I ended up finding an old book on Montana politics, one I used to write The Rise of the New Montana Democrats.
I wrote a lot more, and I’d like to share that with you today. I will add that this history is a bit dated.
That’s a huge problem with our Montana historians – their inability to put much on the shelf for future generations to look at. Sorry, “professional” historians. Montana’s amateur historians have been showing you up for years.
Unless you’ve got some letters behind your name and some fancy degrees hanging on your office wall, however, people don’t give a damn about you. That’s why we’ll take a look at what David Emmons had to say about Montana during the first few years of the Racicot Administration. We start with population.
Emmons goes off of the 1990 Census for his figures, which gave a population count of 800,204 for Montana.
He mentions that by February 1993 the state had lost an additional 24,000 people from that low number, however, effectively wiping out the 12,000-person gain we’d experienced over the 1980s (786,690 was the 1980 Montana population).
Montana wasn’t growing much at that time, probably because we’d done away with our natural resource jobs. He mentions that, and the accepted historiography of Montana:
“The popular version of Montana’s history was essentially written by two men. Joseph Kinsey Howard said the place was high, wide, handsome – and a colony of eastern corporations. K. Ross Toole said it was an uncommon land, a state of extremes – and the plaything of reactionary capital. There was little subtlety to either man’s analysis: from the fur traders of the nineteenth century to the coal barons of the twentieth, Montana gave up its material treasure as well as its political chastity to plunderers.” (Emmons, p 121)
Since 1975, Emmons writes, Michael Malone “has been fighting a lonely battle against this whining and self-pitying interpretation of Montana’s past.”
Malone – who died in December 1999 – asserted that the Anaconda Company had never truly been in control of the state, and wrote such. He went against Howard’s idea that the “copper trust” had driven homegrown Fritz Augusta Heinze from the state as well as Toole’s idea that the legislatures were controlled by the Company.
Malone came back “in 1985 and 1986” to tell us that the state’s history “was not uncommon” as Toole had proposed. He pointed out “that although the Company had at times been heavy-handed, so had other companies in other western states.”
Emmons felt that this interpretation was the right one, for the victimization attitude that both Howard and Toole had foisted upon the state was hurting more than helping.
Montanans didn’t view their plights as caused by world economic conditions that made them feel like flotsam on some giant sea, but by a local company – however international it had become – which they could see and feel firsthand. This created an “anti-corporate” attitude in the state “that severely limited its ability to adjust to changes in national and international markets.”
Emmons is a firm believer in the Montana sales tax, and claims that “people raised on conspiracy theories” are the main reason it hasn’t passed, either in 1971 or 1993, though he fails to mention the push for the tax in either the 1930s or the 1950s.
Our lack of a sales tax “punishes industry and business” in Montana “all in order to get even with the Company.” Emmons makes it plain that Montanans cling to this attitude because of “self-indulgence,” or “the avoidance of all responsibility by the assignment of blame to sinister outside forces.”
Emmons mentions UM economist Thomas Power’s idea that Montana’s extractive industry is doing it more harm than good, leaving “deep scars in the state’s collective psyche; it enfeebles the people and leaves them politically helpless.”
His answer? A consumption economy over a production economy.
High Montana Wages with Extraction
Anaconda Copper left Montana in 1977, having gone bankrupt after Chile nationalized their vast copper mining holdings there. It was a fundamental shift in Montana politics and Montana economics.
Butte ceased to be relevant in either, though it took decades for that realization to come about, and for many it still hasn’t.
The Company had been the driver of the state for nearly a century, both politically and economically. In terms of thought control, it had that too, for Anaconda Copper owned virtually all of the major daily newspapers. What they didn’t say was often more telling than what they did.
Without Anaconda Copper, Montana wouldn’t be what it is today, and its likely many of your neighbors wouldn’t be who they are. The Company’s effect on the state was so great because so many other industries were dependent upon their business. Emmons makes this clear when he shows us some numbers:
“In 1946 ACM produced 3.7 million ounces of silver; 30,000 ounces of gold; 1.47 million pounds of molybdenum; 1.55 million pounds of cadmium; 4,883 tons of arsenic; 15.6 million pounds of lead; 1.5 million pounds of zinc; 111,397 tons of manganese; and 742 million pounds of copper. It was the largest and most diversified copper company among the big five and probably in the world.” (Emmons, p 123)
All of this sent Montana’s per capita income to levels 16% higher than the national average.
Bill Montgomery was one example. He started at the smelter in Anaconda in 1948, making $18 per day. “That’s more than four times the $4 per day his dad made starting at the foundry,” the Montana Standard wrote years later.
They were good times, and coming right after the war too. They helped the state grow. Good times don’t last in Montana, however, for it’s a state of cycles in all things.
In 1955 Butte started open-pit mining and over the years more and more workers lost their jobs to automation and the nature of mining post-WWII. Unions in Butte were powerless to stop this, as they let their political paranoia outweigh their good sense.
In 1950 the International Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers “was expelled for alleged Communist sympathies” from the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, Emmons tells us. On top of this open-pit mining reduced the need for workers and also made mining more strike-proof. “Open pits could be shut down and left untended unlike underground mines which could fill with water or face the threat of fire.”
All of this emboldened Anaconda Copper to face down strikers, something it’d been quite successful at before. “In 1912, 1914, 1917-20, 1933-34, and 1967,” Emmons tells us, “the Company faced, and faced down, genuine labor-management crises.”
He also says that “job-conscious pragmatists and ethnic exlusionists in the various miners unions” helped the Company defeat the strikers. Over time this meant that 16% higher per capita income would be going down.
Emmons points out that 1957 was almost more important than 1959 when it came to information in the state.
The former was the year the Legislative Council formed to aid legislators in their work. Company lobbyists had done the job before then. The latter was the year the Company sold its newspapers to Lee Enterprises.
Changes kept coming. The early-60s saw Montana Power let loose from Anaconda Company control. The early-70s saw the Company leave the legislature. Everyone who was a drinker knew the game was up, for Helena’s open bars came to an end.
“A part of political life in Montana for almost a century, the Company’s open bars were a favorite gathering place for lobbyists and legislators,” Emmons tells us. “Their closure convinced even the most skeptical that a new age was dawning.”
That new age was clear the very next year when a constitutional convention was called. It passed “with no overt opposition by the state’s major corporations.”
Anaconda Closes Down
ARCO made big promises to the people of Montana, including running the mines and smelters “at full bore” while “payrolls and investments would grow.”
The new company was good on its promise for two years before they changed their tune. The smelters in Anaconda and Great Falls were closed on a day that came to be known as “Black Monday” in the state.
It was September 29, 1980, and ARCO announced that both cities would lose the plants, causing “$40 million in lost annual wages and fringe benefits,” according to the Associated Press of the time.
Jim Marvin was president of ARCO at the time and said it was due to the company’s “inability to economically meet state and federal environmental regulations.”
The closure that day resulted in “between 1,000 and 1,200 smelter workers” losing their job, with “several hundred more” seeing layoffs over the year.
The City of Anaconda was hit hard, with 2,784 people leaving the workforce from 1970 to 1990. Bill Montgomery, who’d started at the smelter in 1948 at $18 a day, managed to hold on until 1982, “helping complete the shutdown.” After that he was laid off, “with no other positions available and three kids still in school.”
Montgomery eventually got a job with a different mining company to help tear down the smelter. Retirement finally came in 1990, not in congratulation of his 42 years of service to the state, but because of a back injury.
Emmons tells us that Silver Bow County saw 20,000 people leave between the end of WWII and 1990, which made up 40% of its people. Deer Lodge County, where the City of Anaconda is, lost 41% of its population, or 7,000 people.
The Railroads Decline
“Between 1960 and 1970, thirty-nine of Montana’s fifty-six counties lost population. Most of those thirty-nine were in the wheat and cattle country in the eastern part of the state. All told, the rural farm population fell from 175,707 in 1940 to 88,460 in 1970 to under 80,000 in 1990.”
So bad were these changes that ten of Montana’s eastern counties have been considered for “deprivatization” and “inclusion in the Big Open section of the Buffalo Commons.”
By 1990 we lost our second U.S. House seat, one we’d had since 1912. Pat Williams’ win that year over Ron Marlenee proved “mostly that western Montana added a few people and eastern Montana lost a lot.”
It may have been hard for many to see these changes coming, but they should have.
It’s likely that the coal, oil and gas boom of the mid-70s blinded them, or just made them want to be blinded. That lasted five years before reaching the inevitable bust that all Montana booms experience eventually.
Emmons gives us a hint of what this was like, though barely:
“The result was a classic Montana boom, followed by a classic Montana bust. The numbers are too sad to recount. Suffice it to say that for a time, there were jobs, the state and county coffers were full, roads were repaired, schools were built, the poor and marginalized of the state were treated with the dignity they deserved. (Midwestern consumers of Montana coal even paid the state the ultimate compliment” they referred to Montanans as “blue eyed Arabs.”)”
It didn’t last, however, and by 1975 “the boom began to sound choked and muffled” and by 1980 “the most attentive listener could not have discerned the trace of an echo.”
Emmons tells us this same cycle was followed by the lumber and wood products industry.
“By 1979, there were almost 11,000 jobs in Montana’s woods and mills,” he tell us. “By 1982, there were only slightly more than 7,100.” Sawmills decreased substantially, going from 330 in 1956 to 141 in 1981 to 80 in 1993. It was a 29% drop in lumber production between 1979 and 1982 and then another 14% drop between 1988 and 1991. Emmons expected the industry would shed another 6,500 jobs over the 1990s.
For the state this spelled disaster, and in more ways than one. Natural resources made up 24% of the state’s 1983 revenues. By 1980 that had fallen to 11%. “Some of this was owing to tax cuts designed to stimulate production,” Emmons says, and adds “the cuts did not work.”
Montanans didn’t know what to do, as for decades they’d been told to work the land and all would be provided. Now that wasn’t the case, and it had a profound psychological impact that Emmons diagnoses well:
“Montana historically had one simple responsibility: give up treasures. It discharged that responsibility in a variety of ways. It grew wheat, raised cattle, mined ores, cut trees, milled raw lumber, dug coal, drilled for oil and natural gas, and dammed and put turbines on its rivers. Discovering the world no longer needed what generations of Montanans had made had a far more chilling effect on the state’s collective psyche than had any alleged subservience to ACM.” (Emmons, p 128)
“Tourism does not require the state’s resources be plundered; neither does it pay very well.”
For that good pay, Montana needs good employers. Alas, despite all that we have to offer in the way of natural beauty, it’s the coastal cities to the west of us that attract the top industries of today. “Montana’s quality of life is, in fact, enviable,” Emmons writes, “but there is a very short line of employers waiting to share in it.”
By 1990 Montana’s per capital income was 17% below the national average. We fell 33% over 32 years.
“The state is still a long way from major markets, its tax structure is still archaic, its university system is in disarray, and too many of its citizens still evince symptoms of historically (and historian-) induced paranoia.”
“More certain is that the present generation of Montanans will have to reinvent the state and cast it in a new image. A great deal is riding on them. They can succeed only if they pay proper attention and respect to the old ways of making a Montana living as they go about the task of finding new ways.”
Now we look to others for the answers. They’re out their, waiting…ready. All they need is for those that came before to step aside, finally step aside.