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Harmon’s Histories: Was 14-year-old John Cooney a menace to Missoula streets?

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

“My boy will continue to drive my automobile in spite of any traffic ordinances that the (Missoula) city council may enact.” In fact, the ordinance “is a joke.”

Frank H. Cooney didn’t take kindly when his 14-year-old son John was cited for underage driving and ordered to appear in Missoula police court in June 1917.

Cooney told reporters his son “had been driving for five years (and) there is not a better driver in town.” The 14-year-old, he said, had even been offered a job at an auto dealership as a “demonstrator.”

Cooney argued that the city “had a perfect right to make all drivers pass an examination, but has no right to prevent a competent pilot from driving, even if he is under age.”

Young John, he said, “has been driving since he was 9 years old, and has yet to meet an accident.”

Cooney appeared in police court for his son and asked for a 48-hour delay in order to engage an attorney and consider what plea to enter.

When he appeared the next day, with lawyer in tow, he entered a not guilty plea based on his claim that the ordinance was invalid. He told reporters should the police court find his son guilty, he’d appeal the case to the district court. 

Well, Police Magistrate Allen found him guilty, and Cooney appealed.

John Cooney

Meantime, 14-year-old John, on the advice of his father, continued to drive about town and continued to be nabbed by police who made it clear they intended to strictly enforce the ordinance.

Over and over, John would routinely be cited into police court, await a trial, ultimately be found guilty and fined $5 for each offense, while attorney E. C. Mulroney filed paperwork in district court declaring they intended to make a test case out of the matter.

As time went on, police were faced with several other “youthful drivers (piloting) cars through the crowded streets.”

Finally in September 1917, lawyers for the city and for the Cooneys faced off before Judge Theodore Lentz in district court.

Frank Cooney openly admitted his son John had been driving and had been repeatedly cited, but argued the ordinance was flawed – that competence, not age, should be the determining factor in allowing a person to drive.

Judge Lentz took the matter under advisement, but did give a hint how he might be leaning when he noted there are also laws on the books setting age-criteria for public office holders. 

A few days later, Lentz ruled in favor of the lower court barring anyone under the age of 16 from driving on city streets.

So, who was Frank Cooney, this man who would go to such lengths to pursue a matter of principle?

Frank Henry Cooney was born in Norwood, Ontario, Canada in 1872 and was no stranger to hard work. He dropped out of school at a young age choosing to work at his father’s nursery business and as a delivery boy for a local grocer.

When still a teenager he moved to Butte where he also worked for a time in the grocery business, eventually partnering with his brother Howard Cooney to form a merchandise brokerage company.

The brothers also dabbled in buying and selling mining claims and picked up livestock and agricultural holdings, quickly becoming quite successful.

Frank married Emma May Poindexter in 1899. The couple, with six children, moved west, establishing a farming operation in the Bitterroot Valley and settling in Orchard Homes on Missoula’s west side, where his gardens were the envy of the region.

Aside from his brief battle over Missoula’s auto-driving law, Cooney was best known for his efforts to get Montanans to buy Montana products (a century before our current “Made in Montana” campaign) and his brief terms as both Montana lieutenant governor and governor.

Frank Cooney was just beginning his term as lieutenant governor when, in 1933, he found himself caught up in a bizarre turn of events.

Frank Cooney

Montana Sen. Thomas Walsh suddenly died, Gov. John Erickson resigned, and Cooney (then acting governor) appointed Erickson to the vacant Senate seat – all apparently engineered by Montana’s other U. S. senator, Burton K. Wheeler.

Only two years later, Cooney himself would die in office from sudden heart failure.

Young “Johnny” as he was known by his classmates (our notorious unlicensed driver) went on to high school, participating in glee club and helping to publish the 1921 Missoula County high school class yearbook. In time, he married, moved to Butte and joined the family business.

Today, one of Frank Cooney’s grandsons (and Johnny’s nephew) is running for the highest office in the state. Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, current candidate for governor, tells me he’s heard a lot of stories about his famous grandpa, but the one about the driving incident was new to him and gave him a chuckle.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.