Montana Viewpoint: The heroes of our state

Jim

Jim Elliott

The most memorable speech I ever heard was also the shortest.

It was given in 1989 by former Gov. Ted Schwinden, and the occasion was the 100th anniversary of Montana’s statehood. I was lucky enough or canny enough to be standing behind the speakers on the Capitol steps, and I had come to listen, not to Schwinden, but to former U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield, who was one of my political heroes.

I had never heard Mansfield speak and was hoping for what used to be called a “stem winder,” but, truth be told, it was about the trade in the mineral called talc that had been set up with Japan … and it was dull.

Schwinden’s speech had come just before Mansfield’s, and in my mind it was a tough act to follow. I have since tried to find a copy or recording of it, but Ted told me it was an off-the-cuff affair and if he spoke from notes, he hadn’t kept them. Pretty much all I can remember of it were the first few words:

“The heroes of Montana are buried in the graveyards of towns with names like Thoeny, Locate, Gold Butte and Whitepine.”

Now those are not the town names that Ted used, and it doesn’t matter, because those he did use just stood for every small Montana town. All pretty much abandoned, now.

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And Ted was not then talking about our military heroes, but those unremarked and unremarkable men and women who tried to make a start for themselves and their families in a tough land. They did not serve in a communal cause to fight a common enemy like those whom we recognize and thank this Memorial Day. They served in an individual struggle for the cause of Hope, and in the process contributed to the common cause of the creation of Montana.

I have often thought that these pioneers should have some day of remembrance set aside to honor them, but since there is not, this is my effort at keeping their memory alive.

Some years back I wrote a piece on a part of my ranch called Fox Canyon. It was named that because a man named Fox built a small log cabin at its base with the living quarters and stable under one roof, with what was known as a dog trot separating them.

I don’t know much about him, and maybe there was not a lot to know other than the fact that he had tried to make a go of it in an area that had been leveled by the fires of 1910. But in my book, that was enough to know to keep his memory alive.

Similarly, there were people in the prairie who were lured to towns like Thoeny (north of Glasgow and pronounced “teeny”) who were lured there by the promise that 160 acres of dryland prairie would grow anything and lots of it, and who lived in tarpaper shacks and piano crates (yes, really) and froze to death, or starved, or went crazy from the isolation, or even all three in an attempt to make a better life for themselves and their families.

There were people who succeeded, like Sophie Moles, who came with her immigrant family from Milwaukee, got a job as a chambermaid in the town of Gold Butte in the Sweetgrass Hills and later raised a family near Belknap, in Sanders County.

There are untold thousands of untold lives in Montana that have one thing in common; they all helped build what we have today. They all deserve to be remembered—even the bad ones—and that responsibility is left to us.

Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.

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