“Butte…” my father declared, stopping for effect, “is an inner island surrounded on all sides by REALITY. He hit “REALITY” hard and gritty, his disgust making it clear he preferred Butte.
Although Dad never returned to live in Butte after graduating from law school, he never fundamentally left it. Despite the difficult times when “the Company” used, abused and refused him, Butte has always been a magical place for him. He grew up in a “ruined shack by the old train tracks” and like this millionaire’s mansion, he kept recalling.
He took us with him when he got home, to the little house in northern Montana he once called home. My Uncle Joe, who came into this house in a cradle and left it in a coffin, has made it steadily larger over the years, but we cousins now marvel at how small it must have been when our fathers were growing up. Parents included, there were nine in this family and we can’t imagine where Grandma put them all, especially when for a short time she ran a grocery store in the front room. The two girls were to have one bedroom, Grandma and Con the other, and the five boys were to sleep in the front room, next to Lipton’s Tea.
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The house had the rare asset of indoor plumbing, so the Sheehys were spared the cold and undignified journeys to an outhouse demanded of homeowners with only “three rooms and a way”. But in addition to being cramped, the house was poorly insulated. The stove provided a source of heat, but the constant activities associated with cooking and laundry did not encourage procrastination. The front room, with a coal stove filled with ‘Roundup nuts’, was quite cozy, but the bedrooms were freezing.
To top it off, the railway was 20 yards away – if that. Cars filled with milk whistled morning, noon and night. The family was so used to their omnipresence that the conversation came and went and stopped as the trains came and went. After their visit, Grandmother or one of the children cheerfully dusted the soot residue from the tables and chairs. My aunt, Sister Mary Serena, was the first sister to develop lung disease. She died of lung cancer in her 60s, having never smoked a cigarette in her life. I will always believe that the milkman destroyed it.
But dad only saw the magic. As an old man, he would fondly remember waking up on a cold winter morning, comfortably ensconced in a bed stuffed with blankets, listening to the wheels of the coal wagons creak as Clydesdales rode them up Montana Street, the hum of mines. “buzzies” as regular and reassuring as a heartbeat.
“On the frosty mornings, in the misty daylight, great clouds of steam rose from all the chimneys of the houses, and streams of steam from the chimneys and air-ducts of the mines, he wrote. “We took for granted all the wonders of Earth’s richest hill, a place like no other… barren by mining and much like a populated moonscape. But our hearts, as Stephen Foster wrote, were young and gay and nothing predicted how this roaring, bustling place would decline in our lifetime.
This boy grew to observe in a Supreme Court opinion. “The state got the gold mine. Butte got the hang of it. Yet he was not bitter. “Ah, well, we have our memories and our pride of having been there when it was in its heyday. It was Butte. It was OUR Butte, for our early days and still is.
My Uncle Joe said it in a different way. Throughout his life he told us, “If you’re not in Butte, you’re just camping.
Many campers came to Butte last month for St. Patrick’s Day to experience this inland island surrounded on all sides by REALITY. But only the people of Butte know the real magic.
Mary Sheehy Moe retired as Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education in 2010. Since then, she has served as a school trustee, state senator, and city commissioner in Great Falls. She writes from Missoula.