Lost Butte, Montana, a book by Richard I. Gibson, is in stores and museum gift shops around Butte. Or order from the publisher. It's also in E-book formats at all the usual places. And read an interview with Gibson, here, and on KXLF here. The Facebook page has many historic photos of Butte, and the Butte-Anaconda NHLD project showcases many historic buildings. Location-oriented posts can be found on HistoryPin. On Mondays beginning in January 2016, look for Gibson's "Mining City History" column in the Montana Standard.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Mining Childhood: Growing up in Butte, Montana, 1900-1960

By Janet L. Finn. Montana Historical Society Press, 2012, 324 p.  Order on Amazon

Book Review by Richard I. Gibson

In Mining Childhood, Janet Finn records and analyzes a vital aspect of Butte history, a “child’s-eye view” of the complex sweep of Butte life and times. The book is to an extent an academic treatise on childhood as well as contextual, detailed, and poignant memories based on extensive interviews dating from 1980 to 2012.

The scholarliness of the work is reflected in more than 600 footnotes, invaluable to those who will seek more information. The introduction and Chapter One provide background in social theory as applied to children, together with broader nation-scale themes that bear on the time period, but always brought back to the special context of Butte. Those of us who love Butte know it is unique—but all places are unique. Finn has focused us on some of the many reasons why Butte’s unique stories, in this case of children, inform history of national importance.

Chapter Two outlines Butte’s mining story from childrens’ points of view. Finn adroitly weaves well-known situations and events, from strikes to parades, with childhood memories of living near mines and growing up in mining families. Chapter Three, “Saving Children,” recounts development of charities such as the Paul Clark Home, the politics of child welfare, and the Soroptimist Home. The stories in this chapter are really broader than Butte and connect Butte culturally to the rest of the nation.

The sections that most Butte folks will enjoy the most are Chapters Four through Seven. “Childs Play” focuses on recreation, from makeshift sports to mineyards as playgrounds, and movie theaters to Columbia Gardens. “School Days” recalls formal education, and as throughout the book, the chapter lives up to the book’s subtitle in addressing the entire era from 1900 to 1960. “Learning to Labor” is my favorite chapter because it connects children and their stories to businesses and places that I (as an outsider) know more about through historical research. Whether it is a recollection of the Newsboys' strike or working to fill miners’ lunch buckets at a boardinghouse, this chapter expresses the fabric of Butte life and the important, even critical role that children had in it.

Chapter Seven is essentially a long, detailed, and fascinating memoir of growing up in McQueen, as told to Janet Finn by Steve Sherick. It is a vivid and beautifully drawn vision of that place over the life of a child.

Finn concludes with a short summary chapter that relates the themes of childhood to the broader social context, and points to the ways in which a child’s-eye view provides new insights into Butte history. Butte’s “Geography of Childhood” – the mines and the culture – constrained the ways children grew up, and the ways they grew up changed that cultural geography. As Finn writes, “… children themselves have been central to Butte’s history. They were, quite simply, Butte’s reason to be. Copper was merely the means to support them.”

I have only very minor complaints about the book. I noted only three errors: Stewart for Steward; a reference to Fat Jack the hack and hearse driver as an undertaker; and a misstatement of W.A. Clark’s death in 1928 when it was 1925. And I wish that fewer photo captions had been taken verbatim from the text.

Physically the book is magnificent, a pleasure to hold, and the layout and design are admirable. Finn found many photos from her interview subjects that we have never seen, and these new photos dominate the pictures in the book. I recognize very well the immense amount of research that went into this project. Lastly, I also appreciate the fact that Finn has clearly not imposed modern values on the past. She occasionally comments on the differences between today, or later times, and the attitudes and constraints of the 1920s or the 1930s, but there is no judgment of past times. They were what they were, and Finn lets them be as they were, just as the interviewees themselves often point out.

In summary, Mining Childhood is an outstanding book that fills a niche in Butte history that has, somewhat surprisingly, been vacant. I recommend it highly—of course to Butte folks, but also to anyone interested in stories of childhood, and anyone interested in social development of children in a remarkably complex and diverse culture.


  1. Great review! I'm gonna get this book.

  2. Good book, even though it makes the common mistake of claiming Butte had a population of 100,000. There is simply no historical evidence for this claim. Drives me nuts that even otherwise reliable historians promote that myth.

    1. Well, the city directories in 1917-18 list more than 90,000 names, and they unquestionably undercount many groups, such as the Chinese, prostitutes, and others. I'm counting Silver Bow County of those days as the equivalent of Butte as we think of it today... and I'm pretty comfortable saying Butte had "about 100,000" people in 1917.