“So what sort of business do you run from out of your home?” asked the chimney guy. We were in the check-writing stage of his visit, and I’d earlier told him to yell for me when he was done because I’d be downstairs in my office. He didn’t seem very impressed by “writer and editor,” and the conversation wended its way to my recent arrival here in Missoula. “How’d you know I wasn’t from around here?” I asked. “Just a guess,” he laughed. But really, how did he? The story of the move included my now-standard refrain that the reason behind it had been “so that my wife could take her dream job.” Naturally, he wanted to know what that job was. “Wildlife biology research,” I said.
“Wolf lover, huh?” he asked.
Yesterday was a class day, i.e., the Montana-history class I’m “informally auditing” at the university. I left home a little early, though, so that I could drop the car off at the mechanic again. We’d brought it in last Friday because of a rubbing noise in the front wheels that had been growing louder, and the Master Tech – Toyotas Only guy had called back after a few hours to ask, “is this car from the east coast or something?” He could tell by what he described as “rust everywhere” underneath, including – the source of the rubbing – such badly corroded brake rotors that the rust was in constant contact with the pads. (This is a gift, I guess, of Baltimore’s practice of utterly coating the roadways with corrosive salt at the first sight of a snowflake, which, thank god, I guess they don’t do out in these parts.) But the rubbing sound was still there, I noticed early this week, so I dropped it off yesterday and then walked to class, by way of a little pizza place where you can get $1 slices. (Too much sauce, though.) The walks to and from class suggested to me that I need to take some time to get out and walk the streets of some of these downtown neighborhoods. Interesting old houses, some of them dating to the 1880s (according to a plaque I noticed), plus after only a few minutes of walking I found myself starting to get a feel for the city – a feel of both actually living in it but also a sense of the city’s personality – that’s been missing so far, since I’m mostly confined to our compound up on the hill.
But someone has to guard the compound.
In class, we’re up to 1900, when the population of Montana was around 243,000, up from 143,000 only a decade earlier (and up from only a few thousand not much longer before that). Yesterday’s class was, among other things, “myth-dispelling day,” the professor keen to shatter two stereotypes that exist about early Montana (and which he admitted believing himself when he first moved here, five and a half years ago): that the state was originally a backwoods backwater, and that it was settled entirely by “white Americans.” Apparently, Montana was a very urban society at the time, in the sense that the vast majority of residents lived in cities (“cities” that were as small as 1,000 people, but, as the professor rightly pointed out, a city with a 1,000 people in it was a significant accomplishment on such a remote frontier). (And, by the way, it is still the case that the vast majority of Montanans live in cities: this professor claims that a higher proportion of Montanans live in cities than the proportion of New York state residents who do, although good luck convincing anyone that this makes Montana “more urban” than New York.) Next, Montana was mostly populated by the “foreign born” or their children, who made up just over 50 percent of the population. When you count just the “foreign born” themselves (excluding their children who were born here), they still constituted fully 28 percent of the population. By way of comparison, the nationwide rate of “foreign born” residents was only 13 percent. So, in this sense, Montana in 1900 was much more diverse than the nation as a whole. They even had 13 Koreans.
This is the state that mining built, so here is a short history of mining in Montana: the first mineral mined was gold (first discovered here in the 1860s), which exists in nature in pure form and so can be found in significant amounts by independent miners and small operations, particularly in Montana where it was basically just lying around on the ground or in the bottom of streams. As gold was tapped out, in the early 1870s, miners switched to silver. This is found mostly underground and does not exist in pure form, so extracting it requires a somewhat larger, more technologically sophisticated mining and then smelting operation. Once the silver started running out, miners switched to copper, which is buried deepest of all and isn’t worth as much as the other two metals, by far. So mining operations needed to become immense in order to take advantage of economies of scale. The most significant mining operation out here was the Anaconda mine (it had its own town, which still bears that name today); at one point, more than half of the state’s residents got their paychecks from Anaconda. Anaconda followed the pattern of corporatization followed by all industries at this time, first going public and then starting to “vertically integrate,” again necessitated by the low cost of copper: they built a railroad to transport their ore to market, bought their own timber tracts (for mine-tunnel bracing material), bought their own coal mines for fuel for their smelters, etc. By 1900, Montana mining was virtually all for copper, dominated by a small number of massive companies, as opposed to the rag-tag early independent miners who came for the gold.
All of this led to quite the transformation: Butte, the main mining city (Missoula developed a little later, mostly driven by the timber industry) was described in 1870 by one historian as “a scattering of wretched buildings.” By 1900, it had electricity, streetcars, an amusement park, streets lined with handsome brick buildings that still exist today, skyscrapers (i.e., steel-frame buildings that could therefore be taller than four stories), the second-largest red-light district in the country (after – natch – New Orleans). (This last tidbit allowed the professor to remake what seems to be one of his favorite points: the high rates of prostitution in the old west didn’t exist because the people were any more “immoral” than anyone else, there was just a massive shortage of women compared to men, resulting in the commercialization of “domestic chores” through the establishment of boarding houses, laundries, restaurants, and houses of prostitution. Interesting way of looking at it.) And forty-two languages were spoken on the streets of Butte in 1900…
Toward the end of class, the girls (which really seems a fair description of this particular trio, even if they are 18) started whining and shifting in their seats. “It’s time to go,” one of them called out, about a minute before the hour (which is when the class ends). I’d heard them fidgeting and complaining about not being able to keep up with the professor’s lecture in their note-taking (and let me just say this is a very easygoing lecturer), calling him a “dork” when he said something about “trying like the dickens” to locate some historical fact, etc. I guess I wasn’t so different when I was their age (which is one reason I had the sense to leave Bard early: no sense being in that much debt if I could barely be bothered to pay attention), but it sure is strange to be sitting in that class as a non-paying interloper, fascinated, wishing the guy could talk longer, only to hear these paying students behind me both barely able to function and also just desperate for the class to be over.
I had just left class and was walking over to drop by A.’s office when Will the mechanic called. The car was really, really fine he told me. The rubbing noise, it turned out, was the result of whoever had installed our new tires forgetting to apply a lubricant where the edge of the tire meets the rim, and so what I was hearing was just a constant “squeak” of rubber on metal. It wouldn’t cause any damage, he said, and, since the only way to fix it would be remove the tires, he didn’t recommend taking any action “unless it’s really driving you crazy.”
On my way home from the mechanic, I stopped to buy a new DVD player (our old one didn’t survive the move, one of the few casualties) and some fireplace tools. At the first place I stopped for the DVD player, I was reminded – in the course of a conversation about our A/V “setup” – that our TV will no longer receive open-air signals after March, when it all goes digital. The guy who was talking to me simply assumed that this meant we would need to upgrade, at least by getting a digital-translating “box,” but inwardly I was thinking, “sweet, no more temptation to watch television.” As I type, however, I’m remembering that “The Office” is on tonight, which I’d hate to have to miss. Ah, the conflicts, the duality of man.
In the evening, we tried out the fireplace while tweaking the financial spreadsheet. Zuzu the cat seemed to think we were out of our minds. The new poker worked great.