Butte: Where Johhny Got his Gun

Sunday, 17 October 2010 01:33 PM Written by 

MISSOULA, Mt. -- Holiday Inn

 There must be 30,000 college students in this beautiful town on the wet, warmer, western side of the Rockies.

They go to the University of Montana. Half of them have bicycles and backpacks and they apparently were all out drinking and eating downtown last night.

 The busy, youthful, 99.5 percent healthy street scene in Missoula, my favorite Montanan town, was a stark contrast to Butte, the mile-high city famous for copper, union activism/violence, great downtown architecture, environmental troubles and its most daring favorite son, Evel Knievel.DSC_2065_2

I stopped on East Park Street in Butte late Saturday afternoon when the Steinbeck Highway zigzagged through the center of the former copper capital of the world.

On Friday, Oct. 14, 1960, John Steinbeck had done the same and popped into Phil Judd's Sporting Goods store/armory to buy a used Remington bolt-action .222 rifle and scope.DSC_2085

 I parked in the heart of uptown/downtown Butte to look for Phil Judd's old store -- or, more likely, the building it used to be in. 

As has become the pattern wherever I stop, several kind, helpful and smart locals helped me find what I was looking for in a matter of minutes.

 I went into Rudolph Furniture's beautiful showroom and interrupted the lives of the people working there with my drive-by journalism routine. They couldn't have been nicer.

Mike Rudolph runs the store. His family has been operating it since 1919, when Butte was a thriving, prosperous, crowded city, not a borderline ghost town with a stock of priceless downtown buildings a city 10 times its size would covet.

 Mike told me Phil Judd was long dead and his store long gone. But he said the building the sporting goods store was in sat two doors down -- where the Rediscoveries Vintage Clothing store is at the corner of Park and Wyoming.DSC_2070

 A few minutes later I was talking on the phone to Mike's father, Lou. He's 88 and sharper than any of us. Lou was Phil Judd's brother-in-law, so I couldn't have had a better source.

 No, Lou said, there's no family lore about the great author Steinbeck stopping in and buying a rifle.

No, he had no photos, no records -- and no framed check for $73.50 with Steinbeck's signature on it.

(A writer/artist named Bill Baltezar, who was in the sporting goods store that day and later wrote about his encounter with Steinbeck in 1993 for the Salinas Californian newspaper, said Steinbeck wrote a personal check for $73.50.)

 Lou Rudolph gave me a quick socioeconomic briefing on how Butte has changed in the last 50 years. Like Pittsburgh and other former industrial powerhouses Back East, Butte's population of 33,000 is about half what it was in 1960.

It's about a third of what it was at its peak in the early 1900s when immigrants came from Europe to work for the Anaconda Copper Co. extracting copper from "The Richest Hill in the World."

 Lou said in 1960 that Park Street (old Highway 10) was congested with cars and trucks that had to work their way through the town before I-90 came along. I stood in the middle of Park Street at 4 p.m. to take photos without fear of being hit by anything larger than a raindrop.

 Butte's uptown no longer jumps 24/7 with the saloons and whorehouses that kept thousands of underground miners from forgetting how underpaid they were. Today underground mining by men has been replaced by open pit mining by machines. 

The city's tremendous boom went bust long ago. And taking all that copper out of the ground under itself for 120 years has left Butte with a hideous and seemingly impossible environmental cleanup job.DSC_2098

 Heather Meeks was in Rediscoveries looking for Halloween costumes for her two kids when I went in to look for Steinbeck ghosts.

She isn't from Butte and she calls herself an old hippie. But since she moved here she has learned a lot about the city's boom-bust history, its current environmental debacle and its many natural and manmade charms.DSC_2073

 She didn't hide her working-class sentiments when she talked about how the mining company and its executives got filthy rich for decades while the miners just got filthy.

 "Butte is a gritty, grimy, hardworking, take-no-prisoners city," she said.

"Butte is what America claims to be -- a true melting pot. English, Cornish, Welsh, Chinese, Eastern Europeans -- they all crossed the country to come here to make their fortunes. Three dollars a day were top wages for miners for decades."

 Like other fellow Americans I've met from Maine to Minnesota to Montana, Meeks is smart, friendly and quick to reveal her passions and opinions.

I never found out the names of Meeks' kids or exactly what Meeks did for a living, but I  know she's 44 and was born in Hawaii.

She obviously loves Butte and she says clever things like "Butte used to export copper, now it exports people." It sounds like she should run for mayor.

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