By Jim Harmon
It strikes me – a little late to be sure – that I have failed to explain how I come to select certain stories from the past.
I am not a historian; just a retired journalist who loves a good story. Reading the old newspapers of the region is a marvelous way to understand what it was like to be there, to live in Montana on a specific date in history.
These days, communication is instant. But in 1864, in a world without i-Phones and Twitter, getting news from the outside world was hit and miss in Montana. The territorial capital of Virginia City wouldn’t get telegraph service for another couple years. On Aug. 27, the Montana Post lamented, “…the Express coach (is) broken down… we anticipate no mail from the States.”
In the same issue of the Post, we learned that posters were appearing in town warning “against the use of deadly weapons,” and that violators would be “visited with summary punishment.” The posters were signed by the “Vigilance Committee.”
On Sept. 22, 1870, if you lived in Missoula City (yes, that was the name of our fair city back then, and for a time, Missoula Mills), a newspaper ad encouraged you to stop in at the town’s brand new “Tonsorial Saloon,” where proprietor Charles Love offered hair-cutting, shaving and a bathing saloon.
Then, there was was that Saturday in late February 1878, when the earth moved. Well, sort of. According to the Weekly Missoulian, “Some flutter was made among those young men whom rumor places among the matrimonially-inclined, by the arrival of a beautiful and accomplished young lady from Madison county. She went from our gaze to visit friends near Frenchtown, tout de suite.”
It’s also fascinating to read stories about the issues our ancestors faced in the 1800s, which still make headlines today, then think about how differently (or similarly) we deal with those matters today.
Comparisons seem to jump from the pages of the old papers: politics, crime, courts, race relations, infrastructure, government, education, economy, religion, transportation and society.
In the early morning hours of October 9, 1889, “…two hobos fought a two minute fight in front of Henry Lamb’s barber shop, and one of the combatants fell against the glass, breaking it.” The Missoulian then added, “Officer Lancaster was on hand and escorted both gentlemen to the jug, although one of them required a little clubbing before he would go gently.” Can you imagine the public outcry, today?
How about immigration? Just mention the subject these days and a political fight breaks out. More than a century ago, it was a routine court matter. Judge Frank Woody of Missoula used to naturalize emigrants by the hundreds; 309 in one two-day period in the 1890s, with “about 100 more applications” remaining to be acted upon. Of course, they were all properly white and of proper European lineage.
Then, there’s travel… and transportation.
These days, my wife and I travel from Florence to a variety of other towns to attend grand-kids’ sporting events. In the case of Deer Lodge, it’s about a two-hour drive depending on weather conditions. Our goal is to get there, cheer for our team, and return home. Get ‘er done!
How different, how leisurely it was in the past, even in my own lifetime.
In the 1940s and 1950s, my dad delighted in taking the family on a Sunday drive, not to a specific place, nor for a specific event; just to drive. Sometimes we would bounce over narrow, long-abandoned logging roads, stopping occasionally to clear rocks or fallen trees from the path. Other times we would find ourselves in Idaho or Canada, just because.
Missoulian Publisher Warren R. Turk was of similar disposition. In May of 1874, he took that same Missoula-to-Deer Lodge trip we’ve taken so many times, but instead of two hours, his was a four-day, one-way outing. Of course there were stops and side trips along the way. Here’s the narrative he penned:
“Leaving Missoula at 1 PM, Wednesday, the 6th, still in company with the ‘Judge,’ we have a most delightful drive up the canon, meeting occasionally an old friend and passing a number of freight teams on the road.
“The grandeur and beauty of the natural scenery of the canyon has been portrayed by abler pens than ours, and have been viewed so often by our people that they are commonplace; hence, any attempt to describe them in this letter would be out of place.
“The ‘Judge’ having rested poorly the night before leaving Missoula, being unwell, in a rather drowsy mood, turned the ribbons over to us and composed himself to the best advantage for a snooze, leaving us to manage the ‘flyers’ and to muse upon the beauties of the surroundings. We made very good time and reached the Keystone Ranch in due season, where we turned in and enjoyed the hospitality of Mr. Newman for the night. Mr. N. has a fine ranch both for hay and grain, and its location gives him a market for all that he can produce.
“Reaching the Mouth of the Bear at noon Thursday, we procured saddle horses at the station and ascended the trail up the gulch to Beartown, where we were kindly taken in and made comfortable by our jolly friend, Joaquin Abascal.
“But little mining has yet been done in the camp, and owing to the scarcity of snow in the range the prospect for the season is by no means encouraging. Some new ground is being opened, and considerable prospecting is going on in the tributaries and side gulches. The business men are doing but little, and unless they are favored with heavy rains the season will be light and the camp dull.
“Returning to the station on Friday we were glad to dismount from our saddles and resume our comfortable seats in the buggy. Reaching New Chicago at noon we stopped at the Taylor House, which appears to be running smoothly under the management of J. W. Patrick, formerly of Horse Plains, and who is well known to many of our citizens.
“At Pioneer we met a number of acquaintances from different parts of Missoula County, who have come there in search of work for the summer. Everybody was complaining of hard times; and, owing to the backwardness of the season, but two or three claims are as yet being worked.
“The heavy rain of Friday night, however, was cheering to the boys, and in a few days there will no doubt be plenty of water and all hands at work.
“M. P. Chaffin of the Bitter Root valley has opened a butcher shop here, and has a prospect of doing a good business. The Childs House at which we stopped, is doing a fair business, becoming deservedly popular, and entitled to rank among the first class houses of the Territory.
“There are a number of important mining enterprises going on in the Pioneer and Yamhill country which we must pass over for want of space, but which we may refer to hereafter. A sprightly little town is springing up at Yamhill, and among the boys here, we met our old-time friend G. W. Irvin, who is engaged extensively in mining operations, with flattering prospects.
“Capt. Trufant, well-known to Missoulians, F. L. King and James Murphy are among the businessmen of the place. Mike Gilmore is supplying the market with an excellent quality of beef, pork and bacon. Being anxious to reach Deer Lodge, our stay among the boys was necessarily short, but very agreeable.
“Late on Saturday evening we arrived here and are enjoying a day’s rest at the McBurney House before pursuing our travels.”
Deer Lodge, May 10, 1874.
Ah, the good old days.
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.