Monday, May 12, 2014

Growing up in Butte

Butte, the mining camp that became an industrial hub, was as unique for its children as it was an anomaly. Copper king W. A. Clark’s Columbia Gardens, which boasted one of the nation’s first Ferris wheels and a spectacular roller coaster, was his gift to the community, and children especially loved it. Mining camp ruffians and children of prominent mine officials rubbed elbows on the streetcar that took them all to the gardens each week for Children’s Day. Children by the hundreds enjoyed the entertainment. At the end of the day, they would pick huge bouquets of pansies to take home to their mothers.

Children pick pansies in Columbia Gardens. Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, ST 001.120
But it was not all fun and games. Butte boys who reached puberty and could chew a plug of Peerless tobacco without throwing up were considered man enough to work in the mines. In the 1930s, a sign on the fence around the red light district read “Men under 21 keep out,” acknowledgment that young boys in Butte became men long before they reached legal age. Of all the mining camps, Butte was probably the most dangerous place for youngsters. This made Butte’s children tough and unusually daring. They seemed to thrive in the polluted air and unsanitary conditions frequently noted in reports to the Board of Health.

When Maury Mulcahy was growing up in Butte in the 1930s and 1940s, mine officials came around to his elementary school and showed the kids what a blasting cap was, how to extract the explosive powder, and then warned them not to pick them up. After the lecture, every boy went out in search of caps. They would pour the powder into a bottle with a wick, put it on the train tracks, and try to explode it as a train passed by. Mulcahy knew children who lost limbs to this form of play. The extreme danger made the game that much more fun.