Modern history

Chapter 11

The Montana Frontier

Hot afternoons have been in Montana.

—Eli Siegel

Montana’s real trouble … is that her graveyards aren’t big enough.

—Arthur Fisher

TO SAY that the story of Montana is the story of a struggle between the people and a corporation, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, would be to oversimplify. Or to say that Montana is, or was, pre-eminently the state of a man now passed over and broken, Burton K. Wheeler, would be a grave error in proportion. Anaconda, a company aptly named, certainly has a constrictorlike grip on much that goes on, and Montana is the nearest to a “colony” of any American state, Delaware alone possibly excepted; this extraordinary story deserves copious telling, and we shall tell it. But first it is only fitting and proper to have some words about Montana in general, Montana as a whole—to describe the kind of place it was and is and will be long after Anacondas and Wheelers are forgotten.

This is a splendid, various, and exciting state. It illustrates, once again, the stupefying vastness and variety of the United States, its overwhelming sense of power, spaciousness, uncurbable vitality, wealth and youth beyond computation—and also rawness, greed, lack of over-all clarity and plan, lack of any sense of historical continuity, instinct to waste, and unpredictably errant political behavior.

Montana is as big as Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana. It is bigger than Italy or Japan. To say that it is the third American state in size does not, perhaps, make its enormousness tangible; say instead that one out of every twenty-five American square miles is Montanan. Yet this mastodonic territory contains only about 500,000 people, approximately the population of New Orleans or Minneapolis. Montana is three times bigger than New York state; its population is less than one-fifteenth that of New York City.

A point of great moment to Montanans—and something very foreign to the United States as a whole, which boosters don’t like and prefer not to talk about—is that the population is going down, not up. By the census of 1940 the population was 559,456. An estimate for 1943, carefully based on war ration cards, was 470,033. As of today (late 1946) the figure is believed to be somewhat more; even so the state has probably lost about eighty thousand people, or almost 15 per cent of its 1940 total, in six years. Many of these emigrants went to find war jobs in Seattle and elsewhere on the West Coast; some have of course returned, but as yet there has been no decisive trend that way, if only because Montana itself hasn’t many jobs to offer except in the mines. Anaconda, as we shall see, plays a large black role in this. Strangely enough this tendency toward decline is nothing new; Montana is the only state that has lost population for fifty years.1 I found frightened remarks about this in pamphlets published as far back as 1920; the phenomenon is unique, and has been carefully studied. The chief reasons are lack of industry, inadequate facilities for adult education, a tremendous epidemic of bank failures in the early 1920’s (not 1930’s) when one-third of all banks in the state died, loss of topsoil caused by erosion, concentration of small farms into big, backwardness in rural electrification, and of course the fact that, during the war, miners saw no point in dangerous work underground, for an average daily wage of $7.75, when they could get $14.00 in aluminum and airplane plants a few hundred miles further west, above ground and in sparkling sunshine.2

Not only has the population diminished; it has changed considerably in character. For one thing most out-migrants were young people, which has lifted the average age of the state; for another, most were workers, which has meant a decline in the labor vote. Depopulation almost always tends to make a community conservative.

While I was in Helena I saw an inch-long item in the local newspaper, noting the “abandonment of the Armington-Neihart branch line of the Great Northern Railway … after more than 50 years of operation.” The line was simply discontinued and its right of way will become wilderness, because “the railway claimed that further operation would be financially unprofitable.” But the local communities involved bitterly resent being deprived of rail transportation.

H. Lowndes Maury, one of the grand old men of Montana, who has tried more suits before the state supreme court than any man living or dead (he appears in 92 of the 114 volumes of records), a liberal who is a constant irritating burr in the side of the “Company,” has four sons and two daughters. That all six should have left Montana and chosen to pursue careers elsewhere—brilliant and remarkable careers—is a small but relevant item showing how, in Montana as elsewhere in the Rocky Mountain states, the tendency of the bright youngsters is to get out.3

One great change in the character of the population began, in 1910 or thereabouts, with the advent of “dry farming.” This annoying word, as everybody should know, really means wet farming; it is farming dependent upon rain instead of irrigation. When the big farmers began to plow up ranch land for wheat, it meant the end of the open range; also it meant ruin and devastation when the topsoil began to blow off years later. The first Montanans were extremely progressive folk. They had to be. They fought for a living and a career was a perilous adventure. Schoolteachers came out from Minnesota to marry gold miners and stock growers. But now, the old Montana hands told me, the “pioneer spirit” is largely dissipated. This declension in character was shaped by changes in the towns too. For instance the chain stores squeezed out the old type of highly individualistic and idiosyncratic merchants. In both rural districts and the towns, the atmosphere was standardized and cheapened; the inhabitants became less picturesque.

Finally, in regard to population, we reach in Montana for the first time in this book a big and varied blanketing of foreign born. More than forty-five percent of all Montanans are foreign born or of foreign or mixed parentage. Moreover they are not predominantly of one racial group, like the Mexicans in Los Angeles or Scandinavians in Washington. Montana has Canadians, Swedes, Poles, Italians, Cornishmen, Jugoslavs, Finns, and vast quantities of Irish; in the mines of Butte not less than forty different foreign stocks are represented.

Montana, a noble area, is monumentally ridged on its left side by the continental divide. The backbone of the continent passes through this state. But one cannot so simply divide Montana into two separate spheres as one can divide Oregon, say, or Colorado. The western part is largely a mountain area, dominated by Butte and with its economy and politics based on minerals; Butte is Democratic by and large, with strong Irish and Catholic influences. The east is predominantly wheat and livestock country, part of the Great Plains, and much of it is Republican, Scandinavian, and conservative. Lumbering and smaller-scale agriculture, for instance sugar beets and fruit, are major pursuits in the western valleys. A third Montana world, little known, is that of the Bad Lands; the word “bad” does not, of course, mean wicked but merely a geological formation of scarred and forlorn rock twisted into macabre shapes. Also much of Montana is cattle country. Wheat is a very up-and-down proposition, in which you can make a killing or lose your shirt every other year; so some people keep cattle too, if only for their stabilizing quality. Finally, Montana is the only state in the union with great districts set apart by the federal Forest Service as “primitive areas,” where even roads are not allowed so that these mountain and forested paradises will remain unspoiled.

For forty years Montana, which in its history has belonged to six other states or territories (for a long time it was part of Idaho), lived mainly on furs. The trappers came up from St. Louis or down from Montreal. Then fashions changed about 1850 and men no longer wore beaver hats. This killed the fur trade, more or less. The gold rush started in the 60’s, and a mining camp named Virginia City (no relation to Nevada’s Virginia City) became the temporary capital. Gold brought in people, which meant ineluctably that agriculture and stock raising had to come. But eastern Montana wasn’t really opened up till Custer’s death in 1876, and buffalo were still roaming in the 1880’s. Meantime the longhorns had pushed up from Texas, and the pirates who created Anaconda arrived from Ireland and New York.

Montana place names have a healthy nostalgic tang. One range of hills is the Scratch Gravel Mountains and one mine is called Molly Muck-a-Chuck-New York; a town was once called Copperopolis. Among gulches there are Seven Up Pete, Buttermilk Jim (near the interesting town of Boulder), Ready Cash, and Never Sweat; among creeks are Fool Hen, Keep Cool, Nary Time, and Try Again.4

You can drag choice Americana out of the state by the carload. For instance Alvin Johnson in the Yale Review (Autumn, 1944) tells this anecdote about trying to make conversation with a rancher’s wife, without success. “Listen, friend,” said Mr. Johnson’s host, “it ain’t no use for you to try to talk to my wife. She won’t say a word. She thinks she’s crazy, though she ain’t. She thinks if she says anything, she’d show it. She ain’t said a word to me for two years. But she’s a mighty fine woman, and you can see for yourself, she’s a hell of a fine cook.”

Helena to Billings: Past to Present

Helena, the capital of Montana, is a mountain village 4,124 feet high, containing about twelve thousand people. Nowhere have I come across more bizarre or typical American contradictions. The civic center is in the form of a Mohammedan shrine, complete with tall minaret; the main street winds through the town like a shallow letter S, because it follows the route of Last Chance Gulch, where gold was found in 1864; Helena, a backwater, contains one of the most brilliantly satisfying restaurants in the whole country; the building of its leading hotel was partially financed by gold found in digging its own foundations.5

Two amiable friends took me for a drive a short distance from the center of town, and for the first time in my life I saw a gold mine. It is actually within the city limits. A big ugly gray dredge, that cost six hundred thousand dollars and weighs six hundred tons, squats in a dirty pool of its own creation; the dredge eats out the earth to the waterline and then floats on the scum it makes. An endless chain of clanking buckets picks up the mud, to a depth of 58 feet under water; “placer dirt” comes out, which is washed, treated with mercury, and separated on the “riffles,” a long trough like a laundry board. The dredge which performs this operation and thus produces gold—also sapphires—is itself capable of motion. Having exhausted one cut in a hill, having gouged out one lopsided muddy hole, it grunts across country to a new likely spot, and starts over. The dredge I saw is stalled, however, because to get to the next favorable place it would have to grind through a natural gas line, the owners of which demand thirty thousand dollars as a price for getting out. Helena has a nine-hole golf course, where one may play the only “gold-plated golf” in the world. The dredge people think that gold is there, and they want to buy it. But when they offered twenty thousand dollars, the town golfers held out for two hundred thousand dollars because, they told me, a mining company seldom offers more than 10 per cent of what they think a property is worth. Meantime, you can play golf and slice balls into the noisy buckets moving up and down along the dredge.

The trails of these dredges may be seen in several places near Helena. They leave the kind of furrow that an enormous, obscene, un-house-broken worm might leave—an encrusted seam of broken earth, with mud and rocks lying across a winding trail like excrement. Nobody ever bothers to clean up afterward. In this part of Montana almost everybody owns a mining claim or two; the owners hold onto the property hoping some day to make a deal with the dredgers, who will then send in their megalosaurians.

From Helena I drove up to Great Falls. Talk about variety of speetacle! Hawks on fence posts, that only become frightened and fly away when you stop; Frenchy’s Air Conditioned Cafe, with pretty girls lying about in hammocks; dead rattlesnakes; signs GAME CROSSING 1000 FEET AHEAD and an electric eye to count what crosses; girls in pigtails and bright habits riding out from the dude ranches; the house where Gary Cooper was born; “snow fences” to keep the road clear in winter, though it was 91 degrees in the shade—we saw all this among much else. Several times we crossed the winding Missouri (about which more anon), which up here near the source is a placid, almost stagnant stream, dark green between defiles of light green hills, wandering among fields of yellow mustard, purple-topped alfalfa, and fawn-colored timothy. Above all I watched the wheat, so different from Washington wheat. Half of each acreage is left fallow, as in Washington, but the fallow is plowed in symmetrical narrow strips to check wind erosion, not contoured over the hills; the Montana fields look like striped wallpaper laid flat. We came into Great Falls, which appears to be built on a series of vast bluffs, and I saw something that I never saw elsewhere in America or abroad—female MP’s. They were on duty at the entrance to the airport; they sat with their feet on desks and spat tobacco and were reputed to be the toughest Amazons ever known this side of Scythia.

Great Falls itself is dominated by two things, (a) the huge smokestack of Anaconda’s copper reduction plant, and (b) O. S. Warden. The smokestack, 512 feet high, was built by the old Amalgamated Copper Company; when dedicated in the 1890’s a fifty-foot-square platform was set on top, and a community dance held thereon.6 Mr. Warden, who was born in New Hampshire, is publisher of the Great Falls Tribune and Leader, which with the Lewistown Democrat-News, are among the very few papers in the state not controlled bag and barrel by Anaconda. Mr. Warden is eighty-two years old, and the first vote he ever cast was for Benjamin Harrison. Last year he attended his fifty-fifth reunion at Dartmouth, and enrolled as a future student there—his three-year-old son! More about Mr. Warden later.

I flew back to Helena, on what was very nearly the roughest trip I ever made in an airplane, and then Judge Johnson drove me down to Butte. The road follows the very lip of the divide; we were crawling right down the vertebrae of America. We passed an old mining town called Basin, and another town that has thirteen lawyers and fourteen saloons, and a pleasant ranch fed by hot springs in Boulder. We looked at a horse farm that produces dog meat, Korean lettuce growers, and a house about four feet by six or so it seems, where an Italo-Swiss family has nineteen children. Once or twice we stopped to inspect the historical markers, and I copied the text of several. These are located all over the state, and are uniquely flavorsome. Robert H. Fletcher, formerly of the state highway department, now of the Montana Power Company, did the writing. Here is No. 64, a little south of Helena:

Time was when ox and mule teams used to freight along this route. A 5-ton truck doesn’t look as picturesque but there hasn’t been much change in the language of the drivers.

Jerk line skinners were plumb fluent when addressing their teams. They got right earnest and personal. It was spontaneous—no effort about it. When they got strung out they were worth going a long way to hear. As a matter of fact you didn’t have to go a long way, provided your hearing was normal….

Those times have gone forever.

Perhaps I may quote a few more passages from Mr. Fletcher:7 From Marker No. 7 on US 2:

Kid Curry’s stomping ground in the ’80’s was the Little Rockies country about forty miles southwest of here. July 3rd, 1901, he pulled off a premature Independence Day celebration by holding up the Great Northern No. 3 passenger train and blowing the express car safe near this point. His departure was plumb hasty. The Great Northern would still probably like to know where he is holed up.

From No. 9 at Chinook, called The Battle of the Bear’s Paw:

This battle was fought in October, 1877 on Snake Creek about 20 miles south of here near the Bear’s Paw mountains, where after a three days’ siege Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce Indians, surrendered to Col. Nelson A. Miles of the U.S. Army.

This greatest of Indian generals fought against fearful odds. He and his warriors could have escaped by abandoning their women, children and wounded. They refused to do this.

His courage and fairness were admired by Col. Miles who promised him safe return to Idaho. One of the blackest records in our dealings with the Indians was the Government’s repudiation of this promise and the subsequent treatment accorded Joseph and his followers.

From No. 11 on US 2 west of Chester:

You can see the Sweet Grass Hills or the Three Buttes to the north of here on a reasonably clear day. Things sure grow in this country. Some old timers claim that when they arrived those buttes weren’t much bigger than prairie dog mounds….

The pay dirt has been pretty well worked out and the glamour of boom days is gone, but a few old timers still prospect the gulches, hoping some day to find that elusive pot of gold at the rainbow’s end, called the Mother Lode.

From No. 25 at Pompey’s Pillar:

Captain Wm. Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, stopped here July 5, 1806 on his way down the Yellowstone. He wrote in his journal that the rock was … “200 feet high and 400 paces in secumpherance and only axcessable on one side…. The natives have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals, etc.” The signature is still there. Only fools destroy, but it had to be protected from vandals by a steel screen erected by the Northern Pacific Railway Co.

From No. 31 at Gallatin Valley:

… In the early ’60’s John Bozeman, young adventurer, and Jim Bridger, grand old man of the mountains, guided rival wagon trains of emigrants and gold seekers through here over the variously called Bonanza Trail, Bridger Cut-off, or Bozeman Road, from Fort Laramie, Wyoming, to Virginia City, Montana. The trail crossed Indian country in direct violation of treaty and was a “cut-off” used by impatient pioneers who considered the time saving worth the danger.

Traffic was not congested.

From No. 59 at Bannack:

… Henry Plummer, sheriff and secret chief of the road agents, was hanged at Bannack in ’64 by the Vigilantes. It tamed him down considerably.

After this I don’t quite know how to bring Montana up to date except by quoting from something very different. Visitors from abroad may not realize it, but an American characteristic never to be ignored is the capacity of medium-sized towns to flaunt their glories, and in particular to choose glories that would puzzle citizens of Rouen, say, Perugia, or Innsbruck. The chief ammunition is statistics. These are taken with deadly earnestness. They are no laughing matter. Consider the Montana town of Billings. Here is some material from a brochure put out by its Commercial Club. I am quoting not more than a fiftieth of what it contains, and my only excuse for using even this much is that it is so typical of a thousand other American communities, their habit of mind and approach to the world outside:

Climate: Billings climate is marked by an abundance of sunshine. Tornadoes are unknown. Frost-free period is 131 days.

Churches: Eighteen denominations maintain twenty-eight churches in Billings.

Golf courses: four.

Homes: More than 450 commercial travellers make Billings their home.

Children under 21 years: 10,105.

Electric meters (resident): 7,280. Residential rate: 1st 12 kw—7.5¢; next 48 kw—4.5¢; next 90 kw—3¢; next 100 kw—2¢.

Water meters: 6,078.

Postal receipts: $302,694.50.

Bank deposits (3 banks): $16,098,635.46.

Taxes: The property tax of 92.60 mills is based on one-third of true valuation.

Value livestock: $10,414,394.00.

Field crops produced annually in Billings trade area—Wheat: 7,809,230 bushels.

Wholesale trade—75 establishments, 839 employes, total annual payroll $1,312,000, population served in primary area, 167,721.

A far cry from Bozeman, Bridger, and Sitting Bull !

Butte Is the Black Heart of Montana

This is the toughest, bawdiest town in America, with the possible exception of Amarillo, Texas. Also it is something that Amarillo is not, and something so singular that the shock persists long after a visit—a town almost literally dying on its feet.

Butte, “a mile high, a mile deep,” built on the “richest hill on earth,” and generally described as the greatest mining camp ever known, lies in a ragged and bleached cup of hills on a spur of the divide. By night it has a certain infernolike magnificence, with lights appropriately copper colored—I heard it called “the only electric-lit cemetery in the United States.” By day it is one of the ugliest places I have ever seen. The mine dumps, heaps of slag that nobody removes, line the hills; there is hardly any vegetation, since fumes from open hearth smelting in the old days seared and poisoned the living green; the frowsy streets are faced with slovenly and dilapidated ancient tenements. Butte is of course the central pivot of Anaconda. The gallows frames show where the mines are, and underneath are not less than 2,700 miles of winzes, shafts, and tunnels; the town sits crazily on a shaky and sagging crust of ore; underground practically every other cubic inch is metal.

For the romance of Butte, for its extraordinarily naked and colorful history—if you like your colors raw—I can only recommend Copper Camp, a book compiled by writers of the Works Projects Administration and sponsored by the Montana State Department of Agriculture, Labor, and Industry.8 This is riproaring folklore at its best; I know few books with such a concentration of lusty anecdote. It will tell you of such “sporting” events as fights between bull and bear, and between dog and wolf; of fantastic feats in hard drinking and gambling and of the girls in the prostitutes’ line with the silver dollars so heavy in their stockings that the metal would spill out into the street; of suburbs called Seldom Seen and saloons named Graveyard, Frozen In, and Cesspool; of a judge nicknamed “Long Distance Mike” because of his severe sentences, and a Jewish expressman who called his horse Jesus Christ; of Cornish pie for breakfast and one splendid barman who, when a guileless and upright visitor asked for a glass of milk, replied, “Do you see any room in here for a————cow?”

The Butte of today demands a different kind of attention. It is one of the few cities in the country with no housing shortage. As of 1946 there were 3,400 houses, apartments, and offices absolutely empty. That gallant veteran, Lowndes Maury, took me for a walk. I looked at a gaunt empty structure in the middle of town started thirty years ago, and never finished. Next door is a building, once a hotel, with half the windows out and swarming with pigeons. Judge Maury suggested that the owner might at least knock out the rest of the windows and let the pigeons all the way in. I walked down Main Street, and in two blocks counted fourteen places of business shut. Whole neighborhoods are mouldy, whole streets are rotten and decaying. Anaconda a few years ago employed about seven thousand men underground; the figure now is 2,400. Then, along dingy streets, with broken curbs and half the houses cracked and tottering, Mr. Maury showed me the phenomenon known as a “step crack.” This is the crooked line in a wall, following the bricks, that bulges open as the houses begin to decompose; the cracks grow as a building slowly subsides, having been undermined by the tunnels and mine shafts below. I looked at streets sagging and buckled in the center, at abandoned tenements where the windows had caved in as a result of pressure from the bending walls. One strip in the southwestern part of Butte, 600 feet wide and a mile long, has been so solidly undermined that the whole area is in danger of collapsing. Occasionally some luckless house owner, as he sees his home begin to disintegrate, dares to sue the “Company.” Judge Maury likes to take on these suits, and generally a settlement is reached, because the defendants know he will fight to the end—though I also heard from another source that no jury in Silver Bow County in forty years has ever dared to return a verdict against the mines.

Butte has a long history as a labor town; the Butte Miners Union, organized in 1881, is one of the historic unions of the country; it was for many years Local No. 1 of the Western Federation of Miners under Big Bill Haywood; it is still Local No. 1 of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, CIO. The miners today, called “muckers,” take pride in trying to keep their homes clean, educating their children decently, and playing a progressive role in the community. They have a good many complaints. They work underground for eight and a half hours a day, without a hot lunch; there is no central hiring hall though all the mines belong to or are operated under lease by the same company—a man out of work has to “rustle” from mine to mine; the work is hot, arduous, and dangerous; accidents are common, and equitable compensation hard to get. The union headquarters is a remarkably picturesque old building, once the property of the Silver Bow Club, a haunt of millionaires. In April, 1946, after going through the war years without a single strike, Butte exploded in a much-publicized riot, the origins of which are obscure in the extreme. Two thousand miners struck; mobs ostensibly led by infuriated workers attacked the homes of a handful of company salaried employees who were working as maintenance men. But the Miners Union disavowed responsibility for the violence, and supplied deputies to the sheriff. Within three days the trouble had blown over.

Butte has the craziest frontiers of any American city. “The city limits,” Joseph Kinsey Howard recounts in Montana, High, Wide, and Handsome,9 one of the best books about an American state ever written, “defy every rule of logic or elementary draftsmanship because they dodge nearly all the mines; the boundary will run straight as a die to a mine fence, then swerve neatly around it, leaving the mine property happily exempt from city taxation.” One important street is, believe it or not, technically part of Butte on one side but not on the other—so that some railway property is tax exempt. The mines beneath Butte have yielded more than two and one-half billion dollars worth of ore so far. But it is the only American city I have ever seen with no decent park or playground. The population today is estimated at 31,000. But there are 40,000 cadavers in the cemeteries, making it one of the few towns on earth with more people dead than alive.

No word on Butte, no matter how brief, can be complete without mention of its more flamboyant side. It is not quite so wide open as Reno or Las Vegas but almost. It still has a prostitutes’ “line”; Mercury Street—of all odd names!—is where the cribs are. But so many pretty and businesslike maidens deserted Butte to become riveters in Seattle that, when I was there, citizens complained bitterly about the “girl power shortage.” The bars are preposterous and prodigious. I saw grandmothers teaching six-year-old kids to play slot machines. And—if only to prove once more that America is a capriciously variegated country—two miles from Butte, in the suburb of Meaderville, is one of the best restaurants in the United States. Here, under the very shadow of the gallows frames and with the dollar slot machines making a splendid clink, coatless miners buy Lucullan meals. I don’t mean to sound ungracious, however. I will never forget Mr. Teddy Traparish and his Rocky Mountain Cafe. The steaks are seven inches thick, and cover half an acre.

I thought I had an interesting and moderately original idea when visiting Butte, that of the seemingly inextricable connection between mining as a trade with gambling and high-life generally. But I found that that canny Scot, James Bryce, had evolved a theory about this fifty years ago. His language is, as always, a wonderful exercise in the staid:

The wildness of that time passed into the blood of the people, and has left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interferences with, or supersessions of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the Union…. The chief occupation was mining, an industry which is like gambling in its influence on the character, with its sudden alterations of wealth and poverty, its long hours of painful toil relieved by bouts of drinking and merriment, its life in a crowd of men who have come together from the four winds of heaven, and will scatter again as soon as some are enriched and others ruined, or the gold in the gulch is exhausted.

The American Commonwealth, II, pp. 425–6

A more modern explanation is, of course, that mining is dangerous and ill-paid work, and to keep any men underground at all, the companies deliberately encourage escapism in the form of good liquor, pretty girls, and gambling. Also, if means are provided whereby a man’s wages are quickly snapped away, it won’t be so easy for him to quit and get a better job.

I found two eye-opening drinks in Montana that I had never seen before. A Black Spider is a combination of rum, Coca-Cola, and creme de menthe. A Presbyterian is bourbon, gingerale and dry soda. Nor had I ever heard a short Scotch described as a Gazooni, or bourbon and water as a Ditch High.

Attached to all this is the familiar American hypocrisy about prohibition, gambling, and the like. In theory gambling is “illegal” in Montana, except for penny-ante card games and licensed slot machines operated by fraternal organizations. But here is an advertisement I ran across in a local paper:

DOING BEST BUSINESS IN TOWN, BAR and cafe, good beer stock, fair stock of whisky. Includes roulette wheel, crap, twenty-one and poker tables, also five, ten, twenty-five cent slots. $5,000. Box F-79, Standard.

But now we must turn to something else, a massive factor in the politics and economy of Montana, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company or ACM or just the “Company” for short.

The Sixth Floor

Rocks rich in gems, and mountains big with mines,

Whence many a bursting stream auriferous plays.

—James Thomson, The Seasons

The Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it quite succinctly:

ANACONDA COPPER MINING COMPANY ߪ the world’s premier company in the non-ferrous metal industry.., controls the annual production of more than 1,000,000,000 lbs. of copper, 500,000,000 lbs. of zinc, 150,000,000 lbs. of lead, and more than 5 per cent of the world production of silver. In addition to almost the entire ownership of the Butte (Montana) mining district, it has large investments in fifteen other American states, as well as in Canada, Mexico, and Chile. It is also a large producer of lumber, coal, gold, arsenic, sulphuric acid, superphosphate, zinc oxide, and white lead, and has a large custom smelting and refining business, with plants at Anaconda and Great Falls, Montana; Tooele, Utah; Miami, Arizona; East Chicago, Indiana; and Perth Amboy, N. J. Through its ownership of the American Brass Company and its equity in Anaconda Wire and Cable Company, it is the world’s largest user of copper and manufacturer of copper and brass products, with plants located in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, New York, Rhode Island, and Toronto, Canada.

Among the principal subsidiary and associated companies of Anaconda Copper Mining Co. are: American Brass Company and subsidiaries; Andes Copper Mining Company; Arizona Oil Company; Butte, Anaconda, and Pacific Railway Company; Butte Water Company; Chile Copper Co. and subsidiary companies; International Smelting and Refining Company … [Nine other subsidiaries are named.] In 1939 the outstanding capital stock was $443,716,900, and the total assets $587,932,841. The net income was $20,236,552, and the surplus for the year, $7,518,600.

All that the Britannica does not say is that for many years Anaconda also ran Montana. So now for the first time in these pages we confront one of the most typical of all American phenomena, one that differentiates this country in degree if not kind from any other—the giant agglutinative corporation.

Anaconda has several distinctions aside from size. It is probably the most secretive of great American corporations, and, as may be discerned from the quotation above, it is one of the few that, like some peculiar creatures in zoology, competes with itself—it mines raw copper, smelts and refines it, fabricates it, sells it; Anaconda is both one of the largest producers of copper in the world and one of the largest consumers; it uses more than it can mine itself; it drinks in copper from everywhere, and sweats it out like some monstrous fountain.

Its history, being inextricably commingled with that of Butte, is studded and spangled with violence and robust color. Everybody has heard something of the “War of the Copper Kings.” First came William A. Clark, of Scots origin, and a savage and magnetic Irishman named Marcus Daly; at that time, in the 1880’s, the Butte gulches were supposed to contain only gold and silver, which gave out, whereupon Daly struck deeper and found copper; Clark, one of the most tidily ruthless men who ever lived, busied himself bribing his way to the federal Senate, and Daly created Anaconda. One of his partners was the father of William Randolph Hearst. Then money from the East came in, in part from the Rockefellers, and a new corporation called Amalgamated was formed. Clark and Daly became fantastically bitter enemies. Money came from abroad too; one of the largest single stockholders in Anaconda to this day is a Dutch consortium of which Queen Wilhelmina is supposed to be a member. Wealth incalculable depended on conflicting mine sites, and something known as the “law of apex” came to be adopted; this meant, in brief, that whoever owned the apex of a vein owned all the rest of the vein, no matter where it led underground. (A similar principle, as we know, exists in the petroleum industry.) Inevitably the murderous fight for copper involved everything else in Montana since, first, rival magnates sought to control the courts (Butte for a time had more lawyers than any other city of its size in the world), and then the legislature. At the turn of the century a brilliant and dashing young engineer, F. Augustus Heinze, of partly German blood, “hijacked” both Clark and Daly. He bought judges right and left, harangued vast crowds from the steps of the courthouse, howled against the absentee “kerosene interests” (Standard Oil), sued Amalgamated for 100 million dollars worth of claims, and left Montana in 1906 with a fortune estimated at 50 million dollars. Seldom has financial history known a more muscular and successful raid. Heinze became the miners’ hero; once when he returned to Butte briefly a crowd of twenty thousand people met him at the station. Meantime Daly died and Clark sold out his interests. The interrelations between these grotesque potentates is as complex, as that of the Holy Roman emperors after Diocletian. Presently Amalgamated, which had swallowed Anaconda, was in turn swallowed by Anaconda which revived. Then an Irishman who had been a department store clerk, John D. Ryan, succeeded Daly, and ran Anaconda singlehanded until his own death in 1933. Ryan may be judged from the fact that he once bought a power site for $950,000 from the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad, and sold it three months later to the Montana Power Company for $5,000,000—while he was a director of both companies !10

Anaconda today is headed by Cornelius F. Kelley, a seventy-one-year-old Nevadan who was Ryan’s lawyer and associate for many years. Kelley is plump, cold, and able. His salary is believed to be around $175,000 a year, a janitor’s wage by Hollywood standards, but still a tidy sum. The only Anaconda man I talked to was one of his underlings, a man so smooth, so glossily defensive, that he resembled soap. One remarkable thing is that the “Company” has no building of its own in Butte; instead, it hires the upper reaches of a department store called Hennessey’s. Thus a familiar euphemism for the company—the “Sixth Floor.”

Anaconda has a number of large black automobiles, with low-numbered license plates; bystanders say “The Company’s out!” much as they might say “The elephants are loose!” when these leave the Hennessey building for unknown destinations. When the legislature meets, “somebody”—though it isn’t always easy to define just who the “somebody” is—takes a floor in a Helena hotel, and fills it with amiable opportunities for diversion. The days of “coming in through the transom” are no more, i.e., the habit of dropping bills “surreptitiously” into a hotel room; but bribery knows other means. One Montana lobbyist boasted recently, “Give me a case of Scotch, a case of gin, one blonde, and one brunette, and I can take any liberal!” Labor folk, fearful of the effect of such Babylonian temptation on human nature, sometimes hire agents to keep an eye on their own men; once they get seduced into going upstairs, they’re lost.

Generally, on the Montana level, the company is criticized on a number of scores. First, incomparable and monumental stinginess. Aside from one threadbare little park (which it acquired from Clark), it has never given the city of Butte, from which it has extracted a roaring Golconda of wealth, anything.

Second, politics. For years the company dominated both parties, and controlled almost all elections, if necessary by dragging in the “cemetery vote,” and a common saying is that it “has only lost one governorship since statehood”; a good Republican named Dixon was elected in 1920 (against Wheeler) but he was duly defeated the next time he ran. Above all, the company wants to be sure of what a new governor will veto—in case some undisciplined legislators break loose with legislation it doesn’t like. Even today, there is no secret in the legislature as to who are “Company men.” They maneuver first to elect the speaker, then to control membership of the committees, especially those that have to do with public development, hydroelectric power, and taxes.

Third, an extreme vindictiveness, extending from the highest categories to the lowest. Anaconda, so they say, stops at nothing. For instance a distinguished justice of the state supreme court, initially viewed by the company without disfavor, was unmercifully smeared later and all but driven from the bench, purely because he had once had an accidental association with Leif Erickson, a political candidate whom the company loathed; the better to try to “get” Erickson, the company sacrificed the judge. Or take Lowndes Maury whom I have mentioned above. Thirty-five years ago he was a lawyer for the Montana Power Company. Maury today is a stanch proponent of MVA (Missouri Valley Authority) which the Sixth Floor bitterly opposes. So a whispering campaign began to the effect that Maury, in his advocacy of MVA, must be “insincere,” because he was once an official of the power concern! Or drop to lower echelons. A miner succeeded recently in getting compensation for an injury after a long legal fight; he then got a job on one of the local railroads; after three months, the arm of the company reached out, and the railroad was asked to get rid of him. Two years ago the subsurface tunnels undermined a schoolhouse in Butte. The building began to break apart and had to be abandoned, after condemnation by the authorities. The company sought to get release from damages, and then offered new land in exchange for the old site—whereupon the new site was discovered to be as dangerously undermined as the other. Finally a cash settlement was made.

Fourth, a defeatist atmosphere. For several ills in Montana, Anaconda is not to blame; yet its hand has lain so heavily on the state for so long that, if a cat sneezes, it gets the blame. So there is a general stultification, even if the ACM itself is not responsible. Progressive people do not do things they might easily succeed in doing, out of fear of the company, though its permission is no longer necessary. Also suspicion and apprehension make for a general deterioration of personal relationships; not only is everybody afraid of the company, but the company is afraid too. Sometimes the euphemisms it encourages are a boomerang. An extremely reputable eastern newspaper did an article recently on labor relations in Montana without ever mentioning Anaconda by name; it referred merely to “Butte management,” which is a really signal triumph in evasion. But the net result was to make everybody in Montana laugh with the kind of laughter that burps at the edge. Some youngsters in Butte, including several in “Company” employ, let off steam by a happy derisiveness. “Well, well,” they will say, “our company got licked in the last election. It is one of the worst insults ever known to have been suffered by our company.”

To all this Anaconda officials themselves reply that they want to be fair, that they don’t “play politics,” and that they are obliged to do a lot of things they don’t like in self-protection against the “radicals.”

Fifth, the company is blamed in part for depopulizing the state, because it keeps new industry out. Anaconda wants no rivals in the labor market; it wants a pool of cheap labor all its own, with itself the only hiring agency. It opposes power developments on the rivers, partly out of fear that some such company as Alcoa might come in with aluminum plants. One great airplane concern thought briefly of starting a factory in Montana, according to local report; it took one look on the spot, and then got out, because of the “legislative pressure” that might work against it. Then, too, by controlling the smelters and manpower distribution, Anaconda can throttle any independent miners; also virgin territory that might yield great mineral wealth, much of it owned by ACM but not worked, remains untapped. Also in this general economic field, so obviously that it scarcely needs mention, is the fact that Anaconda takes out of Montana enormously more wealth than it puts in.

Sixth, the newspapers. The situation is unique in America. Of the fourteen dailies in the state seven are company owned or controlled; in four of the five chief cities, the company dailies are the only papers. Why the company thinks that such an antediluvian tactic as ownership of its own newspapers is a good idea remains a mystery to most experts in public opinion; it derives straight from the Daly-Ryan tradition of holding close to the chest everything they could get; but Ryan himself once told an independent editor, “You know, it’s a kind of advantage that you’re not on our pay roll, after all, because if you print something good about us, people believe it!” As to circulation the company papers run behind; for instance Mr. Warden’s independent Great Falls Tribune has 27,000 in a town of 35,000; the company paper in Butte, the Montana Standard, has 16,000 in a town of 31,000. The Warden policy is quite simple. He rarely opposes the company directly; he prints the news. Anaconda knows that he cannot be bullied, bought, or frightened off; it also knows that he will oppose equally anything unjust to Anaconda, and anything unjust that Anaconda does. The company could ruin Warden and drive him out of the state, but it would cost a tremendous amount of money and no end of scandal—and he has told them so. As to the company press itself it does its best to appear “unslanted.” But nobody is fooled. One company paper refused in the 1944 campaign to accept a paid advertisement for Erickson which said simply that Erickson was not a “Communist” and, far from being a newcomer as had been charged, had lived in Montana for twenty years. Another recently devoted its whole front page to an attack against the Columbia Valley Authority, which until then most local people had never heard of. The Independent-Record in Helena ordinarily uses the appellation “Mr.” before the name of only one American—Cornelius F. Kelley. Its staff thinks, however, that a prevailing situation should be equalized by using “Mr.” in front of God too, when God is mentioned.

Of course there is plenty that the company press does its best not to print. For instance in New York early in 1946 the Anaconda Wire and Cable Company settled for $1,626,000 a claim of the United States government for damages “based on charges that three Anaconda plants shipped untested wire and cable to American and British armed forces.” (New York Herald Tribune, March 1, 1946.) Previously, officials and employees in Anaconda Wire and Cable factories in Marion, Indiana, and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, had been tried and convicted on criminal charges “for conspiring to defraud the government” and of delivering inferior wire. Both plants were fined ten thousand dollars; five employees at Marion got suspended sentences, and four Pawtucket officials went to jail. On this wire, American soldiers in the field depended for their lives. But Anaconda Wire and Cable underlings used the most elaborate and intricate methods to deceive government inspectors as to its quality, even installing checking machines that were themselves fraudulent. The judge hearing one case said that “the company perpetrated these frauds with intent to increase their profits without regard to the lives of American boys.” All this is a matter of public record: former Senator Bone of Washington made a speech in Congress saying that “the men who did this dreadful thing would be lined up before a firing squad if they were in Germany or Russia.” But you will not find much about it in most papers published in Montana.

Montana has four lively weeklies that do dare oppose the company. Their circulation and influence is, however, very limited. They are the People’s Voice (Helena), the Western News (Hamilton), the Yellowstone (Billings), and the Montana Labor News (Butte).

Seventh, education. Like most corporations, the ACM works hard to keep taxes down; this of course means that less money is available for the schools; the pattern is familiar everywhere, and is not peculiar to Anaconda or Montana. But another aspect merits attention, the curious fact that the University of Montana exists in six units in six different localities, though it is all the same organism and institution. The state university (with a justly famous school of journalism) is at Missoula, the state college is at Bozeman, the school of mines is at Butte, the state normal college is at Dillon, the Eastern Montana Normal is at Billings, and Northern Montana College is at Havre. All these have separate budgets and separate legislative appropriations, and the students and faculty are not interchangeable. Dr. E. O. Melby, the former chancellor of the university as a whole, thought that such chaotic irrationality might be modified, and suggested in 1945 that at least the six budgets be consolidated. One anomaly was that Dillon had exactly twenty-two students while the rest of the state was crying for teachers. But Melby was defeated; he resigned (and is now dean of the school of education at New York University) together with several of his professors. The legislature insisted on retaining the old six-way system, in part because a university in six parts makes for good lobbying. A lobbyist could always go to a legislator from Dillon, say, and promise some improvement to that particular community, in exchange for support of a company bill that might be coming up.

We must mention now the Montana Power Company, the great utility closely tied up with Anaconda—so closely that the term “Company” is often used to embrace the two together. Montana Power was founded by John D. Ryan, and for many years he was president of both; now, however, though allied, the two corporations are separate entities. But one Montana Power director recently became counsel for Anaconda, and until recently when Bob Fletcher took the job, the same man, by name Charles Towne, was press agent for both companies. Also Anaconda is Montana Power’s biggest customer by far; the two have an inevitable community of interest. As the association has worked out, Montana Power—with officials and employees in scores of towns and villages—has become a kind of eyes and ears for the ACM. It maintains the listening posts out in the hinterland. And it reads every bill to come before the legislature with its own and Anaconda’s interests intimately in mind—naturally. The history of Montana Power, one of the most formidable utility companies in the United States, cannot be dealt with in this space. The story is well told in the Harper’s article cited above, “The Montana Twins in Trouble.” That, for instance, Montana Power was forced recently by the SEC to divest itself of a hotel in Great Falls, owned by a subsidiary, is a detail almost microscopically small—but typical of its wide range of interests. When I was in Montana it was busy publishing advertisements in a dozen country weeklies, all with the same point—to make the idea of an MVA ridiculous by attacks on TVA. Then too, but this is on a minor level and I’m not sure but what company haters may not have been overusing their imaginations, I heard about the connection between Montana Power and, of all things, Lewis and Clark! The one hundred and fortieth anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition was being celebrated by a relay of Boy Scouts carrying a pouch along their trail; the American Pioneer Trails Association in New York, of which Cornelius F. Kelley (no less) is a director, was a prime mover in the celebration, and Anaconda men toured the state to help mark the route. This was interpreted widely as a company “plot” to build political fences, win good will, and incidentally spread propaganda against MVA. Anyway the episode produced a joke. People were baffled by ACM’s sudden interest in the two explorers, and it was said that at last Anaconda had got around to organizing Montana on a “Lewis and Clark basis.”

A matter much more serious is rural electrification. Montana boils with streams; the power company has been there since 1912; but in 1935 only 5.5 per cent of farms in the state had central station electric service. The figure is up to 27.8 per cent now, but this is largely because the Rural Electrification Administration has financed a number of co-operatives roughly like the Public Utility Districts in Washington. Before the REA came in, farmers in isolated areas were helpless, because the charges to bring private power in were inordinately prohibitive. Let us point out, however, that this kind of exorbitance is not peculiar to Montana. I have friends in that small superstate Vermont, who although only a few miles from sizable towns had to build and pay for their own power lines because the local utilities refused to do so except at fantastic cost.

Finally we should at least barely mention two other great economic factors in the life of Montana, which in general follow the same line as the company. First, the livestock men. They are the biggest source of revenue the state has; they are even more conspicuous in the legislature than Anaconda. Second, the railroads. The Northern Pacific got from Congress in 1864—free!—every other section of land along its line for seven hundred miles in Montana; this amounted to some twenty-three thousand square miles (an area three times bigger than New Jersey); and naturally the railroad laid its route to tap as much valuable land as possible. The Great Northern, by contrast, is not and never was a land grant railroad; it was built by Jim Hill without public aid and Hill is almost as legendary a hero in Montana as in Minnesota and the Dakotas. The Milwaukee Road came later. It was deeply involved in the later stages of the copper wars and, once, on the steps of the Butte railway station, was sold at auction in half an hour for 140 million dollars. The Milwaukee is electrified for four hundred miles of its Montana run, and hence is a very substantial customer of Montana Power.

Now to conclude this section. No one can possibly underestimate the importance of Anaconda in Montana affairs, yet it would be a gross error to think that the company is unopposed. From a paper called the Montana Builder I take the following: “Mr. Cornelius Kelley, members of the board of A.C.M., the handwriting is on the wall. Get rid of these cheap gangsters who befoul the halls of our state capitol.” And much else appears in similar overt vein. Nor should it be forgotten that, in the last analysis, the bulk and rank and file of people in the United States count as well as corporations. Anaconda and Montana Power are important in Montana—yes. Nevertheless a progressive like Thomas J. Walsh was a Montana senator for years; at present the Montana delegation in Washington includes such authentic and vivid liberals as Senator James E. Murray and Representative Mike Mansfield; and in the summer of 1946, Leif Erickson beat Wheeler for nomination to the Senate, though he was himself beaten in the general election following.

On Certain Confusions in the Life of Burton K. Wheeler

I don’t mean to claim wisdom after the event, but I thought that Wheeler was a spent force considerably before his defeat for renomination to the Senate. In Washington earlier in the year he seemed to have lost grip—alvrays garrulous, with his big cruel mouth chewing at a thin cigar, he was talkative to the point where his conversation became interminable anecdotage; he seemed to have descended to a level where it was almost inconceivable that he could ever have had a coherent intellectual background or philosophy.

There is nothing morally wrong about being an isolationist. Thousands of good Americans—normally intelligent and sincere Americans—are isolationists. Isolationists may have been witless, or improperly tuned to the march of events and the shrinkage of the hemispheres, or victims of laziness or wishful thinking, but they were not criminals. They represented one wing of a perfectly authentic American tradition (as we shall see later on when we come to the Middle West) and there are, even now, a great many earnest and peace-loving Americans with full internationalist sympathies who would be delighted to be isolationists—if the world would only let this be possible. The trouble with Wheeler was that he was the serf, the helpless victim of obsession. He saw an “international banker” under every cot; he thought that England was Sodom and Gomorrah, and he hated one man, Franklin D. Roosevelt, with a fierce, fixed, vituperative and vindictive passion.

I am not even sure how Wheeler came to his isolationism. He was, and is, a politician first and last. Perhaps subconsciously, he was grasping for an issue. In the autumn of 1939, Roosevelt appealed for modification of the Neutrality Act to permit the sale of arms to the allies on a cash-and-carry basis. FDR’s speech was muddled and specious but nobody in the Senate had ability enough to oppose him, Wheeler alone excepted. Borah was ill and tired, Hiram Johnson had galloping senility, and Nye simply lacked the stature necessary. Wheeler had tasted the sweet blood of leadership when he fought Roosevelt—and beat him to a standstill—in the Court Packing bill two years before. So he took charge of the isolationist “crusade,” and from then on events continually and progressively boxed him into more uncomfortable and tighter corners. I think also that a second point contributed early in the war to Wheeler’s isolationism, namely that he thought, like Lindbergh, that Germany would win and he wanted to play the winning side. Third, he was profoundly influenced by his wife, who hates the British empire even more than he does.

Thus arose some of the dreadful intellectual confusions. In the 20’s Wheeler pleaded earnestly for recognition of Russia by the U.S.11 In the 40’s he was a passionate Russia hater. In 1939 he thought that the German invasion of Poland couldn’t be helped, and urged that Poland should give up Silesia and the Corridor to avoid a fight. In 1945 he was one of the loudest to urge that Poland should be encouraged to resist Russian aggression at all costs. He fought Lend Lease—saying that “it would plow under every fourth American boy”—and voted against almost every measure that might have strengthened the United States, and then, immediately after the war was over, attacked American policy for its “weakness.” No matter how he slid and slithered, he came to the fate that sooner or later overtook almost all isolationists; willy-nilly he was forced into a position of seeming to be pro-German.

Consider too the bad company he got in. Stacks of America First mail, franked with his stamp, were found in George Sylvester Viereck’s office. Every Fascist and sub-Fascist sheet in the country called him a hero from Father Coughlin’s Social Justice to the Weekly Roll Call of William D. Pelley, the Silver Shirt leader who later went to jail for sedition; from Gerald B. Winrod’s Defender to Gerald L. K. Smith’s Cross and Flag to official organs of the Nazi Bund. In order to beat a left-wing Montana congressman, Jerry O’Connell, Wheeler once supported and helped elect a man named Thorkelson, now dead, who was the most outspoken and poisonous anti-Semite ever to sit in the halls of Congress.

In his own defense Wheeler points out that it is unfair to call him “reactionary” or “anti-Semitic” just because he wanted to keep out of war. He told me that he was denouncing Hitler while “Lord Halifax was out shooting with him.” He says that he can’t help it if Gerald L. K. Smith quotes him; he claims to have nothing but contempt for Coughlin, Smith, and their rabble. Wheeler voted for ratification of the San Francisco charter—and at the same time publicly boasted that he would do everything in his power to water it down. In 1946 he demanded “that the United States quit appeasing Russia and let her know once and for all that we did not fight this war to let her enslave Europe.” Well and good. But it is difficult not to rejoin, as did one newspaper, “Well, well, look who’s talking!” For years Wheeler had put himself into the category of seeming to be a friend to enemies of the nation; his speeches during the war frankly encouraged the breakup of the allied coalition. That he should, with the war won, oppose appeasement of Russia is perfectly legitimate and reasonable. But it would come with better grace if he had not been the boss appeaser to both Germany and Japan in and after 1939.

Wheeler, the tenth child of a Quaker shoemaker, was born in Massachusetts in 1882. He went to the University of Michigan and then pushed further west to carve out a career as a lawyer. Legend is that he was passing through Butte, en route to Seattle, when he was stripped of every cent in a crooked poker game. He stayed in Butte of necessity, got a job in a law office, and has been a Montanan ever since. Now let there be no doubt of Wheeler’s good liberal record in the early days. He was an agrarian progressive of the Norris-LaFollette type, and it seemed that he would rival them in good works and stature. He served in the state legislature for a time as a reform candidate and, then, through the influence of Senator Walsh, whose protégé he was, he became United States attorney. He kept his head during the witch-hunt days after World War I, and in 1920 ran for governor. Feeling against him ran so high that he was once threatened with tar-and-feathering, and once he was physically run out of a town. He was soundly beaten in this race for governor. Then in 1922 he ran for senator, and was elected—just as soundly.

This brings up the moot question of Wheeler’s relations with the “‘Company.” I do not think he has ever, as is often charged, been an Anaconda tool or puppet, though the company has certainly supported him on occasion. In 1920, however, it feared and hated him as a progressive and was in large measure responsible for his defeat. How, then, could he have won so handsomely just two years later? One factor was the hard times suddenly prevalent. Another, most Montanans say, is that the company recognized him as such an able and dangerous antagonist that it let him win the senatorship in order to push him out of the state. Then for years the two most conspicuous of Montana institutions watched each other warily. I do not think that the remark was printed at the time but Wheeler, campaigning in 1922, is supposed to have made a pledge, “If you ever see a picture of me on the front page of any company paper you will know I have sold out.” Wheeler’s own description to me of his position vis-à-vis Anaconda is that it had tried to “influence” him without success, that it always opposed him till 1934, and “then gave up because they knew it wouldn’t do any good.” He agreed, however, that for many years “nobody could be elected dog catcher in Montana without Sixth Floor support.” His explanation, incidentally, of the remark about the picture in the paper is that he was referring, not to the company press, but to the Butte Miner which was then controlled by Senator W. A. Clark. Wheeler’s actual words were, he says, “If I ever hear a good word about me from Clark, I’ll search my own pockets to see what I’ve stolen.”

Wheeler, company or no company, has always played a hard, close role in Montana politics. He has substantial business and real estate interests in the state, and he is believed to be part owner of the Z Bar Network, comprising radio stations in Helena, Butte, and Bozeman, and linked up with KFPY in Spokane. He sought to run both parties locally; he tried always to get both the conservative and liberal vote. He is, of course, a Democrat and the present governor, Sam C. Ford, is a. Republican, but Ford is a good friend of Wheeler’s and several key posts are held by Wheeler associates, like J. Burke Clements, chairman of the Industrial Accident Board, who was Wheeler’s campaign manager for the 1940 presidential nomination, and Barclay Craighead, head of Unemployment Compensation, who was one of his Senate secretaries. Incidentally Clements is also a political commentator on Wheeler’s Helena radio station, which is managed by another crony, Ed Craney who is a distinct power in state and municipal affairs.

In Washington, Wheeler started his senatorship with high promise.12 He led the fight to open up the Teapot Dome scandals, which got him into a peck of trouble. Harry M. Daugherty, Harding’s attorney general had him indicted before a federal court for allegedly using improper influence in arguing an oil lease case before the Department of the Interior; this was pure vindictive retaliation, a frameup. Wheeler was acquitted after the jury had been out ten minutes. His wife was about to have a baby; she said if necessary she would have it in the courtroom. In 1924, as everyone knows, Wheeler ran for vice president as a Progressive under old Bob LaFollette,13 but he switched back from Progressive to Democrat and was handsomely re-elected senator in 1928. In the early Roosevelt days Wheeler was the administration’s chief wheel horse in putting through the Holding Company Act regulating utilities, and he had a good deal to do with railroad and labor legislation. What caused his violent enmity to Roosevelt later? First, the fact that Wheeler, a desperately vain man, considered himself slighted by Roosevelt on Montana patronage; also, he had hoped to succeed Walsh as attorney general, but FDR passed him over for Homer Cummings of Connecticut. Second, the fight over packing the Supreme Court. But despite the fierceness of his enmity, Wheeler says that he “could have had the vice presidential nomination in 1940 if he had wanted it”; he even told me that, Roosevelt or no Roosevelt, he could, if he had wished, been vice president in 1944—which means that he would be president today.

In the summer of 1946 came catastrophe. Wheeler, like Shipstead and Nye, was knocked out in the most humiliating kind of political defeat, a primary race. The isolationist taint, plus much else, was too much to overcome. I have several times mentioned in this chapter the man who beat him for the nomination, Leif Erickson. Erickson was a former justice of the state supreme court, the president of the MVA Association, and a young, attractive, uncompromising liberal. Wheeler’s enmity to MVA had something to do with the result, because it alienated the powerful Farmers Union; and Erickson had the prime asset so important everywhere in the Northwest of a Scandinavian name. Wheeler at first thought to split Erickson’s vote by prevailing on some third candidate to run, but he couldn’t find anybody. He blames his defeat on the Political Action Committee and the New York newspaper PM. But the PAC as such did not enter the campaign at all, and PM has a circulation in Montana of exactly forty-two! Wheeler lamented to me, “The Jewish press always kicks the—out of me.” PM is of course owned and edited by such Jews as Marshall Field and Ralph McAllister Ingersoll. What did beat Wheeler was labor.14 The Butte labor community turned against him almost to a man, and so—despite Truman’s personal intervention—did the railway brotherhoods, which are extremely important in Montana, a state crossed by three great transcontinental lines.

Giant of Wheat

I met him in Washington, D.C., not on his own mammoth property at Hardin, Montana; he is one of the most interesting of all Montanans—Thomas C. Campbell, the greatest wheat farmer in the world.

Twice in his life Tom Campbell has had singular confrontations with singular men, the late J. P. Morgan and Joseph Stalin. He went to see Morgan, uninvited, during World War I when the Germans were making their great offensives in April, 1918; it was anticipated that the war would go through another winter, at least, and wheat was desperately short. Franklin K. Lane, then secretary of the Interior, sent Campbell out to Montana to see what he could do. He looked at millions of acres of land, some of it government property on Indian reservations, that might be made to grow wheat in spite of its aridity. But he needed money, which Washington wouldn’t give him, to finance leases. So, without introduction and on his own hook, he called on Morgan. The interview lasted seven minutes, during which Morgan asked five questions: (a) How old are you? (b) Have you a university degree? (c) Have you had any experience in wheat production? (d) Do you intend to run the job yourself? (e) How much money do you need? The sum was two million dollars and Campbell got it the next day. He went back west, and organized the Montana Farming Corporation.

(Morgan never got the money back. Wheat dropped from $2.75 in 1919 to $1.05 in 1921, and Campbell had a hard time with his property. The younger Morgan partners wanted to get out of agriculture and some years later simply wrote the two million dollars off. Campbell himself was then able to buy back the same holdings, under the name Campbell Farming Corporation, for $100,000 cash and $500,000 worth of notes.)

Campbell met Stalin during the first Five Year Plan; he was the first American citizen, he says, whom Stalin ever received. The Russians had approached Campbell asking him to teach them how to make a mechanized farm work. At that time he thought that Bolsheviks ate babies for breakfast, and his friends were horrified that he should even consider accepting the invitation. But, fingers crossed, he went to Moscow and became a consulting engineer to the Soviet agricultural authorities; presently he was helping to build Gigant, the million-acre mechanized farm that was one of the chief Soviet showpieces before World War II. At first the Russians wanted to mechanize everything hand over fist, without pause or preparation; they wanted a tractor for every acre. Campbell persuaded them to go more slowly. He found that 90 per cent of the crops of the U.S.S.R. were planted and harvested with implements the Pharaohs might have used; there were 90 million horses in the country. Campbell said, “Let’s use the horses for awhile, with modern horse machinery.” But the Russians, eager folk, were disappointed by his caution. Stalin listened to the argument most of an evening, and then said, “Since we have hired this man, let us accept his advice.” That decided it. Campbell was allowed to convert Russian agriculture to mechanization by easy stages, prudently. Later the tractors and combines duly began to pour in. Campbell likes to think now that this was a contribution to winning the war. The Russians, he told me, could not possibly have withstood the impact of the German invasion had they not had a dozen years of precious experience with agricultural machines. This gave them the background and mechanical know-how for handling tanks and military vehicles. His tractors near Odessa became, as it were, the tanks and armored cars of Stalingrad. What won the war was, in a word, mechanization of the peasantry.

Tom Campbell, a vigorous and friendly white-haired man of sixty-five, is of Scots and Canadian stock. His father, a lumberman living in Ontario, wanted to go west. This was before the railways, and the family went out in a wagon. They came up the Red River Valley, where the grass grew to the hub wheels, and Campbell’s mother said, “This is fine soil, fine grass; let’s stay right here.” So, at a point near what is now Grand Forks, North Dakota, the group took root. Tom says today that his earliest memories are of resentment at the murderously hard physical labor his father and mother had to perform and at the age of eight, so he swears, his ambition was already set—to be the biggest wheat farmer in the country. Campbell was the first graduate of the mechanical engineering department of the University of North Dakota; then he went to Cornell for graduate work in engineering. He had a natural bent for mechanics, which it seemed logical to apply to agriculture. So he began to experiment with mechanization. Came World War I, and he moved from North Dakota to Hardin, Montana, about sixty miles from Billings, where he still is.

The Campbell properties today cover 95,000 acres; there is nothing more dramatic in the West than the manner of the cultivation, the method of the harvest. On soil that averages less than sixteen inches of rainfall per year, Campbell gets thirty-five bushels of wheat per acre. First, like all modern wheat farmers in this area, he conserves half his soil each year by planting in alternate strips and leaving the rest fallow. Second, by proper tillage and the use of an ingenious tool known as the rod-weeder, he keeps weeds down to a minimum, so that the soil, hoarding up precious moisture, has complete rest during its year’s holiday. Third, he seeds at a special “angle of repose,” in rows far apart, as a precaution against wind erosion and winter freeze. One tractor carries an 84-foot-wide series of drills, which moving at three miles an hour can seed five hundred acres in a day—as against the half an acre a day which is the best hand labor can do. Seeding, of course, goes on by night as well as by day, just as do the harvests. August at Hardin, when the combine teams work all night, is almost as astonishing an example of American “industrialization” as, say, the mills near Pittsburgh. Campbell harvests an acre of wheat in fourteen man-minutes. He can run his whole immense establishment with a staff of twenty-five men. Even during the harvest he needs no more than 150.

One of Campbell’s 120 horse power tractors can pull twelve fourteen-inch plows, which means that two men can plow seventy-five to eighty acres in twelve hours. Tell that to any grandfather who grew up in Iowa! This is, of course, agricultural mass production in excelsis. The earth itself becomes the assembly line.

Plenty of people dislike Campbell and his methods. He was accused in the 1930’s of having caused the loss of millions of tons of topsoil, because he planted too much and too deep. The Farmers Union resents him sharply; he “works men two months a year, then drops them”; his method is “antisocial” and the concentration of many small farms into one big farm is “Fascistic”; he builds no schools, no communities. But Campbell himself is on several counts distinctly on the liberal side; of such confusions is American life full. I have no idea whether he is a Republican or a Democrat, but he says that the government has always been his best partner, and always will be; that the Department of Agriculture knows more about its subject and teaches it better than any university in the world; that Stalin was smart enough to have inaugurated a tolerable agriculture from the beginning, whereas we didn’t get started right until the New Deal; and that every American depression has come because industry sought to buy agricultural produce as cheaply as possible with the result that the farmers who produced this had no money to buy the industrial stuff without the sale of which industry itself couldn’t live.

Montana Miscellany

Montana is a great state for wild flowers (claiming more varieties than any other) and for prize fighters (Stanley Ketchell, Battling Nelson, Kid McCoy) and movie stars (Myrna Loy, Gary Cooper). It contains Glacier National Park, and the newspapers are full of advertisements of such commodities as LARIAT ROPE—TOP GRADE MANILA—6½¢ A FOOT. Though by no means rich it led the nation five times in five consecutive bond drives, as the first state to exceed its quota; and it is the chief state aside from California with a strong Vigilante past. Only fourteen out of its fifty-six counties have made soil surveys, and only 18 per cent of its land is owned by the farmers tilling it. Montana is the state where Indians call a divorce “splitting the blanket,” where hogs once ate the automobile license plates which were made of ersatz material, and where fur-bearing fish have been photographed. Finally, it is the American state that, by far, has the greatest number of earthquakes. The Chamber of Commerce will not thank me for saying this, but there have been three thousand since 1935.

1 But the rate of decline recently has been steeper, 18 per cent, in one other state, North Dakota.

2 A postwar development is that wages in the mines have gone up to something over $9.00.

3 One of Maury’s sons, Reuben, is chief editorial writer of the New York Daily News, One of his nephews is Maury Maverick of Texas.

4 For these names I am indebted to Howard A. Johnson, formerly chief justice of the state supreme court.

5 The town was named by a miner from Minnesota for his own home town, after the first choice, “Last Chance,” was given up as too undignified. Originally the pronunciation rhymed with Lena. But the boisterous community of the day wanted to get the sound “hell” in somehow, and so Hel’-ena it became. My source for this is a local pamphlet.

6 Another famous Montana smokestack, also an Anaconda property, is in the town of Anaconda. I was told that the Washington Monument would fit inside it. I am not sure I believe this. It was built so high in order to carry poisonous fumes out of the immediate vicinity. The scheme did not work as well as expected and much vegetation in the area was killed.

7 The complete set has been printed, Montana Highway Historical Markers, by Bob Fletcher, Helena, 1938. Used here by Mr. Fletcher’s kind permission.

8 Hastings House, New York, 1943.

9 Yale University Press, 1943, p. 96. Reprinted by permission.

10 Cf. “The Montana Twins in Trouble,” by Joseph Kinsey Howard, Harper’s Magazine, September, 1944.

11 President Coolidge asked him on his return from a trip to Moscour, “Is it true that the Russians haven’t got religion?” Wheeler replied, “For a long time they had too much of the wrong kind.”

12 By interesting coincidence Wheeler entered the Senate on the same day as Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota, and both were beaten at the same time twenty-three years later.

13 While, as the New Republic once pointed out, FDR was supporting an extremely conservative Wall Street lawyer, John W. Davis.

14 But it is quite true that a few eastern liberals contributed money—in small amounts—to Erickson’s campaign.

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