Harmon’s Histories: As new year begins, remembering the age-old generosity of Montanans

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.

Happy New Year!

What a variety of ways Montanans have celebrated the annual turning of the calendar.

One hundred years ago, a Missoula newspaper declared, “Hail 1921!” adding: “If the appearance of Higgins Avenue last night near the midnight hour is any indication, practically two-thirds of Missoula was astir when the blowing of the whistles and ringing of bells announced the birth of the new year.”

One hundred years later, the welcome party for 2021 will be far more subdued due to the pandemic and the advice of health professionals to avoid close contact.

Still, we have the memories.

“Probably the most pretentious event of the (1921) evening,” wrote the Missoulian, “was the annual ball given by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.” It was packed. So was the dance floor at the Orchard Homes clubhouse on Missoula’s west side.

Years earlier, in 1874, the Dana House (hotel) was the setting for the city’s premier New Year’s Eve celebration. “The attendance was large, the supper excellent, and all went merry as a wedding bell,” reported a local newspaper scribbler. That is, until the end.

It seems one of the musicians “discovered that someone had stolen his music, and substituted a Dutch almanac therefor, but as the change was made while he was at supper some hours before, the conduct of the musician in refusing to play longer was considered inexcusable. So ended the New Year’s Ball in Missoula.”

Weekly Missoulian, January 8, 1874

The WCTU weighed in heavily, in advance of Helena’s welcoming of 1885, with a resolution from local church women that party hosts “refrain from offering intoxicating drinks to their guests on New Year’s Day,” referring to the custom of social house calls and receptions.

That prompted a letter to the editor of the Helena Weekly Herald, from a fellow calling himself “Moderation.”

“I for one must raise my voice against any infraction of the custom that has come down to us by such time-honored traditions, and was good enough for our forefathers just as we have it today. A little yielding now to this innovation will soon carry away our cigars and finally deprive us of our favorite cigarette!”

Cigarettes figured prominently in the 1920 New Year’s celebration in Missoula. While local theaters opened for “midnight matinees,” one theater manager didn’t want the local newspaper staff to feel left out, so he “visited the editorial rooms and left four gallons of punch after having stuffed the pockets of the staff with cigarettes.”

In Superior, the “Redmen Lodge” hosted annual New Year’s dances. 1921’s gathering was said to have been the “best attended and most enjoyable dance given in years,” according to the Mineral Independent newspaper. The host organization intrigued me – “Redmen Lodge.”

Mineral Independent – January 6, 1921

It seems the “Improved Order of the Redmen” descended from the “Sons of Liberty,” some of whom had participated in the Boston Tea Party dressed up to resemble Indians. Members of the group used Native American titles and terminology in their meetings, only – no surprise – it was an all-white organization!

The group claimed something over a half million members in the 1920s, but the order declined rapidly over the years.

One of the most uplifting New Year’s stories comes from Bozeman, as residents welcomed 1877.

“At about 7 o’clock in the evening,” reported the Bozeman Semi-Weekly Avant Courier, the Rev. Mr. Long and his family of the Methodist-Episcopal church “were not a little surprised to hear” a commotion outside the parsonage door.

They were astonished to see a crowd with “bundles and packages … take possession of the house” and proceed to entertain the family with music and singing for the next two hours!

Bozeman Avant Courier – January 5, 1877

“At 9 o’clock, amid happy good nights and well wishes, the crowd dispersed,” leaving the family with “money and valuables to the amount of $184,” in appreciation of Reverend Long’s “earnest ministerial labors and agreeable social qualities.”

The newspaper concluded, “Irrespective of church or creed, the communities of Montana need but little training to a spirit of liberality, and Bozeman people are determined not to be a whit behind their neighbors in generosity.”

What a wonderful thought, as we welcome 2021. Happy New Year! 

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. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.