By Jim Harmon
No matter the year, as you read Montana’s old newspapers, it’s easy to find a chuckle. One of my favorite advertisements was for the services of a Missoula undertaker, who would sell you a set of furniture or a bicycle, then embalm and bury you.
“John M. Lucy, Lucy block, west Front street. Furniture dealer, undertaker, and sole agent for the celebrated Columbia and Western Wheel Works (Crescent) pneumatic tire bicycles. Just received, a handsome and complete line of baby carriages. Embalming and burial services rendered in scientific and artistic manner. Terms in keeping with these tough times.”
The papers of the 1800s were filled with helpful “how-to” advice, including the proper method of brewing the perfect cup of coffee. German chemist, Professor Liebig, “directs us to take two-thirds of the ground coffee needed for the meal, put it to the water and boil briskly a considerable time, and when the meal is nearly ready, take the coffee from the fire and add the remaining third of ground coffee; stir it well, let it stand a few minutes and serve.” I think I’ll give it a try.
Of course it’s always been commonplace to see “letters to the editor” from folks complaining about news coverage and threatening to cancel their subscriptions. In the 1890s, one of Missoula’s papers, the Western Democrat, tired of the abuse and published a letter of its own, ” After you get angry and stop your paper, just poke your finger into water, pull it out, and look for the hole. Then you will know how sadly you are missed.”
The paper continued, “A man who thinks a paper cannot thrive without his support ought to go off and stay a while. When he comes back half his friends will not know he has been gone, and the other half will not care a cent, while the world at large kept no account of his movement. You will find things that you cannot endorse in every paper. Even the Bible is rather plain, and gets hard raps. If you were to get mad and burn your Bible, the hundreds of presses would still go on printing it, and when you stop your paper and call the editor names, the paper will still be published, and, what is more, you will read it on the sly.”
In 1864, the Montana Post reprinted a tongue-in-cheek, match-dot-com-type story from one of the eastern papers. “I have lived solitary long enough; I want somebody to talk to, quarrel with, then kiss and make up. I am looking for a woman, tolerably tame in disposition and hair of any color, but red. I am not over 80 nor under 20 years of age. I say my prayers each night, mosquitoes permitting, and as to whether I snore in my sleep, I want somebody to tell me. Money no object, as I never was troubled with any, and never expect to be.”
Thirty years later, the Missoulian printed a “woman-seeking-man” personal ad from a “Mrs. Forsythe” of Portland, Oregon which read, “I wish to correspond with an honorable middle-aged gentleman who has lost confidence and soured with the world generally, being so situated myself; no triflers.” The Missoulian (at the time a staunchly-Republican paper run by Lambert Molinelli, whose acerbic wit was legend) suggested, “Will some of our Democratic brethren not answer? We believe that any one of them would fill the bill of requirements.”
Have you ever been plagued with relatives or house guests who over-stay their welcome? Perhaps you should try the tactic used by H. J. Pearson of Missoula in 1894. He placed the following ad in the paper: “On and after this date I will not be responsible for any bills contracted by other parties than myself, unless the following named parties leave my house: Misses Ida and Minnie Thorn, and Mrs. Stella Freeman, in which event I will be responsible for the Pearson’s livelihood.”
The classifieds can also be a source of knowledge. In 1871 the owners of “Young Dasher,” a fine running and trotting horse, offered the animal for stud services. “For single service, $6; for the season, $12; to insure, $18. These rates include pasturage for and good care of mares.”
While on the subject of horses, there was an item about a group of men returning home to Missoula one night in 1873, following a shindig in Stevensville. Crossing the Bitterroot River, one man’s horse bucked, fell and ended up kicking the rider in the face, stunning him, “…he commenced to float down stream, and undoubtedly would have drowned had not (his companions) rode in, caught him and brought him ashore.”
They then set about tending to the gash on the man’s face. Lacking any court-plaster (the 19th-century equivalent of band-aids) one of the men “found a three-cent postage stamp in his pocket, wet it and applied it to (the) nose, and the damage was repaired.”
Back in town the injured man “…was met by a friend, who had not recovered from the effects of St. Patrick’s Day, and upon seeing the stamp on (the man’s) nose, said, “to send a 160-pound package, with only a three cent stamp on it, was a d—d fraud on the Government, and that he would inform (President) Grant immediately!’”
In 1914, Missoula’s city commission had approved some laudable public works projects, requiring an adjustment in local taxes. A “gang of machine politicians,” who had been ousted by the current commissioners, joined disgruntled saloon and brothel owners, who were mad about crackdowns on their establishments, to circulate a petition doing away with the new city commission.
Missoulian columnist Arthur L. Stone responded to the petition with a Bible parody, “And behold… these things had cost many shekels of gold and of silver. For there had been broad streets and pavements… placed thereupon. And there had been walks builded that the people of the city might not walk in the mud…”
“Now there were also in the city other persons who had waxed fat at the expense of their neighbors. Verily, they had salted down many shekels, while their neighbors had dug up. And they had got out a petition and they went forth unto all parts of the city, that they might find those who would sign.”
“There was anger in their hearts, nor would they listen to reason. And they made great sounds within the city, even The City That Is Builded by The River. But, they didn’t get far.”
Then, there was a letter-writer who was absolutely convinced that the local Catholics had influenced the police department, and enough was enough!
“Editor, Missoulian – I phoned for an officer at 12:40 p. m. that he might see and get the names of a crowd of boys attending St. Joseph’s school, who occupied McCormick street, from Spruce to Pine, and entertained themselves by pelting passing horses and rigs with snowballs. This is their favorite pastime in winter, and in summer they use rocks for ammunition.”
“I have personally complained to the sisters, and several times to the police, but apparently without effect. I sometimes wonder if it is because the persons responsible for these boys wear the robes of a certain denomination that they are apparently beyond the laws which govern the men who wear lumberjacks’ mackinaws. The officer phoned for at 12:40 arrived at 2:15. Nothing like keeping on the safe side of the speed limit in Missoula. (Signed) F. L. Cummings, Missoula, Jan. 22, 1914.”
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.