BUTTE, America, 1967—In nearly a century of existence, the Mining City was no stranger to labor strife, and when Christmas came in 1967, Butte was living through its longest-ever strike. Underground miners there and smeltermen from Anaconda had been off the job since mid-July and would stay out until the following April.
As a show of support, members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union at what then was the Farmers Union Central Exchange refinery south of Laurel put together a pre-Christmas caravan for their Butte brethren.
At 19, I drove a dump truck filled to the brim with loose potatoes from a nearby farm.
In addition to shift work in the lab at the refinery, my dad, Elroy Gilles, had a number of other irons in the fire—a ranch, a novelty truck garden (Gilroy’s Garden Goodies) and Gilles Topsoil Service (“Let Us deal You Dirt”).
Using a front-end loader, Dad and his kids harvested generations of blow dirt (loess) that had settled on the palisades overlooking the junction of the Clarks Fork and Yellowstone rivers and trucked them into the burgeoning suburbs of Laurel, including tracts on our old farm below the Big Ditch.
I had been driving tractors and trucks since about the age of 12, including hiring out to neighbors during harvest.
I was not chosen to drive the 12-ton GVW farm truck that was filled to the top of the stock rack with toys and clothes. But I did drive the potato truck, one of about half a dozen trucks making the 250-mile trip to the impoverished Richest Hill on Earth.
At the Laurel refinery, I already had been through my share of strikes as a kid on the frigid picket lines when contracts always seemed to end in January.
My dad even edited the union paper, The Pipeline. We had an electric typewriter, and although no one knew how to type, the paper came out monthly.
The trick was to “justify” the lines, making them come out even as was then the vogue for professional newspapers. When the typewriter did its “ring” signifying the impending end of the line, you would hyphenate and then type 12345 to indicate how many spaces were remaining. You later would re-type that line, adding extra spaces between words so the line would come out perfectly even.
For headlines, we used larger-type stencil letters. If it sounds time-consuming, it was. Not quite like carving each letter backward on a slice of potato, stamping it on an ink pad and pressing it to paper, but…
And it did lead to some decent writing habits that persevere to this day—never use a long word (like persevere) when a shorter one will do the job, and keep sentences and paragraphs fairly short to avoid work during corrections.
But back to the strike. I was flush from graduating from high school, earning wads of money in my summer job on trail and firefighting crews in Mount Rainier National Park, and surviving my first quarter as a professional student (draft deferment) at the University of Montana.
There was some snow in the mountain passes, but we did not have to chain up and we made it to the parking lot of the historic Butte Miners Union Hall, which had survived a lot of strikes and at least one bombing in the past.
The union provided some muscle to keep the peace as the gifts were distributed, and some of the goods were bound for the Smelter City of Anaconda 25 or so miles away to aid workers there. In addition to the loose potatoes, my truck had a few toys stuffed into nooks and crannies.
There was a dispute over a doll.
Threats were made, I think a knife was pulled, and the victor was an old wiry miner with a scar that dominated his left cheek.
The crowd dispersed. The union bosses, guys with names like Nick Salazar, later took us out to steak dinner. Maybe they even took the older guys over to Venus Alley, but I was with my dad and decorum prevailed.
And that was that. After the gifts had been distributed, Butte reverted to the once and future ghost town in would become. Silver Bow County no longer merited the “1” place on license plates that it had when 80,000 to 100,000 souls resided there, dwarfing No. 2 Cascade, with its Anaconda Co. wire works and smokestack, and No. 3 Yellowstone.
Despite such attractions as Evel Kneivel Days, the Dumas Brothel Museum and the World Museum of Mining, Butte is down to maybe 30,000 folks now.
Etched against the grim dusk sky that day were aptly named gallows frames, squatting over idled mine mouths.
Across the way, the vagrant Berkeley Pit gaped, having already eaten the towns of Meaderville (home of ex-boxer and Laurel bar owner Sonny O’Day), Dublin Gulch and McQueen. In state law, the Anaconda Co. literally wrote the book on eminent domain.
There was already handwriting on the wall even then. Seven years later, Anaconda would close all its underground mines in Butte. The company, then owned by Atlantic Richfield, had found an even richer hill on earth—one in Chile, living under the stable but brutal, pro-business, post-Allende dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
By 1980, the Anaconda smelter exhaled its final toxic fumes. In 1982, the Berkeley Pit itself saw its last truck trundle out of the abyss and Great Falls blew up its own big stack.
Now, you can pay $2 to see the “scenic” overlook of the pit, which continues to leach water into the world’s longest Superfund site—Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork River.