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Montana / History

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We made three stops in Montana: Missoula, Butte, and Bozeman. Missoula sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains, and this keeps the climate milder that it would otherwise be. Locals say it is in the Montana “banana belt.” Of course, warm is relative, and it gets cold in the winter, though less so than Butte, which is at a higher elevation and in the mountains. Missoula is a pleasant town of about 60,000 people, and it is home to the University of Montana. The university’s Old Main overlooks an expansive green lawn. A grand walkway leads up to the brick building, built in the 1890s; the overall effect is European is its scale and layout. On a grassy hill overlooking campus there is a large painted “M” for Missoula. A long switch-backed trail leads up to it and beyond to the top of the hill, making for a strenuous hike. On campus, close to the start of the hike, there is a lovely old house donated by someone to the college. We once picked ripe currants from nearby bushes.

Missoula exhibits an economic profile common to attractive places in this age of growing income and wealth inequality. Median household income is well below the national average, and the incidence of poverty is above average. Yet housing prices have risen considerably, and not surprisingly new, richer people have moved to town. So ordinary wage earners find it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing. The steady supply of college-age workers keeps wages in line for employers but places stress on working class families. We noticed that the housekeeping staff in our motel (the Mountain Valley in at 420 West Broadway – we used our coupon book to get a good rate, $57, cheap for this time of year. The rooms are clean and reasonably sized, and there is a free breakfast) was white, most likely students. A good thing about Missoula is that its downtown is intact and inviting; the big box stores and malls have been kept on the outskirts of town. However, there are some unsightly larger homes on a beautiful hillside close to the city. Such developments always detract from the beauty of western mountains. My book signing was at yet another good independent bookstore, Fact & Fiction. We were there on Saturday morning; it was sunny and warm and the weekly farmers’ market brought a lot of foot traffic. We struck up conversations with several people, nearly all of whom bought the book. When we do signings at the chain bookstores, customers most often do not make eye contact and just walk past us. But in Missoula, almost everyone said hello. One woman told us about her job as a traveling ultrasound technician. She uses a headhunting firm to find her jobs and moves around the country working. Her skill is in high demand, and employers pay her expenses, including housing, while she works, sometimes as a replacement for a worker sick or on leave. A man had just moved to Missoula from Moab, Utah, so we spent twenty minutes talking about our favorite Moab spots. He was another of the many midwesterners (in his case St. Louis) who came west as soon as they could. A third person was going to Spokane with his daughter to begin working at the Air Force base there as a human relations specialist. He was a soft-spoken, gentle man – you could tell by the way he interacted with his child – and he surprised us by telling us that he had spent his early childhood in Soho in Manhattan.

The weekly newspaper in Missoula is the Missoula Independent, and its editor, Brad Tyer, wrote a rather cheap and snotty review of my book in the June 14-21 issue. First he says we sold our possessions, keeping a “fat” early retirement pension. We gave our things away, and the pension had nothing to do with early retirement. It’s surely a stretch to call it “fat,” since it has to last us til we die, hopefully forty more years for Karen. Then he calls the book the “nickel” version of Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed. I don’t know exactly what this means, but it sure sounds like an insult. Quite frankly, my book is much more sophisticated than Ehrenreich’s because I try to give reasons for what we have found to be true across the country. And my goodness, if anyone is “fat” financially, it must be Barbara. Finally, Tyer says that books like mine always seem to be written by those with the means to leave when the “going gets tough.” Everyone else, he says, “is just too damned tired trying to make ends meet.” Well, no kidding Brad. I guess Friedrich Engels should have taken over his family’s cotton manufacturing business instead of becoming a revolutionary and helping Karl Marx survive. We’d have waited a long time before one of the “too damned tired” workers wrote Capital. Isn’t the idea that those who can study, write, and agitate for change do just that. I suppose I should have just slogged away teaching when the “going got tough.” Made that pension account still fatter and stayed too damned tired to do anything. Brad, before you write a review, read the book carefully. And stay away from the cheap and easy shots. These are never the signs of a skilled writer.

In its heyday in the years before the First World War, Butte was the largest producer of copper in the world and had more than 80,000 residents. The Rockefeller-led Anaconda Copper Company was the fourth largest corporation in the world. There were scores of bars and churches, many large mansions, and a notorious red-light district (it was still in existence in the 1980s). The mountains were honeycombed with underground mines (later open pit mining replaced these). Both Butte and the nearby copper smelter town of Anaconda were union strongholds. On August 1, 1917, IWW and Western Federation of Miners organizer Frank Little was dragged from his hotel room in Butte and hung to death from a railroad trestle. Little may have been murdered because of his union activity (he also participated in the IWW’s great free speech demonstrations, including one in Missoula) or because of his open and radical opposition to U.S. entry into the First World War. His headstone marker says, “slain by capitalist interests for organizing and inspiring his fellow man.” I wish there were more Frank Littles in the labor movement today.

Copper mining brought monumental environmental damage. “For more than a century, the Anaconda Copper Mining company mined ore from Butte and smelted it in nearby Anaconda. During this time, the Anaconda smelter released up to 40 tons per day of arsenic, 1,700 tons per day of sulfur, and great quantities of lead and other heavy metals into the air. In Butte, mine tailings were dumped directly into Silver Bow Creek, creating a 150-mile plume of pollution extending down the valley to Milltown Dam on the Clark Fork River just upstream of Missoula. Air and water borne pollution poisoned livestock and agricultural soils throughout the Deer Lodge Valley.”(Wikipedia) When the underground mines were closed, the owners stopped pumping water from the mines. Water then began to accumulate in a huge crater at the base of the hill. Today the water is more than 1,000 feet deep, and tourists pay $2 to see the enormous toxic lake. In the 1950s the Berkeley Pit was excavated, eventually swallowing entire neighborhoods and the famous Columbia Gardens (botanical gardens, amusement rides, and dance pavilion), donated to Butte by original copper king William A. Clark.

Butte now contains more historically designated buildings than almost any other place in the nation. These are being bought and restored, usually by outside entrepreneurs who open businesses such as coffee shops and restaurants catering to the tourist trade. The idea is that Butte’s rich industrial history will translate into future prosperity. Right now there are tours of the underground mines led by a man pretending to be Frank Little! Frankly, I can’t see the worth of such schemes. The truth of Butte’s history is unlikely to be told to tourists. And the labor movement is pretty much a dead letter in Butte and many other places. Nothing in this restoration project will help bring about a better society. Visitors will come, see the buildings, tour the mines, check out the poisonous lake, stay at a bed and breakfast, have dinner, and leave. The radical miners who once gave hope to workers in the west and in the nation will still be dead and forgotten; the environment will still be destroyed; and nothing will have been done to address the problems discussed in my book. Better to bulldoze the town, fix the land as best we can, and erect a monument to the workers. The singer Donovan said, “History is ages past, unenlightened shadows cast.” Maybe he was talking about the ersatz history foisted upon us by those who would save buildings and bury the labor of all those who made these buildings possible. The irony is that the profits sucked form the workers live on, in the mansions of Newport and the apartments of Manhattan, in the art works collected by Clark and now on the walls of museums workers can’t afford to attend, and in the control of capital worldwide.

East of Butte on the continental divide, we saw Our Lady of the Rockies, a ninety-feet high statue honoring all women, especially mothers. You can ride up to it on a tour bus. Our final Montana stop was in Bozeman, another town in an attractive location growing by leaps and bounds as outsiders move in, building second homes on land that was until recently devoted to farming and ranching. Housing prices skyrocket and locals can’t afford to live where they work. About thirty miles southwest of Bozeman is Big Sky, Montana, a resort community devoted to the rich. The most expensive house in the country (about $100 million) is being built there, by a developer no less (not by the ultimate owner). Whenw e left town, we drove past the exit road to Big Sky. We were behind a long line of cars and though we might face heavy traffic the whole way to Yellowstone National Park. But every care turned into Big Sky! Workers serving their betters. A person at my Barnes & Noble book signing told us that a wealthy Big Sky landowner had hired a man to rake his forest!