Ninety-eight years to the day on Saturday, Aug. 1, the young Butte Labor History Center will mark the anniversary of union leader Frank Little’s murder.
Open in June, the center at 49 W. Park St. displays 11 vertical banners depicting union labor history in Butte. The museum is slowly filling with a wealth of union exhibits chronicling up to 50 unions.
“We’re marking the day by having a discounted admission day,” said Dick Gibson, BLHC board member and local historian. Cost will be $2 for adults and free for kids age 6 to 14 if accompanied by an adult.
Gibson, who wrote “Lost Butte Montana” and whose online blogs educate amateur and professional historians alike, will twice reenact Frank Little’s speeches to the Industrial Workers of the World to the union-curious — once at 1:30 p.m. and again at 2:30 p.m. at the center.
Two showings of the Frank Little documentary, “An Injury to One,” follow in the tiny but inviting 15-seat theater in the back of the center. The 2002 film is directed, produced and shot by Travis Wilkerson.
Praised by the New York Sun as “Passionate, persuasive and beautifully designed,” the film is described as “an experimental documentary exploring the turn-of-century lynching of union organizer Frank Little in Butte, Montana.”
In 1917, the IWW sent organizer Little to Butte in mid-July “to stir things up,” as the Little-dedicated banner reads. The action came on the heels of a strike following the Granite Mountain mine disaster.
Little’s “incendiary speeches ranged from anti-war diatribes, referring to soldiers as ‘uniformed thugs,’ to exhortations to put the managers to work underground to actually earn a living for a change,” as reported in the exhibit.
Little spoke at the Finlander Hall on North Wyoming Street, among other venues. He lived at Mrs. Byrnes’ Boarding House adjacent to the Finlander until Aug. 1, 1917 — a fateful day.
About 3 a.m., the story goes, armed thugs hauled Little from his bed, dragged him behind their black Cadillac, and lynched him from a railroad trestle on Silver Bow Creek.
A tag on his body bore the 3-7-77 historic numbers reminiscent of the Montana vigilantes and initials of those supposedly next in line for the same treatment.
“His brutal murder sent shock waves through the labor movement nationally,” reads the banner.
Reportedly, his funeral procession drew 12,000 people — the largest contingent of mourners in Butte at that time. About 2,500 marchers accompanied his coffin as it was paraded through Uptown streets.
At first the union planned to transport his body back east but eventually decided “to bury Frank Little on the fighting ground of Butte.”
His well-tended grave is in the pauper section of Mountain View Cemetery, said Gibson.
“The Anaconda Company’s control of Butte was such that no arrests were ever made in Little’s murder. It is impossible to know for sure today, but the most likely agents of his death were members of the Butte Police Department, acting under orders from the Anaconda Company,” reads the center banner.
His headstone — which labor movement aficionados from around the world visit — reads:
“Frank Little, 1879-1917. Slain by capitalist interests for organizing and inspiring his fellow men.”