Harmon’s Histories: A tale of two dances … and a Frenchtown-Missoula brawl
I see in the paper that the recent ballroom dances held in Missoula and Frenchtown were big successes. Well, at least one of them was.
The anniversary ball given at the Dana House (hotel) in late February 1874 was declared “the most pleasant affair of the season.”
The crowd came from about every corner of Missoula County. The music was supplied by Polson’s string band. “Mr. Kennedy and his corps of able assistants (at the hotel) outstripped former occasions in the arrangement of the sumptuous supper.”
The other affair – the one at Frenchtown, held at the Western Hotel – should have been a dandy, with great music and a grand march to the supper tables at midnight. But, alas, it was not.
The newspaper reporter covering the event “counted sixty gents, thirty ladies and one hundred children in attendance,” with a good contingent attending from Missoula.
But there were early hints that at least a few of the Missoula guests might be headed toward a headache.
A sleigh was filled “with ten or a dozen of the dance-going male population of Missoula, well supplied with antidotes for the bite of snakes.”
Everything started out just fine in the dance hall.
But the atmosphere in the saloon downstairs was decidedly not going well, or as the newspaper reporter put it, “war was declared and two citizens of Frenchtown were engaged in the laudable undertaking of putting heads on each other.”
As best I can determine, the term “putting heads on each other” translates roughly to clubbing each other mercilessly.
Of course the friends of each of the combatants “crowded in to back up their men and see fair play,” which I believe means all hell broke loose, or something to that effect.
It appears the locals had the upper hand, forcing the Missoula visitors to retreat to the doors, or in the words of our fearless reporter, “some of the ‘Missoula Orphans’ said they wanted to go home.”
Our newspaper scribbler later found the Garden City contingent “under the billiard-table where they had formed themselves into a hollow-square and were well-armed with decanters, bar glasses and other articles of modern warfare.”
“When assured that the battle was ended, they came forth from their stronghold as valiant a looking crew as ever rubbed their stomachs against a bar.”
One can only imagine how the Rev. Thomas DeWitt Talmage might have reacted, had he heard of the goings-on in Missoula that night.
Talmage, a New York crusader against crime and vice whose newspaper columns were read by tens of thousands Americans, wrote in 1885, “In every age dancing had been carried to excess, and had been associated with the basest vices.”
Too much dancing, he wrote, could lead to “the general ruin of the family,” citing one case in which “the homeless father broke down and died; the son became a wreck; the daughter ran off with a French dancing-master; and the mother? She continued to figure as an old flirt — a poor, miserable butterfly without wings.”
Putting aside the Rev. Talmage’s possible thoughts and the aforementioned minor disturbance, the dance in our story (which went on until sunrise) was considered by our reporter to have been the best he’d attending in a good many years.
He credited that to the event’s organizer, Mose Droulliard of the Western Hotel, “who thoroughly understands his business and we were pleased to learn that it was a success financially.”
“Mose spared no pains to render his guests comfortable, and his kindness was duly appreciated, if we are to judge by the many complimentary remarks that have been heard made concerning the ball and the manner in which it was conducted.”
Let the music play on!
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 best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.