It is August. Can you believe it? Where did time go? Where did our summer go?
The saving grace: It’s time for the Western Montana Fair – and fair food!
You know what I mean: nachos from the Big Sky Band booth and fried cheese curds from the Friends of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.
Let’s not forget about live-spun cotton candy from the Hellgate High School Band, tacos and burritos from the Missoula FFA, and the decades-old popularity of Tater Pigs from the Rocky Mountainaires, who may well serenade you about their tasty palate-pleaser.
All of this, of course, is overseen by the Missoula City-County Health Department inspectors who assure you that all is proper and well in the food-preparation process.
That was not the case back in the day – astoundingly and shockingly not the case in 1907, if one is to believe the story in the local paper.
The Missoulian headline read: “Two Missoula Men Go To The Dogs.” I read the story. I read it again. Then, again.
Personally, I think it was a joke. Historically, local newspapers had pulled such pranks before. Nonetheless, here is a cautionary note.
Readers (how shall we say this?) with sensitive or delicate dispositions might want to pause to consider whether to read on. Take a moment. It’s OK. We’’ll see you here next week, should you opt out.
For those more robust souls, here we go.
Ronald Higgins, the secretary of the 1907 Western Montana’s Fair’s racing association posted a notice calling for bids for privileges at the fair including “bar, hamburger and weinerwurst, lunch, confectionery, score-card and any other privilege which any one desires to bid on.”
Well, Poe (or Joe) Siefert won the right to sell hamburgers. The Daily Missoulian, in a page eight article dated September 13, 1907, reported Poe, “for weeks has been gathering in all the fat dogs that he could catch. He has assorted them carefully and has arranged them in such a way that he caters to all tastes in the matter of hamburgers.”
“Siefert has built a neat little booth that is artistic and secure. The dog pens are convenient and are so located that the canines can be run direct from the hoof to the sandwich before the eyes of the consumer.”
“A man can select the dog that he wants from the crowd in the pen and he can see the process by which the animal is transformed into a hamburger sandwich. It is a model establishment.”
The hook of the article was actually about a construction accident while Poe and a helper, Jack Brown, were working on the roof of the food booth.
The whole thing collapsed. “Both men were precipitated into the pen where the toughest of the dogs were confined. The dogs were hungry and they at once pounced upon the men.”
Siefert, who held onto his hammer in the fall, “used it to good advantage then and there. He stood off the dogs till help came and he and Brown were dragged from the pen. They are badly bruised but they will be ready for the fair.”
Now, after reading this article, I was still convinced it was just a great, one-off knee-slapper of a joke. So I searched for any other articles about the subject, finding only one published 10 days earlier in the same jaw-dropping style.
September 7, 1907, the Daily Missoulian reported that Peter Howe was missing his dog, Billy, and “at once suspected that Joe (Siefert) had him in his collection. He ran two blocks to the corral where Joe is fattening his dogs; but Billy was not there. Perry found Billy afterward, asleep in a corner.”
Following the fair, there were the usual summary-articles about the event, mentioning happy crowds eating hamburgers, but no mention of Joe Siefert or a pen of dogs.
Attempts to verify the story, searching fair-related stories in the years preceding and following 1907, have been fruitless. Stan Cohen’s wonderful 1995 book, Western Montana Fair-A Pictorial Heritage mentions only that the 1907 and 1908 fairs were marred a bit by blustery weather.
The Missoula County Health Department tells me they weren’t involved in food-safety inspections at the fair until a decade or more later.
Even if they had been, the County Health Officer, Dr. Charles Pixley, according to old county commission journals, resigned on August 5, 1907 and would not have been available anyway.
Now, as I’ve stated over the years, when it comes to stories like this one or like “A Cold Breath on My Cheek – A Kangaroo in St. Regis,” surely, you’ll agree with me that such fine journalism, albeit unsubstantiated, is at least plausible.
Therefore this report should be considered absolutely, positively, imaginably, conceivably, maybe true.
After all, it was in the paper!
I rest my case. Bon appétit!
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com.