By Jim Harmon
“Missoula can now claim the best hotel in Montana.”
“The building itself is more substantial, the architecture is on the more approved and modern pattern, the rooms are larger and furniture finer.”
“It requires no stretch of the imagination on the part of the guest at the Florence to believe that he is in a city of 20,000 or 30,000 people.”
Those were among the press clippings when A. B. Hammond’s Hotel Florence opened on September 10, 1888.
The original Florence Hotel was modern in every way. It had steam heat in every room, generated by a furnace that required as much as three cords of wood a day. It even had its own power plant in the basement to provide electricity. Free transportation for guests was provided by the Eclipse stable. The hotel also hosted local events of all kind, including the annual Episcopal Christmas bazaar.
For all its iterations and changes, the Florence Building is still making headlines. On the positive side, as reported recently in the Missoula Current, the hotel is being refurbished inside and out including possible facade illumination; a project that may take years.
But, there are challenges, too. The Florence and other businesses in downtown Missoula still face some of the problems dating back to the 1800s, notably aggressive transients and other criminal activity.
The mayor and the police chief are hoping the city council will fund two new officers and a couple of “community service specialists” in next year’s budget. But, how much law enforcement can do is limited these days.
Recent attempts to criminalize panhandling have failed (the judiciary declaring the practice constitutionally protected – a matter of free speech). Still, many folks would like to see a return to the solutions of the1800s when vagrants and drunks were dealt with harshly, rounded up and paraded before the judge on a daily basis.
Here are some press accounts from that period.
“Joseph Martin, an able-bodied mendicant, made his prettiest bow to Judge Ross and acknowledged that he had been begging on the street. Joseph was given 10 minutes to get out of town. He got.”
“John Brown, Frank White and Joseph Williams, a trio of tough looking characters who ‘made Rome howl’ in the vicinity of the railroad lumber yard last night were charged with disturbance and committed to the county jail for 30 days each.”
Benjamin Sherman, described by the local paper as “a pocket edition of a man,” apparently fell off the wagon with regularity. He’d tried to reform, even joined the Salvation Army, but “Benny was in a muchly dazed condition when he wandered into the Salvation barracks last evening and his conduct necessitated his removal by officer Kenney. Judge Ross delivered the little man a certain lecture this morning and turned him loose.”
Owen Coffield got 10 days in the county jail after he had been “picked up from the sidewalk drunk as a lord.”
But, jail time in the 1800s wasn’t just “time;” it was hard labor and community service.
“John Smith this morning pleaded guilty to a charge of vagrancy and was sentenced to 30 days duty on the county wood pile.”
“Ben Drake, a tired looking individual, was the only victim in Judge Ross’s judicial foundry yesterday. Dan was charged with a vagrancy and was recommended to the tender mercies of Sheriff Ramsey and the rapidly growing wood pile for 10 days.”
“Judge Evans this morning sentenced (three) to snow shovel duty on the main street sidewalks.”
The Missoulian even suggested, “The city marshal can add not a little to his popularity by supplying each member of (the chain gang) with a little hammer and turning them loose on the nails and spikes that continually stick up several inches in the sidewalks in the business portion of the city.”
Over the decades, news articles suggested the tough approach was working.
In 1914, the Missoulian’s George Stone declared, “Either the unusual activity in the lumber camps or the simple policy of city officials to hand ‘floaters’ (train tickets out of town) or hard labor to unemployed men seemingly has rid Missoula of the usual winter number of idle people.”
The police believed the threat of 30 days on the “rock pile” or doing street work gave Missoula a reputation “as wide as the United States.” The unemployed, they claimed, “no longer dared to come here, fearing the heavy hand of Police Magistrate Von Platen.”
Perhaps we could learn from the past.
Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.