Harmon’s Histories: Does Missoula ever giggle?

By Jim Harmon

She has been described as having an “air of neatness and comfort.” Others deemed her a “horrible place,” of “unblushing wickedness.”

One person summed up the place as “a nice pretty little city, but (with) no thrill,” prompting the question: Does Missoula ever giggle?  

What a variety of opinions about Montana’s Garden City!

The Montana Post (Virginia City), in late 1866, described Missoula as “a sprightly little village containing about twenty houses.”

The writer, under the pen-name, “Everywhere,” went on to say, “The first cabin was built here in December 1864, and shortly after a saw-mill was erected. Messrs. Worden and Higgins have just completed a large flouring mill, thirty six feet square and three stories high…(at a) cost over thirty thousand dollars.”

Four years later, Missoula’s first newspaper, The Missoula and Cedar Creek Pioneer, described the area as having “the most fertile bottom lands (where) five hundred bushels of potatoes to the acre is not an uncommon yield (and where) watermelons, tomatoes, cucumbers, and the important root crops flourish luxuriantly.”

Thus the name: Garden City.

The Pioneer also noted the area was “dotted with the homes of well-to-do farmers (with) the air of neatness and comfort (offering) convincing proof of the existence of thrifty settlers.”

The editor of the Madisonian newspaper was quite taken by Missoula after a visit in 1877. Thomas Deyarmon said, “A great many people who have never visited…have an impression that it is a village with only a country store, post office, blacksmith shop, and tavern.

“Visitors to Missoula for the first time express surprise at the elegant stores and private residences which adorn the place.”

In 1883, the Walla Walla Statesman noted, “What Seattle is to the lower country, Missoula is to the mountains (with) the same energetic class of people who are determined in spite of everything.”

That was a reference to the “old timers;” men like C. P. Higgins, Frank Worden and W. J. McCormick, not the “soft youths fresh out of the states” who “continually deride” such men.

“With unparalleled liberality,” said the Statesman, the old timers offered the Northern Pacific company just about anything they wanted to bring the railroad to Missoula. “These men have been here waiting almost against hope for 25 years for the (NP) to penetrate the mountains and change the wilderness into a garden.”

But the city’s growth, spurred by the railroad, brought problems, too. The Missoulian newspaper noted that strangers to town had been dropping “some very uncomplimentary remarks regarding the unblemishing wickedness of our town.”

Even a local resident had remarked “the streets of Missoula after nightfall were hell compared to anything he had ever seen” – even the “lowest dens of infamy in New York and Philadelphia.”

Warts and all, Missoula was still a beautiful place.

In the summer of 1887, The Cincinnati Illustrated News sent a couple of photographers out for two weeks to capture “a series of views of the town” to be included in a write up of the city.

A year later, in 1888, Northwest Magazine published an extensive piece about Missoula, including some compliments of the local newspaper’s newly completed building. The paper, it said, “occupies a part of the finest building in Montana owned exclusively by a newspaper publisher. In external appearance it is the handsomest building in Missoula county.”

My favorite description of Missoula-past comes not from newspaper editors, but from a coed at Montana State University (now, U-M).

In the spring of 1917, “students in Freshman English classes at the university were asked to state their judgments of Missoula.”

The local paper picked one essay, that of Miss Este Shannon, for publication, calling it “clever and discerning.” Here it is.

“Missoula is, to me, just like a schoolteacher I used to have in the fifth grade. Her name is Miss Adams. She is an ordinary, pretty, young American of a middle-class family, but perhaps a little more quiet and reserved.

“She looks more like a small-town music teacher than a grade school teacher. Her clothes are of good material, of conservative style, and she always wore a suit two seasons. Her brown hair was always very smooth. Everything about her was ‘nice.’

“On Saturday she helped her mother cleanup. On Sunday she went to church and then took a walk in the afternoon, and on Mondays she got up early to help with the family washing.

“Missoula is such a nice pretty little city, but it has no thrill, no colorfulness, no sparkle. It’s a good convenient place in which to acquire book-knowledge, or to grow old.

“But even when Missoula is being frivolous — even Missoula has carnivals and circuses – she looks a little stiff and strange. She has the air of looking on at the fun, rather than participating in it.

“Just like Miss Adams, at the church dances, who always looked pretty in her best clothes, but spoiled it all by her self consciousness and embarrassment.

“Missoula smiles quietly and rather sweetly at you any sunshiny day, but can you imagine our Missoula giggling?

“Missoula is rather precise. Her streets are named after trees, men and their families, in the most matter-of-fact way you ever saw.

“If only it was more vivid, it would be charming.”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula broadcaster who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current.