Harmon’s Histories: New book chronicles lively tales from Montana’s earliest years

Jim Harmon at the magnetic weather map, circa 1987-89, during his nearly 50-year career in radio and TV news.

Ten years ago, I retired from a nearly 50-year career in radio and television news to take a new path.

That path has now lead to a book.

But, as I often say in my columns, I’m getting ahead of myself.

A few folks (perhaps one or two) still know me from that past life, but you would have to have lived in western Montana for 30 years or more to be among them.

I used to be a western Montana TV anchor and reporter as well as the nightly weather forecaster – Steve Fetveit and I alternated in that latter role, placing magnetic cloud and sun cut-outs on metal maps.

Over three decades, I was honored to hire or work with many wonderful, talented people, among them Jill Valley, Erin Yost and Maritsa Georgiou. They’ve gone on to become quite popular to local television viewers.

There were Ray Ekness and Gus Chambers, well known to Montana PBS viewers and, of course, there was that fellow I hired to replace me in the weather slot: Mark Heyka – a small handful of people might know him (I’m joking, of course).

I’ve been a lifelong gardener, but when retirement came in 2010, I needed a hobby to keep me busy in the winter months.

I thought – given my career in news – it might be fascinating to see how Montana journalists plied their trade in the earliest days of our territory, then state.

I randomly picked out an 1894 microfilm at the Missoula Public Library. I couldn’t stop reading.

I went through everything from the front page to the classifieds. Thirty old maids secured adjoining quarter-sections in the Cherokee Strip. Harry Thompson’s nag was stolen. Then there was the hilarious story of a local turkey heist – all on the front page!

I discovered a Missoula and a Montana I’d never known – everything from train hijackings to a tongue-in-cheek society column under the non de plume, “Violette Gleamer.”

I was hooked, and began transferring the microfilm to digital files, cataloging the stories and sharing them with friends. In 2016, the Missoula Current online journal offered me a chance to share them more widely through this weekly column.

One of the most memorable characters I stumbled across was “Coyote Bill,” an old guy who lived up Missoula’s Rattlesnake Valley. Some thought he was mad. Others thought he was “the sneakin’est man that ever was.” He certainly wasn’t very neighborly.

The story of K.F.W. Beeskove (a.k.a. “Coyote Bill”) was just one of the nearly lost gems of history, documented by the newspaper reporters of early day Montana.

Herr Daniel Bandmann, a world-renowned Shakespearean actor, moved to Missoula and performed regularly at the opera house, while the saloons and houses of Missoula’s “Midway Plaisance” gave the city a reputation as one of the worst places in the state for drug-related crime and murder.

Many readers have encouraged me to put some of these long-lost gems into a book, so here it is: “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” titled after that character, Coyote Bill.

The stories – 46 of them – are based on newspaper accounts from the latter 19th century in Missoula’s Western Democrat, Weekly Missoulian and Weekly Gazette, as well as Stevensville’s Northwest Tribune and Ravalli Republican plus the Anaconda Standard and other papers. Other tales were passed along from family and friends.

(Center for Mark Twain Studies, Emery College, New York)

Having grown up in Libby – and having heard all the stories – I just had to write about local legend Dunn Creek Nell. Then there were Missoula’s visiting celebrities, Al Jolson and Mark Twain.

There are accounts of manifest destiny progress and prejudice, balanced with a few quirky accounts like the kangaroo in St. Regis and chicken fanciers in Missoula.

I learned much in the process of writing these history columns over the last five years, and now this book. Archivists from the Montana Historical Society, the University of Montana and even Emery College in New York helped in the process (the latter supplied some wonderful photos of Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain’s visit to Missoula and the Fort).

Sherry Devlin helped edit the material. Friends and family assisted along the way, including the creation of quite a nice website for the book.

It turned out to be far more work that I had envisioned. It was a wonderful exercise, but painful too – especially at the end.

I chose Stoneydale Press as the publisher. I had known Dale Burk, the founder of the company, for some time.

It was wonderful to work with him over the past year – right up to the final edits and corrections on the afternoon of September 15th, the day before his sudden, unexpected death.

His daughter told me, “He was so excited about this book.” I’m sorry Dale wasn’t able to see the product of all that work. What a wonderful fellow.

The book is now available ($19.95 + S & H) through the website harmonshistories.com.

I hope you’ll all enjoy it.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.