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 29, 2013

Oh, those 1920s prices!

By Richard I. Gibson

In 2013, the Chinese New Year comes a bit later than in recent years, beginning on February 10. In Butte the Parade will be on Saturday February 16, starting at 3:00 p.m. at the Court House. Join the Mai Wah for the world’s shortest, loudest, and coldest (we’ll see about that) parade, which Reader’s Digest declared one of the six “most interesting processions in America.”

In honor of Chinese New Year, I’ll have a couple posts about Butte’s Chinatown.


The menu here (click the pics to enlarge), from the Mai Wah Collection and used by permission, probably dates to the 1920s or 1930s on the basis of prices and the four-digit phone number. In its earliest years the top-floor Mai Wah Noodle Parlor was managed by Chinese not connected with the Chinn Family that operated the Wah Chong Tai Mercantile on the first floor. That was important for the merchants, to enable them to remain immune to the impacts of the Exclusionary Acts, which targeted laborers, laundry workers, and restaurant workers.

By the time this menu was printed by McGee Printing on Granite Street, all the businesses in the Mai Wah-Wah Chong Tai buildings were probably under the purview of the Chinns. Chin On ran the Wah Chong Tai until about 1932, when his fellow Taishanese countryman Chin Yee Fong took over. Chin Yee Fong had arrived in the U.S. in 1905, age about 16. He was the son of Chin On’s partner in the Wah Chong Tai, and he worked as the assistant bookkeeper while attending Garfield School and for many years thereafter.

When Chin Yee Fong became the manager, he was using the Americanized name Albert Chinn, and he became a prominent and important businessman in Butte. His large family—nine surviving children of ten, all but one born in Butte—was eventually scattered across the U.S. His son Howard, at one time the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor Manager, had a long career as a restaurateur in Minneapolis. Son William stayed in Butte and lived at the Mai Wah for a time, then rented it to Paul Eno whose fix-it shop was there for many years. William Chinn was an electronics technician in Butte; he died in 1980.

You’ll find much, much more about the Chinn family in the Mai Wah’s upcoming exhibit on their lives and times. I’m preparing the exhibit, with support from the Montana Historical Society’s Dave Walter Research Fellowship (to me) and the Montana Cultural Trust (to the Mai Wah). It should be in place this summer.

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.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Gertie the Babyseller – where she lived and worked

For background, context, and a photo of Gertie, see this link.

By Richard I. Gibson

Casey Block: Gertie probably lived in
the basement apartment here.
Her office was next door (to the left).
Photo by Dick Gibson
Gertrude Pitanken (maiden name not known) was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1887, and came to Butte by 1907. Trained as a chiropractor, she worked as a nurse at the old St. James Hospital where she may have met her husband, Dr. Gustav Pitanken. Gustav died July 22, 1930, age 66, and Gertie assumed his practice, which included abortions.

When Gustav died in 1930, he and his wife had an office at 511 Metals Bank and they lived at 663 Colorado with one Henry Davis. The following year, Gertie moved her office to 616 Metals Bank and married William Van Orden, who had retired from the Butte Police Department in 1929. She presumably moved to his residence at 119½ Hamilton Street, in the basement of the Casey Block at the corner of Hamilton and Granite. She was definitely living there by 1934.

Gertie maintained her office at 616 Metals Bank until 1940, when the office was relocated to the top floor, #85, in the Hirbour Tower at Broadway and Main. The 1940 directory is confusing in listing her residence as Columbia Gardens (there was a small neighborhood of that name near the amusement park) but it seems that she was also maintaining the residence with Van Orden on Hamilton Street. She’s back there by 1942, when her office relocated again, to 115 Hamilton, the Maley Block just south of the Casey Block. It was from this location that she sold babies into adoption in the 1940s and 1950s.

Casey Block (photo from Piccadilly
Transportation Museum web site)
The office continued at 115 Hamilton (third floor, I believe) until 1959, but Pitanken and Van Orden moved from the basement apartment at 119½ Hamilton to a home at 829 West Quartz about 1945; by 1952 Pitanken was living in the same space as her office at 115 Hamilton. Van Orden, who was listed separately in the Directories through all this, has disappeared by about 1950.

Gertie died April 19, 1960, and is buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery. 115 Hamilton was vacant in 1960.

Criminal charges were brought against Gertrude Pitanken three times: in 1929, for botched abortions, falsified death certificate, “not proved;” in 1936 (dismissed; later sanity commission declared her sane); and in 1939-40 – arrested at home (Columbia Gardens), charges were dropped. Gertie allegedly had incriminating information about city officials including judges, which resulted in her cases being dismissed. Whether that’s true or not is unknown.

Sources: Butte Archives VF 0681, 1745; city directories. With the exception of the Columbia Gardens neighborhood, I believe that all the locations mentioned above are still standing.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The January 15, 1895, explosions

By Richard I. Gibson

“Alas! Alas! What woe it wrought! What pain, what sorrow, what blight to human hopes! Only the recording angel, with pen dipped in tears, can truly write the story of that awful night.”

Jim the horse in 1901, at the Arizona Street Station,
which still stands (pawn shop today).
January 15, 1895, a deadly date in Butte history: the multiple explosions of illegally stored dynamite in the warehouse district. Almost the entire Fire Department was wiped out.

Dave Magee, hose-cart driver, was one of only two of the nine fire fighters who responded to the call and survived. And the story of a horse named Jim who saved Magee is true—Magee was blanketing the horses against the cold when an explosion threw one horse into him, killing the horse and injuring Magee. The protection offered by both the dead horse and Jim the survivor saved Magee’s life. Jim subsequently became an icon of the Fire Department, and of Butte.

Magee was so severely injured that he could not drive the wagon, but he rode in the 3,000-member procession that honored the fallen fire fighters and the many more volunteers and bystanders who died that cold January night. The final count will never be certain, because the violence of the explosions literally destroyed human bodies, but the most common count is 58 dead. This was, I believe, the second most deadly event in Butte’s history, second only to the Granite Mountain Disaster in 1917.

Map of the area. Iron Street today goes
about through the center of this map.
A contemporary list of the dead reveals a microcosm of Butte: 56 white, 1 colored. Forty single men and boys, 14 married, 1 widower, 2 unknown. Six from Germany, four from Ireland, five from Canada, two from England, one from Norway; native-born Americans were from New York (8), Pennsylvania (3), Utah (2), Montana (2), and one each from Dakota, Minnesota, and Ohio, with 21 whose nativity was unknown. The ages of the dead ranged from 12 to 78; at least a dozen teenagers were killed. Twenty-two others were in their 20s.

Research note: There’s always more to learn. I’d been saying that there were three survivors within the Fire Department (because that’s what I was told years ago), but the contemporary accounts make clear that there were only two. Besides Magee, the other survivor was John Flannery who was manning the plug, well away from the force of the explosions.

Resources: The Great Dynamite Explosions at Butte, Montana, January 15, 1895, by John Francis Davies, 1895 (scanned by Google—source of map, quote at top, and image of devastation); Souvenir History of the Butte Fire Department, by Peter Sanger, Chief Engineer, November 1901 (scan by Butte Public Library—source of photo with Jim the horse).

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Butte Country Club

By Richard I. Gibson


The Butte Country Club, first in Montana and the first golf course in the state, began in 1899, probably as a polo club on South Montana Street. By 1905, the organization was installing the golf course around Lake Avoca on the east side of the Flats. Initially the course had sand greens, but eventually (1939, after Lake Avoca was drained in the early 1930s) the first grass greens in Montana were established there.

The first clubhouse burned down in the 1940s, and the replacement was itself replaced in the 1960s. Popular and up-scale, the Butte Country Club saw Evel Knievel teamed with boxer Joe Louis in a 1976 tournament.

The stock certificate here, from 1911, was issued to Joseph Oppenheimer, part of Butte’s elite who has appeared in these posts previously. He only owned four shares at $25 each, a small investment compared to his other ventures.

The certificate is countersigned by President Frederick McCrimmon, a physician and surgeon who lived at 313 West Broadway in a notable house designed in 1896 by prominent architect Henry Patterson. The first owner was Thomas Newton, who ran the Butte Iron Works. Newton left Butte about 1902; McCrimmon lived in the home from about 1902 to 1918. McCrimmon was seriously injured July 18, 1915, in a crash between a motorcycle and an automobile, but survived.

Resources: The Montana Tavern Times, December, 2008 (by Paul Vang); Journal of the American Medical Association, V. 65, 1915; Stock Certificate in Dick Gibson’s collection.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Wonder of Work


Joseph Pennell (1857-1926) was a noted Philadelphia-born artist and illustrator, friend and biographer of artist James Whistler. Pennell was perhaps best known for his Pictures of the Wonder of Work: Reproductions of a series of drawings, etchings, lithographs, made by him about the world, 1881-1915, with impressions and notes by the artist, published in 1916.

He traveled to Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Duluth, Sheffield England, Venice, Germany, Belgium, and to Butte and Anaconda, documenting industry and construction. Herewith are his etchings and comments about our neck of the woods.

Butte, Montana, on its mountain top

Butte is the most pictorial place in America—therefore no one stops at it—and most people pass it in the night, or do not take the trouble to look out of the car windows as they go by. But there it is. On the mountain side spring up the huge shafts. The top is crowned not with trees but with chimneys. Low black villages of miners’ houses straggle toward the foot of the mountain. The barren plain is covered with gray, slimy masses of refuse which crawl down to it—glaciers of work—from the hills. The plain is seared and scored and cracked with tiny canyons, all their lines leading to the mountain. If you have the luck to reach the town early in the morning you will find it half revealed, half concealed in smoke and mist and steam, through which the strange shafts struggle up to the light, while all round the horizon the snow peaks silently shimmer above the noisy, hidden town. If you have the still better fortune to reach it late in the evening you will see an Alpine glow that the Alps have never seen. In the middle of the day the mountains disappear and there is nothing but glare and glitter, union men and loafers about.



Anaconda, Montana

I have seen many volcanoes, a few in eruption—that was terrible—but this great smelter at Anaconda always, while I was there, pouring from its great stack high on the mountain its endless cloud pall of heavy, drifting, falling smoke, was more wonderful—for this volcano is man’s work and one of the Wonders of Work. Dead and gray and bare are the nearby hills, glorious the snow-covered peaks far off, but incredible is this endless rolling, changing pillar of cloud, always there, yet always different—and that country covered with great lakes, waterless, glittering, great lava beds of refuse stretching away in every direction down the mountain sides into the valleys, swallowing up every vestige of life, yet beautiful with the beauty of death—a death, a plague which day by day spreads farther and farther over the land—silently overwhelming, all-devouring—a silent place of smoke and fire.