by Richard I. Gibson
I had the honor of speaking to Butte’s Homer Club on May 5, 2014, the occasion of their 122nd annual Spring Banquet. The Homer Club is the oldest women’s club in Montana, dating to 1891. This post is modified slightly from my presentation to them.
This year, 2014, is a great year for anniversaries. It’s the 150th anniversary of the Territory of Montana, the 150th birthday of artist Charlie Russell, and the 150th anniversary of the first prospectors here in Butte.
It’s also some important Montana centennials – 100 years since women got the vote here, and 100 years since the destruction of the Miners Union Hall, which touched off some incredible, internationally significant labor unrest.
So I thought I would talk a little today about Butte in 1914.
Butte in 1914 was approaching its peak – the peak of population, the peak of copper production. In 1914 Butte probably had around 80,000 people, maybe more, on the way to nearly 100,000 in 1917. As you know they were from all over the world, and from all walks of life, but mining was why Butte was here. More than 10,000 men worked underground in 1914.
The city had to be an amazingly active place. Every photo you see, the streets are filled with people, people, people. A lot of the historic buildings we still have today were standing in 1914. The Leggatt Hotel opened its doors that spring, rising from the ashes of the Maguire Opera House that had stood at that site since 1888. On the east side, Tony Canonica was building his tin shop on South Arizona Street. In the heart of town, the Iona Café was under construction on Main, across from the Metals Bank. You may remember it as the State Café.
Most of the main uptown streets were probably paved with granite pavers, those blocks about the size of a loaf of bread – hundreds and hundreds of them. Park Street was probably paved about 1908, and I suspect that Broadway and Granite, as well as Main, Montana, and Utah followed pretty quickly.
I’m not sure, but I suspect that residential side streets like Quartz and Copper and Silver probably were not paved yet, even on the well-to-do middle class west side. But they did have concrete sidewalks, at least in places. The oldest “City of Butte” sidewalk with a date in it that I’ve seen is 1910, somewhere around Galena and Alabama. There is one at the corner of Idaho and Quartz dated 1914, and there are a fair number of 1916 dates in sidewalks around the uptown. So Butte was definitely cleaning up its act, and the best of everything any merchant could offer, anywhere in the United States, was available in Butte in the 1910s.
Why? Because even though it was a mining town, it was also the largest urban metropolis in the whole vast area from Minneapolis to Denver to Salt Lake City to Spokane. An upscale, cultured metropolis, as the beginning of the Homer Club in 1891 proves. As an aside, when I was researching things for this talk, I discovered that the first meeting of the Homer Club was at the home of the founder, Mrs. Caspar, at 409 West Quartz – just a block from where I live. That little house is still standing, too. The west side was just taking off then, but within 10 years or so things were pretty well built up to Excelsior and beyond.
In 1914 Minnie Bowman was your president. Her husband was president of the Montana School of Mines, and they lived at 1020 Caledonia, with the BA&P railroad behind their back yard. New bungalows were going up a couple blocks west on Caledonia in the spring of 1914. Minnie was succeeded as president by Lina Speer, who lived at 508 South Main where she managed the Princeton Apartment building.
Minnie probably shopped in all the stores in Uptown Butte. That spring, she could have bought pillow cases at 10 for a dollar at Hennessys, or bought her husband a raincoat for $5. Maybe she bought shoes at Symons – marked down from $5 to $2.35, or found a silk shirt for herself at Connells, for $1.95. As the wife of the President of the school of mines, Minnie must have entertained frequently. If she needed a piano, the Howard Music Company on North Main, where Len Waters is today, had low-end used pianos for $125, and high-end ones for $500. Orton Brothers music across the street offered expensive pianos with a time payment plan - $1 a week – but I bet Minnie would shop at the Howard Music Company, because Blanche Howard, wife of the owner, was recording secretary of the Homer Club that year. They lived at 518 North Henry, and their neighbor at 514 was a well-known Homer Club member. Just the year before, 1913, Helen Fitzgerald Sanders had completed her massive three-volume series covering the History of Montana.
Dr. Ironside was one of the most prominent dentists. If you needed a full set of dentures in 1914, it would run you $10 to $35 per set.
For entertainment, perhaps you’d go to the Orpheum on Park. In May 1914, The Fulfillment was playing – three reels of a “stirring drama with situations that unfold scenes of unparalleled sacrifice and emotion.” Pretty much, it was boy meets girl, girl loves another boy, boys become best friends, girl rejects boy #2, who is to be boy #1’s best man, boy #1 tries to rescue Boy #2 from an inferno, is reported dead; Girl becomes demented; boy #2 recants, brings girl and boy #1 together in marriage and serves as Best Man. All that for 10¢.
For live entertainment, you could go to the Empress on Broadway – the second Empress, as the first, which stood where the Leggatt Hotel is now, had burned in 1912, and the Leggatt had just opened its doors a few months earlier in 1914. At the Empress the greatest comedy variety show of the season was playing, “More Sinned Against Than Usual.” This live show cost 10¢ to 25¢ for the matinee, and up to 35¢ for the evening show.
The headlines of the day, in May 1914, focused on Mexico – the Mexican Revolution and Civil War were in progress, and Poncho Villa was in the news almost daily. The first week of May 1914 the Anaconda Standard had a photo of US troops raising the American flag in the Mexican port of Vera Cruz.
The Butte Coppers baseball team had traveled to Idaho to face the Boise Irrigators on Opening Day. Manager Ducky Holmes would lead the team to second place in the league that year.
Women’s suffrage was also in the news almost daily. Thousands of women marched in a Great Suffrage parade in Washington DC on May 10. Suffragists in Butte were busy preparing for the visit of Grace Cotterill, wife of the Seattle mayor who spent the week in Butte. She spoke three times at the Carpenters Union Hall and led meetings all over town, from Hornet Street below Big Butte to the Napton Apartments to Texas and Grand Street.
The mining world was reeling from the news on April 20, from Colorado, of a massacre of striking coal miners. Two dozen, including women and children, were killed by the Colorado militia and company thugs at a tent city outside Trinidad Colorado, at Ludlow. The army banned the importation of guns and ammunition to the state of Colorado, fearing that they would arm either striking miners, or mine guards, or both.
The Ludlow Massacre must have stirred the emotions of miners here in Butte. The miner’s wage was $3.50 a day, a pay rate that really was pretty high for hard labor, among the best pay in the United States. But it had been $3.50 a day since 1878 – 36 years without a raise, while the price of copper tripled. Tempers were raw, and radical activists including the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, saw an opportunity.
Just two months after the Ludlow Massacre, at the Miners Union Day parade here on June 13, activists, drunks, someone stirred up the crowd, and a mob attacked the Union Hall on North Main Street. The place was ransacked and the safe taken.
10 days of fighting, dissent, conversation, and argument culminated in the dynamiting of the Union Hall on June 23, 1914. That event is easy to point to as the ignition, the spark, that touched off six years of labor history here in Butte that echoes down the decades to this day. It led to Frank Little coming to Butte and his being murdered here – and people come to Butte today from all over the world, from London, from Berlin, to see his grave and the city that killed him. It led to the sedition act that resulted in people being arrested for saying anything at all against the US government, the war, or the Anaconda Company. It led to the Anaconda Road Massacre in 1920 that put an end to the labor movement here for close to 20 years. At that point, the company’s control was absolute. They controlled more than just the mines – they essentially controlled the state of Montana. They controlled the legislature, the state supreme court, and they owned most of Montana’s newspapers. I don’t like the way you look – you’re fired! YOU were talking to the cousin of an IWW agent. You’re fired. That was not legal, but it did not matter. They did what they wanted.
Five days after the Union Hall was dynamited, the news headlines changed. Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, and the War to End All Wars began. The repercussions in Butte would be huge – but that’s another story.
In addition to President Minnie Bowman, wife of the School of Mines president, your 1914 corresponding secretary, Cora Copenharve, was the wife of the City Editor of the Anaconda Standard, the mouthpiece of the Anaconda Company. Treasurer Ada Messias’s husband was the chief clerk to the W.A. Clark Interests. That might have caused some interesting tensions, since Clark’s vocal opposition to the Anaconda Company was well known, even though by 1914 he was spending little time in Butte.
Among your members in 1914 was the widow of Daniel Hennessy – he owned the Hennessy Department Store and the building that housed the company. He died in 1908, but his widow continued to live in the mansion at the corner of Park and Excelsior.
Then there’s Mrs. John Noyes – matriarch of a family grown rich by selling mines to various copper kings and huge swaths of Butte land to real estate developers. The Homer Club met at her large house on East Granite at Wyoming within the first year of its founding, in 1892. That house is gone today.
Mrs. John D. Ryan was another Homer Club member in 1914. Ryan became not only the president of the Anaconda Company, but president of the Montana Power Company as well, and was one of the most powerful men in the United States. Their mansion is on North Excelsior.
In 1914 the Homer Club was focusing its meetings on a study of all aspects of drama. The late April meeting topic was Famous Actors and Actresses and how they influenced playwrights of their time.
1914 was a pretty amazing year, in Butte and in the wide world.
1914 newspaper images from collection at Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives