By Anne Marie Mistretta Explorebigsky.com Contributor
While prospecting in Big Sky’s early days was a bust, copper mining thrived just 125 miles north on Butte’s “Richest Hill on Earth.”
The mines dominated Butte’s landscape, defined families and shaped children’s existence and memories. Mine expansion encroached upon and sometimes consumed neighborhoods. Children played on slag heaps, mine yards, gallows frames, and even the tunnels of the Butte, Anaconda and Pacific Railways.
More than half a century later, memories are keen with raising animals for food in small backyards, crushing loads of grapes for wine and celebrating everything from Halloween to deaths.
In Mining Childhood: Growing up in Butte, 1900-1960, Janet Finn gives an ethnographic history of Butte in the first half of the 20th century. Writing from the perspective of local children, she uses the memories of those who grew up in Butte during the rise and decline of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company.
Those who survived the high infancy mortality rate and dangerous child’s play lived to tell tales of thrift, resilience, and friendship in ethnically separate neighborhoods. Yet Irish, Germans, Finns, Serbs, Croatians – many non-English speaking first generations – mixed their cultures, customs and wonderfully smelling food in this diverse city.
Working traditional jobs in newspaper delivery, boardinghouse cleaning and babysitting, children learned resourcefulness, particularly during the many strikes, the Great Depression, and wartime. They also learned to scavenge – some would say pirate – coal, wood, even sawdust, to supplement the mining paycheck and help their families eke out a subsistence level existence.
Bonds formed during childhood friendships were memorable and valuable. Like their parents, children helped each other when in the neighborhood, when on the ball fields or when venturing onto others’ turf. Adults fretted about cadres of neighborhood children, often called “gangs,” and their unsupervised play.
Charitable organizations, along with the city government, began to focus resources on the welfare of Butte’s children. Memories are rife with organized teams, movie theaters and “Copper King” William Clark’s amusement park, Columbia Gardens.
During this time, compulsory education was enforced. Public and Catholic schools alike meted out hefty discipline and structure along with reading, writing and arithmetic. School saved many Butte children from roaming the streets, and pride in the high school, particularly in the music and sports programs, reveals that education made the difference for many youngsters.
Butte families sustained each other, whether they experienced loss in the mines or heartache from within, such as family alcoholism and violence. Perhaps the cruelest hardship and memory that Finn mined from her interviews is that so many Butte residents can no longer point to their former neighborhood and say, “that’s where I grew up.”
While the City of Butte enacted progressive programs to assist families and youth through their challenging lives, it can’t put back the neighborhoods that had been consumed by the mines.