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Penny asked to see the full text of an excerpt of student writing I posted on a different thread.

I’ve pasted below the full text of Rachel Reckin’s essay (with her permission) about her hometown during the Great Depression. It’s one of hundreds of such essays researched and written by high school scholars in Montana as part of the Montana Heritage Project. The how and why of research-based nonfiction was the subject of my most recent book.

I have lots of reasons for thinking such writing should form a central part of every student’s high school education. Some of my reasons have to do with adolescent psychology, and the way they are forming identity by, for the first time, thinking autobiographically, and that one of their greatest needs is to be embedded in narrative environments full of stories told by elders of their culture that answer the basic questions: Who should I be? What should I want?

I think we need to encourage and support the engagement of students in the particular moral communities of which they are part, whether those are Lutheran, Blackfeet or Jewish. All traditional communities use stories to teach character. The important stories are those when characters act in service to realities beyond themselves–to help a friend, to care for a family member, to fulfill a duty to an institution with a noble mission or to be true to a moral vision. We need to send kids out in ways that make it likely they will hear such stories from elders in their own communities.

Part of it has to do with how we grow as writers. The key to effective writing and rhetoric is not primarily “voice.” It is primarily knowledge--mastery of a body of knowledge. Teaching writing divorced from the skills of finding things out is, I think, to mislead young people as to what writing is really about and why it matters.

Part of it has to do with restoring schools to their rightful place as the central institution of our communities. We need our neighborhoods and towns to be much more education-centered. The way to get there is to make our schools more community-centered. If the need of young people for an identity, found in the stories every community knows and can tell itself, does not bring a place together in a sense of shared work, then nothing will.

There’s more, but you probably get my drift.

Rachel’s task was to respond to the current troubles her town faces (it’s now a superfund site) by exploring how that town had responded to a previous crisis: The Great Depression. Her personal passion is for music, so she set about seeing what role music played in the life of Libby during the Depression. Her primary research method was poring through old newspapers at the museum, following by digging through the business records and correspondence of a long defunct lumber mill. She augmented this with interviews with descendants of characters she discovered in the past, and with old people in town, who had some knowledge of that past.

Songs of Hope: Music in Libby, Montana, During the Great Depression
By Rachel Reckin

Overture: An instrumental composition intended especially as an introduction

When griping grief the heart doth wound,
and doleful dumps the mind oppresses,
then music, with her silver sound,
with speedy help doth lend redress.

When William Shakespeare penned these words in the sixteenth century, he had no idea that, nearly three centuries later, they would aptly apply to the experience of a tiny community on the other side of the world. Welcome to Libby, Montana, a town that found hope and life in the unlikeliest of people during a time when the future seemed bleak.

The late eighteenth century in America was known as the “Gilded Age,” a time ruled by enormous corporations and the fabulously wealthy. Later came the “Roaring Twenties"– days of flappers and bootlegging, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Charleston. In October of 1929, however, the frenzy stopped. The stock market plummeted. Banks failed. By 1932, one worker out of every four was jobless. Houses and farms were abandoned in the dustbowl of the Midwest. The Great Depression settled over the American landscape, and not a corner of the nation was safe.

Cantabile: In a smooth, lyrical, flowing style

Picture it: a community whose economic livelihood rests almost exclusively on a single business, a business that is no longer making profits and is forced to close. Hundreds of workers suddenly find themselves unemployed and other businesses begin to suffer in the tightened economy. People move away to find work and eventually the once thriving community resembles a ghost town.

Such stories unfolded many places in America during the tight days of the 1930s. Yet in Libby, Montana, there was a different story. The business didn’t close. Libby was blessed with businessmen who would refuse to leave their workers out in the cold. Businessmen willing to dip into their own pockets to keep the paychecks coming. And businessmen who would make a lasting gift to their community. Meet the Neils family.

In January 1919, George Neils arrived in Libby to oversee the mill his family had recently acquired: a sawmill that had been built by the Dawson Lumber Company in 1906. Libby had grown dramatically since the opening of the Dawson mill, but it wasn’t until the J. Neils Lumber Company (named for George’s father Julius, the president of the company) took control that it became an integral part of the landscape. In Small Town Renaissance, a book on the dynamics of rural Montana in the 1940s, the chapter on Libby says, Ӆit’s a safe bet that anybody you meet [in Libby] first either has worked or still does work for the J. Neils Lumber Company.Ŕ

Libby wasn’t the only town in Lincoln County with a sawmill. Four nearby communities each had their own booming facility as well. Yet even before the stock market crash of 1929, the growth of those towns had stalled. By the mid ‘twenties each of the other mills had been abandoned, and Libby folks were becoming a bit worried about the fate of their own jobs.

But the whistle kept on blowing at the Neils mill, and as the town got to know the family behind the corporation, their fears eased. “It was so different from so many of the lumber towns where the company family sat on the hill and looked down their noses at the rest of the people,” said longtime Libby librarian Inez Herrig. “They were cultured in music and literature and they were very devoted in their faith. They were family people…and our town is much better because of their influence over the years.”

Julius Neils’ early education was hardly based in the lumber business. He was, in fact, training to become a pastor in the Lutheran church before he emigrated to the United States from Germany at the age of seventeen. Part of his training included learning to play the organ. The years of instruction inspired a love of music in Julius that he passed on to all thirteen of his children. “Everyone in that family was musical,” said George’s son Kenneth. “They all had to take music lessons and all of them went to Concordia College, which is known for its musical programs.” Julia Neils remembered practicing on the family piano with one of her younger brothers lying in a baby buggy nearby. Martha Neils’ son Max heard his mother sing so often that he knew all of her favorite songs by age two. Walter Neils owned a beautiful grand piano. And George Neils played the organ and piano for half a century and was the organist at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Libby for many years. He hadn’t been in town a year before his hands were itching for an instrument.

“Since business seems to be going quite good,” George wrote to his father on November 22, 1919, “I would like to buy a piano so that I won’t forget my music entirely. A good Grand, such as I would like to have, would cost $1500 and since I haven’t the cash I will have to borrow. Can you let me have that amount?” He was willing to pay fifteen hundred dollars for a piano when his family had just invested in a new business whose future was uncertain. It’s quite clear what George’s priorities were; the question was whether his father’s were the same.

In his next letter, George wrote, “I have written to the firm in Spokane from which Walter bought his piano and if they have some good pianos in stock, I will probably make a trip to Spokane and if I purchase one, I will ask you for the money.” A letter penned just over a week later reads, “I bought the Duo Art Steinway anyhow and hope you can send me the $2500 asked for in my previous letter.” Julius Neils’ response, dated December 8, 1919, is a brief yet appropriate fatherly reply to the actions of his young son. “Dear Geo:” he writes. “Your letter of the 4th inst. is received. I herewith send you a check for $2500. I am sorry that you bought that piano.”

George’s kids, however, were not sorry. The piano that he purchased could function both as a regular and as a self-playing piano, which was a never-ending source of delight. “I remember sitting on the bench all afternoon, just listening to it,” Kenneth recalled. “It was like all of the great piano players of the world were right there in our living room, playing on our piano.”

George didn’t stop with an instrument for his own family, though. About twenty years later, plans he had been working on for years culminated in the purchase of a pipe organ for St. John’s Lutheran Church. And this was not just any organ but one he had personally designed and tested so that it would fit the church as well as possible.

Many years later, when doctors told him that his shoulder would have to be pinned into a single position for the rest of his days, George Neils sat down at the doctor’s table and positioned his arm as if he were playing the organ. “That’s the way he wanted it,” said Kenneth, “for the rest of his life.”

Maestoso: In a majestic and stately manner

“Carl Eppert, internationally known composer, and his wife, will arrive in Libby next week to spend the summer,” the June 16, 1938 issue of the Western News reported. “The main purpose of the composer’s visit is to write a symphony based on the life cycle of a tree. During the greater part of the summer Eppert, accompanied by his wife, will occupy a cabin in this vicinity.”

Carl Ellis Eppert was born on November 5, 1882, in Carbon, Indiana, the son of Ida Stephenson and William E. Eppert. As a young man, Eppert studied harmony and piano at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. By the time he was twenty-four, his musical genius had taken him to Europe where he studied with famous composer/director Hugo Kaun in Berlin until the beginning of World War One. With his musical senses sharpened, he returned to America to lead the Seattle Grand Opera Company through its recovery from a devastating opera house fire. During the ‘twenties he served as dean of theoretical branches at the Conservatory of Music in Wisconsin, Dean of the Milwaukee Musical Institute, and he founded the Milwaukee Civic Symphony Orchestra. In addition to these achievements, by the time his train pulled up to Libby’s depot on June 21, 1938, Eppert was an award-winning composer. During his lifetime he wrote over sixteen pieces of music, including orchestral works, sonatas, tone poems, operas, quartets, symphonic works for band, and compositions for chorus as well. So how on earth did such a celebrated musician end up writing a symphony in Libby, Montana?

According to an article published in the Western News on June 23, 1938, “The general theme [of forests] was suggested by a friend, W. W. Woodbridge of Seattle, who is general manager of the Red Cedar Lumber Bureau. [Eppert] had planned upon writing his music in the Seattle district but due to the influence of his friend, Mr. Louis De Voignes, who is now teaching music here for the summer, he was persuaded to use the vast and beautiful forest areas of Lincoln County [for inspiration].”

The actual location of Eppert’s cabin was not disclosed to the public, as he wished to work in solitude and silence. Apparently all of that peace and quiet paid off, because Eppert’s Symphony No. 4 in F Major, titled Timber, received a special award from the Juilliard Foundation later that year.

The finished score of the orchestral work contains three movements, each prefaced with composer’s notes about the inspiration behind them. The first movement, Eppert said, tells of the origins of the trees, the “birth and growth of the forest.” The second section is a slower movement written to communicate “the tranquility and peacefulness of the forest before the advent of man.” The third and final movement includes “the entering of man to cut the trees, their death, and their glorification, since after all, ‘Timber’ is a great and lasting necessity of man.”

In 1939, Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Karl A. Klehm added his voice to those of several groups who were lobbying to have the symphony played on Montana Day at the New York World’s Fair. “This would not only be a wonderful boost for Montana itself,” wrote Klehm, “but also a dignified and lovely tribute…to trees.” A dignified and lovely tribute, indeed.

Spiritoso: An animated, lively approach

In 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt received the nomination for the Democratic presidential ticket, he made this statement: “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.” Part of the new deal Roosevelt promised was the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, an organization that put unemployed young men to work revitalizing natural resources. “I have proposed to create a civilian conservation corps to be used in simple work,” Roosevelt said just a few days after taking office. “ [It will confine] itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control, and similar projects.” An enrollee from Ohio named Edgar Diller remembered his excitement at hearing of the program and the money he could make: “Back where I came from, I worked for two weeks on a hog farm for five dollars a week. Then I went home and signed up for the CCC…The pay was thirty dollars a month for the regular men; as assistant leader, thirty-six dollars; a leader, forty-five dollars. That was pretty darn good then.”

The Corps brought 15,178 youths from New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and many other states into Montana and employed another 25,690 Montanans as well. The average enlistee was nineteen years old and had no more than an eighth grade education. About 3,600 of these boys were stationed in Lincoln County, and nearly 1,000 of the Lincoln County enrollees were African Americans fresh from the Bronx and the Harlem Renaissance. Imagine the shock of those eastern boys, both black and white, when they stepped off the train in Libby. “We had no idea where we were going and they set us down in the middle of two mountains,” CCC alumnus Charles Krause remembered. Camp cook and Ohio farm boy Harold Shrewsberry described his first impression: “I got up the next morning [after arriving in the middle of the night], went out and looked at the river and it was beautiful. But something was wrong—it was flowing the wrong way.” Some of the enrollees said that they had never set foot on actual earth before, only concrete.

“They were real comical,” recalled local enrollee Warren Brown of the New York boys. “You would tell ‘em to holler ‘timber’ if they were going to cut down a tree and they were hollering ‘timber’ for any darn thing. They’d saw all the way around a tree and holler ‘timber;’ you didn’t know where it was going to fall.” But silliness was definitely taking second place to work, according to the Sept. 27, 1934 issue of Libby’s Western News. “Refutation of the claim of a Missoula, Montana paper that negro CCC camps are inclined to laugh and sing but seldom to work is provided in the work record compiled by Company 1286, Camp F-44, Pipe Creek, Libby, Montana.” The paper then goes on to a list of work the camp had already completed, saying, “In addition to fire duties, the men have constructed 18 miles of road, cleared 24 miles of trail, maintained 23 miles of telephone line and constructed 10.7 miles of line. Three lookout towers and cabins have already been built, 14.4 miles of truck trail constructed, 35.5 miles of truck trail maintained and a forty acre airport built in its entirety.” Whatever camp the Missoula paper was describing didn’t seem to be populated with the kind of boys that Captain Howard L. Nash had working for him in Libby’s Company 1286.

Captain Nash’s camp was not without the occasional problem, however. Most of the CCC men came from rough, big city backgrounds and were a bit touchier than the folks of Libby were used to. “You never knew what some of those guys were going to do up there,” said Warren Brown. “All of the army fellows carried .45-caliber pistols. They were ready to call out the riot squad from Fort Wright, Washington to stop one uproar in the mess hall.” For the most part, though, the men of the camp were harmless enough—especially once the troublemakers were ferreted out and shipped home.

When transported out of their element, people have always tried to keep the basics of the culture that they knew a part of their lives. Irish immigrants to America brought their jigs and reels and soda bread. Germans came with sauerkraut and the polka. Scandinavians brought lutefisk and bunads and traditional dances. Food, clothing, music, all become integral pieces of a daily routine that can make even the direst unknown familiar. In a CCC camp, though, army-prepared meals and uniforms limited the culture that enrollees could bring with them. Music, however, was theirs, and those black boys of Harlem had come fully prepared to give the straight-laced people of Libby a little lesson in jazz.

“Considerable popularity has come to the colored vocal quartet of the camp during the past few weeks,” stated the Western News in its September 27, 1934 edition. “The four boys, from New York and New Jersey, first started singing spirituals together in the camp kitchen. Their popularity spread until they finally performed before Governor Ross of Idaho who shook hands with them all…. Several Chambers of Commerce in Montana have arranged for performances by the four men and efforts have been made to have them appear in Spokane for possible radio broadcasts and personal appearances.” Led by baritone Emmett Kato, this quartet of boys from camp F-44 became a bridge between the camp and the community, a bridge that would prove to be well forged. “We had a black quartet [in camp] that was really good,” remembered Warren Brown. “Sang spirituals—and they sang in churches in town.”

They weren’t the only ones making music up on Pipe Creek, though. A CCC enlistee from another camp recalled bringing a different set of musicians to a special gig. “On the 4th of July in ’34,” he said, “I drove up to the Pipe Creek camp and picked up four of the band members from the CCC camp. I took them in my Model T to the Linger Longer, a dance hall on Savage Lake. It was quite a trip. Those Model T’s had to back up the hills in those days to work. Those black boys did not like to ride backwards up the hills in my car and insisted on walking up the hills instead. They sure knew how to play some great jazz music.”

CCC boy Jerry Howard used to attend those dances. “Saturday nights we’d load up in an army truck and head for Linger Longer Beach,” he reminisced. “They had a dance floor that extended over the lake.… The CCC fellas from the other camps came also. Families came from Troy and Libby.” And so it was that a community whose members had been skeptical of those rough and tumble boys had now welcomed their talents and a bit of the Harlem Renaissance into their white Montana world.

Finale: The conclusion of a musical composition

When griping grief the heart doth wound,
and doleful dumps the mind oppresses,
then music, with her silver sound,
with speedy help doth lend redress.

The words of William Shakespeare proved to be true in Depression-era Libby, Montana.

During the days when a shadow of dust and fear and doubt clouded the nation’s future, a small glimmer of light shone out over Lincoln County. And that light still shines today. In the sanctuary of St. John’s Lutheran Church, a beautiful organ awaits a ready hand to bring to life all of the majesty and beauty and love that George Neils once gave it. With the spirit of the forest inscribed upon its pages, Carl Eppert’s symphony lies in the archives of Libby’s Heritage Museum, awaiting the moment when new musicians again perform this testament to the spirit of the community in which it was composed. And carved into an aspen tree near the site of the CCC camp F-44, Emmett Kato’s initials await the determined searcher.

“The best, most beautiful, and most perfect way that we have of expressing a sweet concord of mind to each other is by music,” John Edwards wrote. After all, what could a lumber mill family, a world famous composer, and a bunch of rowdy black boys from Harlem possibly have in common? Music, and a little town to which they lent the light and the joy and the silver sound of their gifts in a time when the darkness of the Depression seemed impenetrable.

Today, Libby again finds itself in dire straits. The mill that supported the economy for so long has closed. The mines are gone. Asbestos has taken its toll. And yet an attentive driver passing by the newly-built performing arts center on a Saturday night may hear the sounds of an Irish jig or an old show tune drifting out on the clear evening air—a lucid melody telling the world that the light hasn’t gone out. Music holds the essence of hope, and in both music and hope, Libby, Montana has never been lacking.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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