The most important aspect of ourselves is where and who we come from. There are places along the way that define who you are to the core. I have traveled and lived in a great many places that have profoundly effected me, but Montana is my home- it is apart of me. It’s history is my history and that fills me with pride. There are so many interesting pieces that make up this little section of the world that I’d love to share.
When I tell people that I’m from Montana I usually get the same response. People ask if we have indoor plumbing and they assume that I know how to lasso some cattle and that our education is minimal. My responses are usually the same. I inform them that indoor plumbing is being installed next week, that I have indeed lasso’d some cattle, and while we are smart – we are also a hard and gritty people.
Few people have ever been to Montana and even fewer have heard of one of its greatest cities, Butte. I was lucky enough to grow up here. It was my home during the summer and we would spend our shiny days fishing on the shores of the Wise River, eating pork chop sandwiches and staring at the blaring glare of the stars in the wide sky. However, the little city wasn’t always a small town in Montana. At one point it was extremely cosmopolitan and a hot spot in our country.
Butte started as an old Irish mining town and soon became the richest copper hill in the world. If you visit the city today you’ll find a huge crater on our southern border where we literally dug out and blew up every square inch of copper that we could find.
The lives of the miners was filled with danger and every day one less man would make it home. The women were a gritty bunch who were powerhouses of the home an industry and kept stride with the men in terms of entertainment, business and wit. That, mixed with the fact that we are a heavily Irish population, led to the consumption of ample amounts of alcohol. When President Obama visited us on St. Patrick’s Day, he was blown away by the extent of our revelry and our true Irish spirit. He stopped at our most famous watering-hole – the M&M Bar and Cafe. The M&M opened as a Cigar Shop back in 1890 and catered to the off the clock miner looking for a sip. Like most other alcoholic establishments in Butte, the doors to the M&M have never been locked and is one of the few historical bars that still serves those seeking a beverage. Before Prohibition, Butte had no less that 250 bars. When supply wavered with the government’s embargo in 1919 – Butte stood up, shook their fists and kept on serving. People would migrate from all over to wet their whistle.
But our history of drinking doesn’t stop on the top layer of our city. With large level of poisons in the air due to mining, Butte took to building a city underground. When I took Lexcee home a few years ago we were lucky enough to take a tour of the underground city. Historians and Archeologists have been working steadily for years to uncover the hidden depths. Together we explored creepy hallways, a spooky jailhouse and entered into the fun world of prohibited saloons. You enter the subterranean city on the side of the block, as if you were entering a subway system. Immediately at the bottom was a barbershop. Our tour guide had a smile on his face and told us he recently had a woman on the tour with a fascinating history. She claimed that when she was a child, she used to hate this barbershop! Her mother would continuously send her there – up the hill in sleet and snow or in the summer heat – to search out her father. Upon arriving, every time, she would be informed by the barber that her father was not present. She would return to her mother full of rejection, who would never scolded her but sent her out into the yard to play. Within 15 minutes her father would appear, swaying slightly and kiss his wife with a lewd grin. Only after taking the tour, some 85 years later, did she discover that her father frequented the speakeasy hidden behind a panel in the back of the barbershop. The man then lead us through the panel which opened up into a rather dingy bar. It was comprised of overturned barrels and a slab of wood laid over concrete that served as the bar. It looked as though it had been used yesterday. The stools were laid over right where they had been left over 80 years ago. And a man’s hat still hung on the hook by the door.
After being led out into the sunshine, our tour guide turned up Main Street to the LaSalle Apartment building. When originally built in 1912, the apartments were called the Roodwoods, and thus the speakeasy got it’s name. While I have watched movie after movie about prohibition, it’s not until you are standing in the foyer that you can respect the lengths people went through to get a little booze. We entered the building and were immediately herded toward a small closet at the end of a hall. This led to a tiny foyer with a coat rack and a quant little mirror. While we all giggled, waiting for the theatrics to begin, we did not actually expect them to be quite so elaborate. Our guide pressed a button that acted as a doorbell to signal those chugging whisky on the other side of a wall. The mirror, a two way, would allow the poor sod keeping guard to view who was seeking entrance. The back of the wall “door” that swung open was equipped with a heavy wooden bar that would act as a lock against police.
Mike Byrnes, one of the principal organizers of the restoration of the Rookwood Speakeasy, said that once he cracked the mystery of the entrance, he was greeted with, “… falling plaster, cobwebs and 30 bucket worth of debris.” (1) However, he discovered so much more and marveled in the perfectly preserved, “… bar and back bar, the curved columns sporting plaster parrots, old whiskey barrels and a Stetson hat with a 1928 Herbert Hoover political button on it.” (1) For those who love to stand in rooms dripping with historical depth, the Rookwood Speakeasy will quickly transport you back to a place where people risked much to dance, gamble and drink away the troubles of an ol’ mining life.
The most memorable artifact in the Roodwood Speakeasy Museum, was a prescription. Apparently during the dreaded Prohibition, doctors took to writing their patients prescriptions for whiskey to fight ailments common in the day including but not limited to cancer, depression and indigestion. Mostly as a way for Doctors to gain a few extra bucks, the practice was considered a sham. Patients would pay roughly $3 to get the prescription and then another to get it filled – presumable with a bottle of booze. (2) Luckily we don’t need a doctor’s permission to get those needs met today.
The history in this town goes on and on. In the next installment, I’ll introduce you to some of the hearty women that are still revered today.
So the next time you are in our good ol’ city, raise one to the miners, the bootleggers and the whisky sneaks. While we may not have indoor plumbing, we know how to celebrate what counts. Cheers!
- La Boe, Barbara. “Butte Speakeasy Discovered.” Independent Record. The Montana Standard, 31 July 2004. Web. 14 March 2016. <http://helenair.com/news/state-and-regional/butte-speakeasy-discovered/article_53a86a4a-2079-5df3-9b3d-ebe30b0ddae4.html>.
- Gambino, Megan. “During Prohibition, Your Doctor Could Write You a Prescription for Booze.” Smithsonian.com, 7 October 2013. Web. 14 March 2016.<http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/during-prohibition-your-doctor-could-write-you-prescription-booze-180947940/?no-ist>.
- Emeigh, John Grant. “Butte Boomtown Breweries.” The Montana Standard, 6 August 2006. Web. 14 March 2016.<http://mtstandard.com/special-section/local/butte-boomtown-breweries/article_8726694e-6c0a-56ce-b391-e460e47811df.html>.