Several weeks ago I received an email newsletter from the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives that drew me to the Archive’s website. It was there I discovered two memorable quotes describing Butte in the early twentieth century.
The town grew on the side of The Hill and it was Butte all at once, out of the copper womb: Richard K. O’Malley
Butte was mercurial… The wicked, wealthy, hospitable, full blooded little city welcomed me with wild enthusiasm of the most disorderly kind: Theodore Roosevelt
That website brought back memories of my time in Butte when I sat in the archives gathering information for an Italian-American saga I was writing at the time. Part of my novel would be set in Butte 1930 so I was particularly interested in those immigrants who labored in the copper mines and the lifestyle of diverse residents who enjoyed the benefits of a prosperous mining industry when Butte had been known as “The Richest Hill on Earth” but now was in the throes of the Great Depression. Newspapers provided me a window into that era; their display ads revealing the cost of groceries and of clothing, both lending credibility to the accuracy of my plot and characters. And since prostitution played a prominent role in Butte, I visited the DumasBrothel Museum. Once a brothel within the Dumas Hotel, the prostitutes kept forty-three rooms occupied around the clock to accommodate three shifts of miners, plus Butte’s elite who used the underground tunnels for convenient and private access to the hotel.
My research also brought Hubby D and me to Walkerville, a mining community overlooking Butte and where D’s immigrant grandparents had settled in1905, along with three young sons, including D’s father. During the winter, the grandfather and eventually his sons worked in the copper mines. In the summer they raised cattle on a ranch, probably near Helena although D and I don’t know the exact location. We did, however, drive up to Walkerville and stand on the empty lot where his family once lived on their own land. A neighbor came over and introduced himself as the current owner of that property. After we explained our connection to it, he told us he remembered the house, a two-story frame that had been torn down when he was a boy. Long after D’s family had returned to the Piedmont Region of Italy for what they considered a better life. The only one who ever returned to America was D’s father and he crisscrossed the ocean a number of times.
A short distance from where we stood that day was the shuttered Anaconda Copper Mining Company’s premier facility known as The Speculator. It became part of the novel I’d been researching, one I later named, Family Deceptions.
In this scene from Family Deceptions Pete Montagna and his low-life friend, Leo Arnetti, have finished their shift at The Speculator and are heading down the hill that leads to Uptown Butte. The year is 1930, the height of The Great Depression.
Pete grabbed his lunch bucket and tight roll of dungarees but before he could escape out the door, Leo yipped at his heels like some pesky mutt. They walked into a warm summer breeze caressing Butte’s summit and while Leo cupped his hand to light a cigarette, Pete surveyed the sprawling town below. Quiet from where they stood on The Hill. But down below Boisterous Butte never slept, thanks to revenue from an abundant supply of copper, silver, gold, lead, and manganese. Leo was on his third match when Pete lifted his head to the distant mountains. Their snow-covered peaks made a nice picture but Montana’s jewels couldn’t compare to his native Alps. A glow finally appeared at the end of Leo’s cigarette. He took a few drags and tipped his hat to The Spec’s head frame, a gallows supporting cables that raised and lowered men, equipment, dynamite, timbers, and ore cars three thousand feet into the unforgiving earth.
Pete fell into step with Leo and six other co-workers. They started the long downhill trek, passing the Little Minah and other mines intermingled with sooty, frame cottages and two-story flats perched above stonewalled streets. One by one the men drifted off until only Pete and Leo were left to trudge the unpaved portion of Main Street. At the modest white frame church of St. Lawrence O’Toole, Pete made the sign of the cross, a routine he’d begun with his first day on the job.
“You shoulda never started that,” Leo said.
“Bullshit, what are the odds?”
“No shit, just playing against the odds. Picture us in The Spec’s hellhole, slaving away on the day you forget to bless yourself.” He clashed an imaginary set of cymbals. “POW!”
“And what about you: saluting that damn head frame every time we leave.”
“It’s a habit, and nothing else.”
“The same goes for me,” Pete said. “One thing’s for sure: I ain’t superstitious.”
“Well, maybe you oughta be.”
“As if superstition ever brought you any luck.”
“I’m here, ain’t I?”
“So’m I, but luck didn’t get me here.”
“That’s right. It was me, Leo Arnetti.” He thumped his fingertips to his chest. “And don’t you forget it. What’s more, I got you this job, showed you how to talk like a real American.”
“How to lose like one too. And don’t get me started on America’s lousy economy.”
So far Pete’s luck had been nothing but bad, same as Leo’s, damn. When they weren’t mining copper or listening to old-timers extol the good old days—before The Company rid itself of the union—Leo talked him into panning for gold or taking chances on every conceivable game in Butte. And Pete seldom balked.
After they passed the Lexington, Leo brought up Tony Coronna. “You shoulda gone with him for some of that Meaderville wine, for some of Donatella too.”
“That ain’t funny Leo.”
“Ooh-h that Donatella. She’s got … whatchamacallit … the hots for you.”
“Basta! I’m a married man.”
“Not in America. Not to these people. Better they don’t know the real you. And don’t forget your godfather. Giovanni ain’t about to forgive or forget.”
“If God is good, Giovanni’s dead. And I’m going back home, just as soon as I get enough money.”
“Then what the hell are we waiting for, partner.” Leo draped his arm around Pete’s shoulder, pushing him where he didn’t need to go.
“First things first,” Pete said, moving away from Leo’s grip.
The two men took a right on Summit and dropped off their dirty clothes at Adie Turner’s aging three-story Victorian. Eight dollars a week bought them separate sleeping rooms, one bathroom shared with ten other men, laundry service, and three meals daily, including a full lunch bucket on workdays. Pete had tried rooming with Leo but that didn’t last. Not with Leo helping himself to Pete’s money and sneaking in floozies after dark.
As they continued down Main Street, commercial buildings outnumbered the houses and concrete replaced the dirt road. When the street traffic picked up, Pete moved onto the sidewalk and wiped dust from his leather high tops.
“Dammit, not now,” Leo said, kicking up more dust. “We only got a couple more blocks to go.” He stuck his hands in his trouser pockets, jiggled coins to accompany the beat of his footsteps.
Leo the Loser: all talk and no show. And Pete always wound up on the losing end. Getting out of Butte meant first getting rid of Leo.
When they neared Uptown Butte, Prohibition saloons passed as soft drink parlors and billiard parlors stacked hustlers against greenhorns, a lesson Pete had learned the hard way.“My stomach’s turning somersaults,” he said. “We shoulda grabbed a sandwich back at Adie’s.”
“As if I need one more glob of navy beans on stale bread,” Leo said. “Just you wait, tonight we’re gonna feast on thick, juicy steaks.”
They eased into the swelling ranks of businessmen, professionals, skilled craftsman, teamsters, laborers, uppity matrons, bored housewives, and all varieties of miners. Vehicles crowding the streets and threatening pedestrians prompted Leo to lift his middle finger to a Model T rolling through the stop sign. “A car, that’s what we need. Then we’d show those bastards a thing or two.”
Not with my winnings, Pete thought. His getaway money dried up after Leo needed a loan to repay old debts, a loan he had yet to repay. After they turned on Broadway the pace slowed down while Leo lit another cigarette. At Honey’s Soft Drink Parlor, Pete hesitated at the beveled glass door.
“Now what?” Leo asked.
“I ain’t exactly in a rush to throw my hard-earned money away.”
“In that case we drink first.” Leo reached around Pete and turned the sticky knob. “And then we play to win.”
Inside the long, narrow saloon, large fans hung from an elaborate tin ceiling and whirled and circulated the marriage of tobacco smoke and stale beer with a calliope of tongues—Italian, Polish, Finnish, German, Czech, and English. Pete recognized thirsty miners from the Stewart, Lexington, Alice, Moonlight, and Parrot. They all crowded around the bar, waiting for Honey, a rotund Irishman moving up and down the stretch of polished oak, filling mugs and ignoring any man demanding service before his fair turn. After he served Pete and Leo, they carried their overflowing mugs away from the bar.
“This beer’s lousy,” Pete muttered, dumping his into a brass spittoon. “Honey watered it down too much.”
“So now you’re the expert, you who never drank the stuff before coming to America. Come on, big shot; let’s check out the Back Room.”
“Not ‘til you wipe that foam off your beak.”
### End of excerpt.
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