not a person who comes through the door that isn’t going ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ within the first 15 minutes of being here,” he said. “They may come in doubting the experience, but by the time they leave, they’re moved. History really impacts you viscerally once you become aware of it.”

There’s no place in the world that tells Ravalli County’s history better than its own museum, Rothlisberger said.

“This is our place,” he said. “No one tells our history like we do. This video collection is just another piece of the puzzle to tell that story.”

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.