Harmon’s Histories: Rabbits overtake downtown Missoula island!
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Gather around, my friends, to hear the story – the story of the “Wascally Wabbits of the Wilma.”
Once upon a time, there was a man who lived on an island in the Missoula River, right under the Higgins Avenue Bridge, near the Snead-Simons Building. (FYI, the Missoula River is now called the Clark Fork and the building is now called the Wilma).
The man had two companions, a pair of white rabbits.
According to a local newspaper account, “The trio lived there happily, no one knows how long.”
“Then (in the early 1920s) the man died and the administrator of his estate either through oversight or reprehensible negligence failed to make any provision for the rapidly aging pair of bunnies.”
Over time, a ladder (the only thing connecting the island to the shore) “was removed and the island become isolated,” protecting them from any predators.
Over time the Wascally Wabbits of the Wilma (as wascally wabbits will do) multiplied. By 1923, “people standing on the bridge were able to count as many as 60!”
The pedestrians would throw “bread and lettuce” to the bunnies, as did the residents of the Snead-Simons Building.
At first, it was all viewed positively. In fact, the Western Montana Fish and Game Association went so far as to propose making the island a “civic zoological park.” The group even suggested that deer and Chinese pheasants be added to the menagerie.
But as winter approached in 1923, a group of Missoulians calling themselves the Pedestrian Proletariat (PP), distinguishing themselves from the uncaring Automobile Aristocracy (AA), wrote a missive to the Missoulian newspaper, pointing out the obvious.
“These are becoming pampered rabbits ... they are fat and carefree, and silly. They have made virtually no preparations for winter. Not an ounce of coal has been laid in, and only one or two have even thought to building homes for the cold days.”
When the river freezes, worried the members of the PP, a land bridge to the island would be created over which the WWs (wascally wabbits) would travel into the downtown area, or dogs would be able to “cross over to massacre the innocents.”
Well, the PP proclaimed something must be done to protect the city’s popular bunnies. “They are Missoula’s only zoo and we’d like to see them preserved.”
They wrote a letter to the Editor of the Missoulian asking, “How many boys and girls in Missoula want to buy a Christmas present for the rabbits under the bridge?”
“There are more than ten thousand school children in Missoula and if each child would give one cent it would be enough for a nice load of hay for the bunnies.”
Owen Kelly, the owner of a local cigar store, offered to put out a can to collect pennies for the bunnies. The PPs urged everyone to help “see that the rabbits have a warm Christmas with full stomachs.”
Kelly added, “If there’s money left over,” he’d even buy the bunnies some Christmas cabbages.
But other Missoulians called it folly, with one individual – suspected of being an angry automobilist (AA) – proposed that the city conduct a rabbit hunt. The meat could be donated to the Salvation Army as Christmas dinners for the poor.
At first, the M\mayor and fire department were reluctant. They set out traps, but that was ineffective. So they eventually gave in, acquired some guns, and set off to get rid of the rabbits permanently.
So it was that on Christmas Eve day, just after the lunch hour, shots rang out as the five armed men closed in on the bunnies.
But then, fate intervened.
Well, “fate” in the form of one F.S. Lusk, who “advanced to the center of the bridge, and with a megaphone,” shouted poetically:
“Firemen, spare that rabbit!
Touch not a single hare!
For years it’s been my habit,
to keep them happy there.”
The firemen retreated, and the rabbits were saved. But only for a short time.
In May 1924, workers from the Bitter Root Laboratories began trapping rabbits from the island colony and shipping them to the federal research facility in Hamilton to be used “in the fight against Rocky Mountain spotted fever.”
Perhaps not a happy one for the bunnies – but, THE END, nonetheless.
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.