Montana Memory Project Preserves Oral Histories

Mule train on the 1,100-foot level, Rarus Mine, Butte, Mont. The mule pulls an ore wagon with two unidentified miners.

Advertisement

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks

By DEBBIE BURKE

“When we got up in the morning, if there was smoke coming out of the stack, all was right with the world. We knew we had a paycheck.” So says Bob Vine in a 1986 interview as he recalled the halcyon days of mining in Anaconda. 

Bob’s recollections are among more than 2,800 digitized recordings of oral histories in the Montana Memory Project, compiled by the Montana Historical Society. Stories trace the evolution of major industries like mining, logging, ranching, and agriculture, along with tales of daily life around the state. 

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, offering land to settlers who “proved up” claims on millions of acres that became wheat fields, grazing land for cattle, and timberland. At its height in 1918, the US government granted more than 3.2 million acres to homesteaders in Montana. 

Al Olson remembers railroads back then owned land from Minneapolis to Seattle for 15 miles on either side of the tracks. There, cattle ranged free. Herds belonged to different owners but mixed together. Ranchers cooperated among themselves, watching out for each other’s cows, until they were separated at roundup time. 

In spring, cattle sometimes filled up on too much new grass, resulting in bloat that often killed them. If a cowboy spotted a downed cow, he would stick a knife into the animal’s side, piercing the stomach to release gases. According to Al, within moments, the cow would be up on its feet, none the worse for wear. 

Al also worked on the railroad and preferred coal-fired engines to the later diesels. He swung a pick in the Coaldale mine and said fathers often brought their young sons to work as apprentices. 

“Wish we was back in those days,” he says wistfully. 

August Sobotka of Fairview worked in the mines and recalls, “miners made more money than anyone else,” $6 to $8 per day, $300 to 400 per month. 

By comparison, schoolteachers earned $65 for nine months of work.  

A number of interviews recall the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), affectionately called “the Cs.” Like many young people during the Depression, Arthur Morang couldn’t find a job after high school. In 1933, he joined the CCC and was “glad to have something to do.” 

A troop train carried his group from Miles City to Fort Missoula. From there, Army trucks drove them to Nine Mile. 

“They put an axe in our hands,” he says, and they went to work in the forest. 

Because Arthur had taken typing in school, he became the company clerk, earning $11 per month. 

Not surprisingly, young guys on their own for the first time occasionally pulled hijinks. Several in camp got tired of being rousted early every morning by a bugle call. 

The bugler from Kalispell had false teeth. To keep him from bugling, someone stole his teeth. 

Arthur says everyone he knew believed the CCC was good for them and for the country, and they would do it again.

The Cs introduced many young men to logging and forestry management, with some going on to earn college degrees and enjoy careers with the Forest Service. 

In boomtimes of the 50s and 60s, Robert “Sparky” Hileman says big companies like Weyerhauser, Potlatch, and Boise Cascade recognized clear-cutting wasn’t wise management. Forests needed to be replanted soon after harvesting to achieve an ongoing, sustainable yield of timber. More than a billion trees were replanted every year. 

Loggers were a team, working together to keep each other safe, as well as engaging in good-natured rivalry. Groups competed over who could load a truck the fastest. Sparky preferred winter because logs slid more easily. 

Sparky describes camps like Star Creek near Troy and Libby, where 40 men worked as sawyers, skidders, truck drivers, cooks, and cook’s assistants. 

“Loggers eat well. Darn good,” he says. 

Camps competed to keep dependable workers, offering tasty food and good conditions, including laundry facilities and a camp store. A generator provided electricity but was shut down each night at 10 p.m. 

Loggers worked five days a week. Married employees went home to their families on weekends while single ones often stayed in the woods, listening to the radio and playing poker. Spring breakup halted work every year from March 1 to May 1, giving welcome relief from hard physical labor. 

But times were changing and extractive industries like mining and logging declined. Bob Vine worked 30-plus years for the Anaconda Company through boom and bust. As personnel manager, he interfaced between labor and management. 

In the early days of his career, he recalls men walking off the job and vomiting from arsenic, gas, and sulphur-dioxide smoke. The EPA, established in 1970, instituted strict safety standards, which improved work conditions, but, in Bob’s view, regulations eventually went overboard. 

He recalls unions helped workers but also led to slowdowns and work stoppages sometimes caused by sabotage. At the same time, management ignored problems in Montana because owners concentrated on high profits from mining in Chile, where they weren’t constrained by the EPA or unions. 

Under ARCO ownership, Bob says, “There was the right way, the wrong way, and the ARCO way.” 

Bob said three factors led to closures in Anaconda, Butte, and Great Falls: bad union practices, poor management, and the EPA. When the Anaconda Company closed in 1980 after 97 years in operation, the plant security guard lowered the flag to half-mast. 

The effect of shutdown was, in Bob’s heartfelt words, “devastating, devastating,” leading to increased domestic abuse, alcoholism, and even killings. He recalls wives coming into his office with husbands, seeking guidance on their financial options. The role of women was “quite profound” in helping the community to weather the economic storm. 

With some workers just short of 30 years, Bob lobbied management to extend employment long enough for them to qualify for their pensions. “ARCO spent $9 million closing down the plant,” he said. “What’s another couple hundred thousand?” 

Check out mtmemory.recollectcms.com to step back in time and visit with people who lived through the booms and busts of Montana in the 20th century. MSN

Subscribe to the Montana Senior News

Sign up to recieve the Montana Senior News at home for just $15 per year.

these may interest you