I'm now in my fourth year with the Montana Heritage Project, and this past summer the institute was held in Butte, my hometown. The institute itself became a celebration on many levels: a homecoming, a chance to share a part of my past with new friends, a chance to savor unique aspects of Montana's history, and a chance to think about what it is about Montana that we want to preserve among all the changes we face.
I wanted my friends in the Project to understand a little of what Butte was about, which is also what I'm about, and what the Montana Heritage Project, for me, is about. I wanted them to understand a little of what it was like to grow up in one of Butte's neighborhoods.
What makes a neighborhood? I have thought about that a lot lately. In the course of my wanderings, I haven't had too many neighborhoods. Four to be exact. Three still exist where I can go back and visit if I choose. But one is gone forever, and that's what this story is about.
If you are from Montana, you have an opinion of Butte, and if you are from Butte you have a different opinion. All my colleagues have "given me the business" about this dirty and ugly old town, but I knew a week of "Butte Life" would change their opinions.
After a couple days of intensive class work and excellent presentations on the multi-faceted cultural history of this mining town, the teachers wanted more. After all, this project is about entering into the history of the places we study rather than just reading about it. With my Butte upbringing, I was unofficially appointed Entertainment Director and Tour Guide.
In some ways my task was easy. In Butte, we always start with food. So we went to Muzzie's Freeway Bar and ordered a "wop chop." Later, we called Lydia's to get a reservation for thirty-five people for a traditional Butte meal. For lunch it would be Nancy's pasty's (not pasties as some uninformed called them). Other lunch sites included The Deluxe Bar, where Pat and his crew create mammoth sandwiches. Ask Mike about the "klabausa with the works," or talk to Tim who had a "what's it" at Ray's Place. People had to experience the M&M on their ownmaybe a T-bone steak for dinner or a garbage can omelette for breakfast. Some visited The Peking Noodle Parlor and the Up Town Cafe. Finally, we had a Friday night banquet at the Anselmo Mine Engine House catered by Mike Mazzolini of the La Toucan Cantina and entertainment provided by ninety-five-year old Butte resident and squeeze box expert John ("the Yank") Harrington and his partner Mark Ross. Some even discovered a few watering holes such as the Irish Times. My only regret was that I couldn't provide a Butte wedding. But as it was, most of us went home talking about diets.
Still, food is only a starting place. On Thursday, we set out like modern explorers armed with the tools of the trade35mm cameras, video cameras, and notebooks. We boarded the "Butte Trolley" for a tour of the city. We visited the Dumas Hotel, the site of the lost Columbia Gardens, and many other historic sites. Butte is a landscape like none other, with mining wastes and headframes mingled with abandoned and restored buildings. Everywhere one sees evidence of a lost worldbut nowhere more poignantly than at Berkeley Pit.
The Pit is the dominant symbol of Butte today, and it's a symbol that works on many people in many ways. Butte was always about money and mining, and the neighborhoods that formed were so close partly because everyone had a common opponent: the Company. Butte was a union town, and the sense of joining together to make sure people got taken care of worked its way into everything.
At the Pit I shared stories of what was under the overburden and what used to be on the hill. This was once known as the East Side and Parrott Flat. It's where I grew up and where my father ran a service station, The Parrott Service, for over forty years.
Gazing into empty space over the blue-green waters of the Pit, I pointed toward where the neighborhoods of McQueen and Meaderville used to be. There were wonderful food establishments there too, such as The Rocky Mountain Cafe, the original Lydia's and the famed Arrow Cafe. And thousands of people who made the neighborhoods into living entities. Near the Pit the Belmont Mine yard still stands, and the resilient folks of Butte are now retrofitting the old engine room to serve as a Senior Citizens building.
Not far from the Pit, the trolley driver stopped at an old lilac bush. It was a solitary bush, and around it bare ground strewn with old bricks and pipes stretched for blocks. This is where I started my life. The lilac bush is all that remains of my house and my favorite neighborhood.
I asked my friends to imagine what had existed here for a long time but now was gone. After a few minutes, I recreated my neighborhood, the 500 block of East Mercury Street. Using the Belmont Mine as the starting point, I moved up the south side of the street going west, telling how I remember my block some forty-five years ago.
There was a three-story purple brick apartment complex with twelve apartments and, crammed next to it, another brick house. This was the home of the "Chicken Lady." None of us knew her name, but we brought her grass clippings for her chickens. Mom bought eggs and an occasional fryer which she boiled and boiled to make the best chicken soup a person could find. The "Chicken Lady" couldn't speak English very well and when she yelled at us for playing on her sidewalk she was soon cussing in some foreign tongue. But come Halloween she gave the best treats on the block and told us it was only for us neighbor kids.
Next door lived George Stanisich, the sheriff of Butte, with his wife Mary and sons little George and Joey. They were among the first to move out of the neighborhood. The Otto Lemm residence was next door to us. It was set back from the street and had big yards in front and out back. The Lemm family included Otto Sr., who worked at the railroad round house, his wife, and "Little Otto," who was my brother's best friend and my worst tormentor. There was also a sister, Delores, who was the youngest kid on the block.
Grandma Lemm lived there too. That's what we all called her. She was one of the neighborhood caretakers who kept an eye on the kids moving along the sidewalks and alleys, and she fed us with her great cookies "from the Old Country." We never knew what they were but we knew we'd better not refuse one, even if it meant ruining our dinner.
Our house was next. A craftsman style, it had a terrific front porch with three old rocking chairs. We sat there at night, waving at cars and talking to people walking by. The back porch was great as well. It had a screened section where we had a hammock. In the summers, we slept out there. Our large fenced backyard had a garden at the end next to the alley. From the back of the house to the garage were two clotheslines on pulleys where Mom hung the laundry after washing it in the old Maytag wringer washer. She worked hard on laundry day, and I didn't make life any easier for her. I was always getting in trouble for getting my "play" clothes dirtier than my perfect brother got his.
Another wire stretched from the porch to a pole atop the garage. It then went into the house and was connected to a Midwest Raio. This was the best radio I ever listened to. It had seven bands and on a clear night you could get Australia or New Zealand. The AM band would clearly pull in Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, and Mexico City. When Mom passed away two years ago, I brought that radio to Libby. It's one of my cherished possessions. It doesn't get the reception here that it did in Butte, though.
On the other side of us were the Daniels: Joe, Lil, and Donna. Donna was my age and my first friend of the opposite sex who wasn't a cousin. Their house was similar to ours, but instead of a basement they had a small rental.
Then came the Healeys, a young married couple who didn't have any children. Whenever we asked Bill if they were going to have children, he said, "We're working on it!" Their place was a duplex. The rental side was never rented, so it was a fine place to explore or to play cops and robbers. Bill was also the neighborhood barber. It was great having a neighborhood barber. No more home "bowl cuts" for us.
Toward the end of the block were Mr. and Mrs. Sagen. His name was John and he was the head cook at the Moxom Cafe. He would always fix a little extra for you if you were from the neighborhood. They had two children, Niki and Juni. We couldn't play at that end of the block past seven because Mr. Sagen had to get up at four to cook breakfasts at the cafe. Maybe that's why the chicken lady was always cussing at us!
At the end of the block were the Serbian people. I never did know their names. But we learned about Serbian Christmas, including their tradition of roasting a whole stuffed roast pig with all the trimmings! Part of the reason people from Butte love to eat is that the place was always ethnically diverse, and there were hundreds of foods to explore.
Opposite the Belmont Mine was Cavanaugh's Grocery Store. My mom used to send me there with a note, and the clerk or butcher who was either Mr. Trealor or our neighbor Mr. Kratofil would fill the order. I always got a fat weiner or dill pickle for my efforts. No wonder I always wanted to go to the store. If I went after five o'clock and wanted cubed steak and the machine was clean, they would hand a fat beef steak to me. "Take this steak," they would say, "and tell your mom we didn't have any cube steak today." I still got my pickle though.
When the shift ended, miners stopped and bought quarts of beer, usually Butte Special or Great Falls Select. We scoured the streets for the empties and took them back to the store for a nickel a bottle, which we then invested in penny candy.
The next street was Galena, named for the silver ore. The Grant Public School was there. It had a great playground, even real swings and slides. But I never went there. Our block went to the Catholic school on Park Street, named for one of the early discovers of the ore body. Sacred Heart School, run by the Sisters of Charity, didn't have a regular playground. Instead, we had an old mine dump. Every spring the "Company" sent a crew to grade the top of the dump so we could play baseball and have recess. I got my school clothes quite dirty too.
I loved school. Even though Father Taylor gently pulled on my ears so I would "toughen up," we also had Father Kaporich and Father Mauser, who were kinder and gentler. Sacred Heart Church itself was beautiful. It was styled after a Spanish Mission. It seemed a great privilege to serve mass as an altar boy. The wine wasn't too bad either, as I recollect.
On the other side of the school was Driver's Drug Store. It had the best ice cream sodas in town and Mr. Driver had a great selection of "pick" candy. It was penny candy which he would pick for you, and you always got the old hard stuff.
Next door was one of Harrington's Ice Cream Stores, where you could get a burger and shake, or a great cone. These two stores suffered a little during Lent, when the sisters reminded us to give up sweets and save our pennies for poor, starving, pagan babies.
The best part of the neighborhood was the alley behind our house. Actually, I don't think it was an alley. It was too wide, and it was paved. There were no houses opposite the back of our house, just the big fence of the Interstate Lumber Company. This was the Company's lumber store and a great source of materials for the neighborhood forts, backstops, and roofs for the tunnels (which our parents filled in as fast as we could dig). We had to be careful "shopping" for goods at the Interstate because the place was guarded by "Smokey" Martinich , the "foreman." When he caught you, Smokey grabbed the hair at the base of your neck or side burns, then tried to make you taller by three or four inches. Then he would turn you around and look you square in the eyes, pull out his pocket knife, open it, and say, "I'll cut your ear off if I catch you in the yard again." They had a thing about ears back then. Next, the offender would get the fifth degree about the shopping list, and then you'd be let go until next time. But, strangely enough, that evening a pile of wood, just what we needed, would appear by the back fence. If you tried to thank Smokey the next day, he would shrug, " I don't know what you are talking about kid. Must have fallen off the truck. Now get out of here."
The alley was also our football field, baseball field, and raceway. We played tackle football, kick the can, and a game called five hundred. These were also hard on play clothes. We couldn't play at night because it was too loud and Mr. Sagen was sleeping. The best or the worst game was "Rubber Guns." You got a wooden fruit box side, traced the shape of a pistol, cut it out with one of your dad's best saws, and attached a clothespin where the hammer would be in a regular pistol. Then you found an old inner tube and cut rubber bands about an inch wide. You could get quite a few bullets from one tube. The red tubes were the best. As my dad had a service station, he saved the red ones for us. You tied your rubber band in a figure eight and stretched it on the barrel and attached the other with the clothespin.
Generally, the game was played as a war between the big kids and the little kids. The strategy was to hide and then stalk your opponents. I remember getting Otto once. I was hiding in a barrel and he looked in and I got him with two point blank shots in the chest. That was a mistake. Otto and my brother Dave pulled me out of the barrel and hanged me on the third peg of a telephone pole, where I became the target.
Winter was just as much fun. Snowball fights were special. We built snow forts and stockpiled our snowballs. Occasionally a rock in the middle would make it go farther and it did seem to ice up a little better. We threw them at each other, and at an occasional grumpy miner if we were far enough away from him. Cars generally were off limits, but some dumb kid threw one at the highway patrol car, and it went in the window. The officer circled the neighborhood for what seemed hours. He never caught the culprit, but we did. He stayed on the telephone pole for quite a while. It wasn't me.
Hooking cars was also popular but hard on boots and gloves. Hooking the Interstate trucks was best because you could stand up and most of the drivers would give you a good ride. Because there were so many hilly streets in the neighborhood, sledding was a great sport, as long as you swept the sand off the corners.
This, and a lot more, is what I think about when I think about the neighborhood. The Company, if it thought about neighborhoods at all thought different things. They wanted to expand the Pit. I heard about it first at my dad's service station. It was probably there,
listening to all the stories, that I learned my love of history. Once the Company decided to mine the ground under us, the neighborhood began its slow death. First went the schools. Then Cavanaugh's store, and Harrington's, then the barber shop. Before long, my dad's station and the East Side Volunteer Fire Department went. The soul was taken out of the neighborhood. The Safeway Store on Park moved, and finally the Sacred Heart Church. Over the years, little by little, one by one it all slowly disappeared.
My family moved out to the "flats" in 1953, when I was twelve. We left the station where the customers had trusted my dad and were loyal to him. Some of his customers never had their cars serviced anywhere else in his forty years of business. Many of his customers' wives came to Dad's wake because men seem to die younger in Butte. They would say their husbands passed away and would want them to pay respect. Then they would grumble something about the Pit changing the town. My new neighborhood in the Clark Point section of town was more middle class and I never did adapt to it.
But the new neighborhoods were never the same. Many of the buildings were better, but the history was gone, the places where so much had happened, the ramshackle streets built by shared struggles.
I can find exactly where my first house stood because of that lilac bush. I remember Mom and Dad transplanting many of their cherished flowers to our new home. They took part of that bush too. Maybe next time I'm in Butte I'll bring some of it back to Libby.
People in Montana make good-natured fun of people who grew up in Butte, because sooner or later, you always know it when you're talking to someone from Butte. Mike has said Butte people are living a diaspora, scattered throughout the state, and that seems about right. Tourists who look at the wastelands and abandoned buildings can't quite figure what's special about this place. But people who grew up there know that it was the neighborhoodsall the ways people shared their lives and took care of each other. We knew what it was like to be at home in a real community, and wherever we go, we keep looking for something that good again. That's what I wanted to say to teachers in the Project, and I think they heard me. They're the kind of people who can hear such things.
There are lessons here for anyone who hangs around and listens. There was a goodness in Butte, and a lot of bad things too, and in the end the bad things consumed many of the good things. But no one who experienced Butte's neighborliness ever forgets, and so there's hope.
And anyway, the neighborhood isn't down for the count yet. There's a proposal being talked up now to rebuild the Columbia Gardens on the East Side, or what is left of it. Looking at a plan from The Montana Standard, I see the new Merry Go Round would sit right where my house used to be. I hope they save the lilac because it deserves a special place in the new park. As the miners used to say, "tap 'er light!"
Let's hope so!