It’s time for spring cleaning!
Unlike the garden where springtime weeding and thinning lacks any hard decisions and is universally accepted as the right thing to do, my office is another matter.
The bin of story ideas clearly needs attention, but the “thinning” involves very difficult choices. After all, I would never have collected all these old news clippings had I not thought they would one day inspire a great work of genius by this lowly scribbler.
Drawing inspiration from poet Carl Phillips, I must simply dive in and get it done: “The instinct to panic at first slackens that much more quickly, if you don’t look back.”
It helps, too, that I’m not really deciding what to keep and what to throw out. I’m simply speeding up the process of sharing these gems.
Forget about “spring cleaning.” Let’s call it the “Spring Sale: Three for the Price of One! Hogs, Murders & A Snake Farm.”
Everyone’s familiar with “fish stories,” but in 1896 The Fort Benton River Press engaged in some “hog stories.”
Lewistown, it seems, was crowing about a dressed-out hog weighing about 450 pounds. Choteau followed with the claim of a local oinker exceeding that by “several pounds.”
A Miles City man quickly responded with a report of “something a little more hefty than the Teton County phenomenon,” only to be challenged by a claim from Billings of a Poland China porker that dressed out over 513 pounds and “twenty-five witnesses to prove the truth of the allegation!”
Just hold your horses (err, hogs), said Messrs. Cox and Pyle of Dillon, whose “three-year-old Poland China” weighed in at 547 lbs. They were “prepared to make an affidavit to this effect before a notary public whose commission has expired.”
The Fort Benton River Press cautioned, however, that Col. Bob Sutherlin of Meagher County was “holding his prize hog until all his competitors have been heard from, and will then floor them with a knockout hog story that will make their heads swim.”
The colonel’s bacon-ater “was too fat and heavy to respond to the sound of the dinner bell, and his meals had to be taken into his room. At present, he measures some seven feet from nose to tail, is four feet high, measures three feet across the shoulders, and according to Col. Sutherlin’s calculations will dress about 989 pounds.”
But that’s not all the news strewn about my desk.
Consider this report from 1884, when Montana saw a spike in murders. The numbers would have been even higher, reported the Dillon Tribune, “if the unlawful lynchings of men in the Territory within the last year had been counted” in the statistics.
But it wasn’t just Montana. “The murder census of the country, just completed, shows that there were three thousand three hundred and seventy-seven murders committed within the past year — or six murders to every one hundred thousand inhabitants. Of the murders reported, forty-eight were children killed by their parents, eighty-five wives killed by their husbands, and twelve husbands murdered by their wives —showing a large amount of domestic unhappiness and crime.”
The cause of this uptick, speculated the paper, was “doubtless the financial depression, the hard times prevailing, and the tremendous excitement attending a presidential campaign.”
Finally, we have a story that genuinely stretches credulity. It originated with the Omaha Herald and was reprinted by many Montana newspapers in 1887: “The Great Snake Farm of Galton, Illinois.”
We are told that Colonel Dan Stover raised rattlesnakes for sale to a Philadelphia patent medicine firm, which would then extract their venom for “a rheumatism cure.” So far, everything sounds believable.
Then comes the line, “As much care is taken of the young snakes as if they were lambs,” and the sub-headline: “Fed by The Children.”
The baby rattlesnakes, “if not properly cared for by their mother, are taken to the colonel’s home, and there fed by the children, who catch bugs for them about the garden and street.”
But wait – there’s more: “A half dozen very large snakes, with their fangs drawn, are kept about the house as pets. They are excellent mousers, much better than cats, the colonel says. The colonel wanders about his farm, taking no other precaution against the reptiles than to wear a pair of thick boots.”
“When a reporter called on him the colonel complained that the neighbors did not come to visit them very often, and that his wife didn’t like that much, for she was fond of company. But, on the whole,” said Stover, “since there was plenty of money in the business they were very well content.”
There, I feel better. Spring cleaning is done for another 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.