To truly understand the past, you have to hear from those who lived through it.
At least that’s what Aubrey Jaap and Clark Grant say. Japp is administrative assistant for the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives. Grant is co-founder of Butte’s low-power indie radio station KBMF.
For nearly a year, the two have been working together to collect 100 oral histories from folks from the Mining City and the surrounding areas as part of a project supported by a $30,000 matching grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.
The Butte America Foundation, the nonprofit that operates the radio station, received the grant in August of last year to produce a three-year audio project called “Verdigris.”
In addition to the oral history collection, the project involves the creation of three serial radio programs on Butte history, each produced by a different Mining City resident and KBMF DJ. That programming is already underway, and Grant says there are plans in the works to distribute the content to public and independent radio stations.
Prior to “Verdigris,” Grant spent three years helping the archives digitize and catalog hundreds of oral histories, housed on cassette tapes and other media.
The Archives is already in possession of around 500 oral histories that were part of special projects and scholarly works, so when the NEA grant came along, Grant said, the Archives immediately came to mind as a potential collaborator.
“I couldn’t think of a better (organization) to ask to partner with us,” said Grant, a former assistant production manager at Montana Public Radio and 10-year industry veteran.
So far, the collaboration between KBMF and the Archives has resulted in the collection of around 30 oral histories told from the perspectives of Mining City residents – and Grant and Jaap say they’re on the hunt for more.
Most interviewees have been over 60 years of age, but Jaap and Grant say there aren’t any special requirements to submit an oral history other than a willingness to share one’s memories from the past. She and Grant are open to hearing just about anything from both below ground and above, whether it's good or bad, heartening or ugly, historically important or minor and domestic.
“People often think they have to have some grand event that happened to them, and that’s so not the case,” said Jaap, explaining the scope of the project. “Some of my favorite stories are the day-to-day things that (interviewees) don’t even realize are really special.”
Interviews typically take place at the archives, 17 W. Quartz St., and Jaap and Grant keep the conversations pretty casual, asking interviewees about how their families arrived in the U.S. and the neighborhoods they grew up in. They ask how Butte has changed over time and where they see it headed in the future.
“I’m always curious about what people thought about the expansion of the (Berkeley Pit),” said Grant.
Since the pit's expansion required the removal of several neighborhoods, Grant noted that such perspectives are especially interesting when a person has spent "an hour idealizing" a now-lost neighborhood.
And that’s partly the point – recovering what’s been lost.
KBMF has aired excerpts from some of the histories on its program “Let’s Talk, Butte!” Those episodes are now available on the station’s website, and more will hit the airwaves over the course of the project.
One of the histories that has already aired is by Marjorie Cannon, who’s in her 90s.
Cannon describes her family’s immigration from Cornwall to the United States, describing how the slowdown of the tin mining industry in the region drove her grandfather to seek out jobs in California, South Africa, and eventually Montana.
For several years, Cannon’s grandfather traveled back and forth between Cornwall and jobs abroad while his wife and children stayed at home.
Eventually, Cannon’s grandmother had had enough, so she got on a ship with her children in tow to meet her husband in Montana.
Smelting operations were active in Butte at the time of her grandparents’ arrival to the region.
Cannon recalls that her aunt enjoyed picking flowers in Cornwall, especially daffodils and primrose, but once she got to Butte, “there wasn’t even a blade of grass.”
To make up for the lack of greenery, Cannon’s grandfather gave her aunt a cracker box, in which she planted grass and which she kept on a windowsill.
During the interview, Cannon describes a family cabin in Columbia Gardens.
“The gardens were very much a part of our lives,” she tells interviewers.
What follows is an idyllic description of sun-tanned summers spent climbing the East Ridge with her siblings.
“We’d go up the path and find the wild strawberries and go up in the mountain and find the chokecherries,” Cannon says, adding that her brother would bring a knapsack to collect rock samples and baby trees, which he planted at the family cabin.
Of the Gardens, Cannon recalls avoiding the amusement park “like the plague” on Thursdays, because that’s when children were able to attend for free.
Cannon would later become a home economics teacher in Butte, and she says that some of her students who are now grandmothers still insist on calling her by her maiden name.
“They’ll come up to me and they’ll say, ‘Ms. Roberts, you haven’t changed a bit.’ And I’ll say, 'Oh yes, there’s been lots of snow on the mountain since those days.'”
Former M&M cook Emily McLeod, meanwhile, gives Jaap and Grant a spirited interview.
In the KBMF excerpt, McLeod opens with a description of her family’s immigration from Mexico that’s befitting of a story from the Wild West, one that’s filled with spousal betrayal, poison, and revenge.
McLeod was born on Galena Street, but the family later moved to a home on Ohio Street, where they lived until the Anaconda Co. bought their house.
McLeod, who had older brothers, said she had to be tough growing up, describing herself as a “bull child.”
“Whoever chose me, I fought back,” McLeod says.
McLeod would later show her characteristic toughness when she took on a job as a cook at the M&M. At the start, she was trained by two existing M&M employees.
“They gave me a hard time, but I didn’t take their crap too much. I stayed there and I showed them I could do it,” says McLeod. “I was a good cook. I worked on graveyard, when we’d make a couple thousand dollars just on the restaurant part. That’s with three people – a cook, a waitress, and a dishwasher.”
McLeod also spoke about working with longtime M&M waitress Elsie Delmoe, who passed away in March.
“She would get me in more trouble than you would believe,” McLeod said, adding that Delmoe as a joke would sometimes tell customers that McLeod would go home with them.
“I don’t know of any waitress I ever worked with that was as good as she was,” McLeod says.
As for Jaap, she says oral histories are among her favorite things the Archives has to offer.
Scholars can sift through newspaper articles and county minutes to understand the past, she said, but to truly know what life was like, it’s best to ask those who can tell those stories firsthand.
When asked how they handle the kinds of embellishments and errors that are almost inevitable as stories are told, retold, remembered, and mis-remembered over time, Grant notes that such imperfections offer a glimpse into the culture of the past, offering insight into the way people looked at the world and into what they valued.
He noted, for example, that miners interviewed in the 1980s often recounted stories passed down from earlier generations of men who worked underground. While the facts of these stories might be questionable, they provide a connection to the past that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible.
“Undoubtedly those stories are bound to be embellished but are still a fascinating glimpse back to a time that is totally gone — to a place underground that is submerged and never to be returned to,” Grant said.