I’ve been involved with the Heritage Project from the time it was just a series of conversations with Art Ortenberg and Liz Claiborne, and it’s gratifying to see you all here, to see the way a good idea has taken hold and brought so many people together to share an important work.
For the next few minutes, you will all sit out there and listen to me talk, but the reason I’m here talking is not so much that I want you to hear me as that I want you to know that many of us are listening to the work you are doing. People in Townsend, Bigfork, Corvallis, Fort Benton, and Libby but also here in Helena, people in Roundup, Chester, the Sun River Valley and Ronan but also in Washington D.C. and New York are listening to the work that you young people are doing.
By listening and thinking about people who lived before you were born, you keep alive the hope that the world can get better with each generation, that we can learn both from our successes and our failures and that as long as we are learning we are on the right track.
The past is never finished. Every year, new people find out what the Renaissance or the American Revolution or the founding of Libby or the migration of a grandfather from Russia to Chester was all about, and as they do that, their horizons change. Their world becomes a different place. And as each person is changed, the world itself changes a little.
The Montana Heritage Project is now completing its fifth year of bringing the next generation of Montanans into the conversation about what Montana has been and therefore what it is and what it might be. When Art Ortenberg and Liz Claiborne introduced this project five years ago, Art said that he hoped fifty years from now, a new generation of Montanans would be gathering to study the work that we have begun.
You are helping that prediction come true. By building local archives and contributing to the Montana Historical Society, you give those future researchers the materials they will need. But you are not just recording Montana’s history, you are also changing its history. You are making its history.
To illustrate what I mean let me tell you quick story from Helena’s past. Marguerite Greenfield started an ice business here in Helena in 1912 and she operated it for 22 years.1
The story of the rise and fall of the Independent Ice Company is a story much like thousands of stories that happened all across Montana–it’s a story of an ordinary person and what she faced, what she attempted, what happened, and how she responded.
Marguerite seemed bored with the routine of managing a household that was a common occupation for women of her standing. She decided to start a business cutting ice in the winter, storing it, then distributing to people’s homes who used it to keep their ice boxes cold in the years before refrigerators. "There is no substitute for ice," she said. "It has got to be delivered. People can burn the piano if they have to, when there is no fuel, but they can’t keep the baby’s milk sweet with substitutes."
She learned how to use a horse scraper to keep snow off the pond so ice would grow, how to cut 22 inch blocks with a seven-foot ice saw perfectly square and exactly the same size so they fit together tightly, making them less likely to thaw in the storage sheds before they were delivered.
Getting the business started was difficult. Meyer Fish had run the Helena Ice Company for years, and he didn’t look kindly upon an upstart competitor–especially a woman moving in on a man’s business. He cut his prices. He publicly insinuated that she cut her ice from ponds frequented by ducks. Some people including Marguerite suspected he was behind a series of mysterious accidents at her ice ponds, including a dynamite blast that destroyed her entire ice harvest.
But Marguerite kept going, her business became more profitable every year. Things were going so well that in 1919 Marguerite invested in an ice pond at Elk Creek 15 miles north of Butte, where the weather was consistently colder than in Helena, so she didn’t have to worry any more about winters too warm to grow enough ice. This would also allow her to sell ice to the Great Northern Railway, which used it to cool fruit shipments from Oregon and Washington.
Unfortunately, the railroad system just after World War I was a mess. Right away, the railway division superintendent asked for a bribe–a 35% commission, he called it– to guarantee shipments on time.
Marguerite refused. Trains began to pass by her pond without stopping to pick up her ice. Other times the railway crew refused to clear snow off the tracks so trains could get in to load her shipment. Once no train cars moved for ten days while she kept a work crew and horses waiting. Payments for ice the railroad shipped were delayed for months.
Marguerite wrote to the Great Northern headquarters in St. Paul. She was ignored. She wrote to the President of Great Northern Railway. For two months she heard nothing, so she wrote again threatening to go to the newspapers with her story.
This motivated the Great Northern to investigate but they concluded that Marguerite "was not free from the feminine tendency to confuse actual facts with impressions."
So again, nothing happened. Marguerite continued to fight the system. She began keeping careful records of every problem, dates and details that might hold up in a lawsuit.
After years of writing letters, making threats, and battling officials, Marguerite’s reports alarmed the Great Northern’s legal staff enough that they urged the railroad’s president to meet with her and try to appease her.
He surprised Marguerite by listening carefully to her story for three hours. He seemed shocked. "Is there no one honest on my road?" he gasped. The meeting was a success. One official was fired and another was demoted.
Marguerite breathed a sigh of relief and looked forward to making her business prosper. "All I have to do is sell ice," she said.
But by then it was 1931. The Great Depression and drought were wreaking havoc on Montana’s economy. New technology was changing everything. Home electric refrigerators and railway refrigerator cars were doing away with the demand for natural ice. In 1933, Marguerite sold only $100 worth of ice. In 1934 she declared bankruptcy.
After years of hope and anger and fighting, Marguerite’s business failed. She had never given up, she had refused to deal with corruption, she had fought a good fight. Marguerite died here in Helena in 1968.
What meaning can we take from her story?
Most of that is up to you. But this much is certain: whatever Marguerite’s life means right now is different than it was ten minutes ago. Ten minutes ago, most of you had never heard of her or thought about how she lived her life. Now you have.
Now she has touched a hundred new people. Now you too are part of the history of her life, which means the history of Marguerite Greenfield has been changed by your listening.
Maybe you’ll learn the importance of keeping accurate records if you get in a legal tangle with someone. Maybe you’ll think about how important it is to be as attentive to technological changes that are happening as it is to handle day-to-day problems.
Maybe you’ll take courage from her courage. Maybe you’ll think about the battle she fought between corruption and integrity and decide to be on the same side she was on.
If you think any of these things, then her life is a little more successful now than it was a few minutes ago.
When you ponder the story of your great-grandparents or of the people who founded your hometown or of homesteaders who failed and moved on, leaving weathered shacks on the rolling prairies, you are not just learning what happened, you are changing what it means.
The history of my own hometown, Libby, has had a profound influence on how I see the world and how I live my life, and as you learn about the people who came before you, making the story of their lives a part of the story of your life, I believe you’ll be enriched and enlightened.
As you use the experience of those who came before you to make your own decisions better, you not only help yourself, you also give greater meaning to the lives of your predecessors.
I would like to thank Art Ortenberg and Liz Claiborne for their vision in creating the Montana Heritage Project, and for their nurturing with generous amounts of time and money to see it through to its current success, where it touches and changes so many lives.
And I would like to thank you teachers who have labored countless hours to involve communities in the education of their children and to involve young people in understanding and appreciating the past.
I know it’s hard work creating materials, inventing strategies, forging relationships. It’s far easier to assign the next chapter in a text than it is to coordinate large, complicated educational projects. We all owe you a debt of gratitude.
And I would especially like to thank you young people. With your hard work you show that you care about the elders in your community, about those who came before you, and about what sort of future we face. Nothing means more to those of us who are older than to have our young people join us, caring for what we have cared for.
This is education at its best.