Researchers bring back Heinze biography

Zena Beth McGlashan, left, and Lindsay Lambrecht Mulcahy worked together to reissue a long out-of-print biography of F. Augustus Heinze and add a new afterword on its author, Sarah McNelis.

On a recent morning in the office she’s occupied for 23 years on the ground floor of the Carpenters Union Hall, Zena Beth McGlashan spoke passionately about the flaws in a 50-year-old book.

There are the blank flyleaves and the red type on the cover that’s prone to fading.

“It doesn’t say who it’s about,” McGlashan noted. “He’s not even mentioned on the cover.”

The book is “Copper King at War.” Its subject is the towering and often vilified F. Augustus Heinze. Its author was a longtime Butte schoolteacher named Sarah McNelis. And despite its cosmetic flaws, McGlashan was adamant about the merits of what lies between the book’s covers.

“The importance of this book,” McGlashan said, “is that the story of Butte is incomplete without it.”

And if prices accurately reflect demand, McGlashan isn’t the book’s only admirer. In fact, it was watching the price of used copies soar — and a desire to make the book more affordable and accessible — that first motivated McGlashan to begin pursuing a reprint of the book last year.

Now that reprint is a reality. And McGlashan has taken the opportunity to ensure the flaws of the first two editions, which were printed in 1968 and 1969, are corrected.

The book is still called “Copper King at War,” but that title now has second billing on the new paperback cover to a more straightforward name: “The Biography of F. Augustus Heinze.”

And McGlashan has arranged for another telling cover change: Sarah McNelis is now identified in all caps as “The Watchman’s Daughter.”

It’s a designation that McNelis herself isn’t known to have applied to herself, but it is indeed accurate. And, according to McGlashan, McNelis’s father’s promotion to watchman of the Lexington Mine in 1933 was key to the author’s ability to compose her book.

Though McNelis was a college student in Kansas at the time her parents first moved into the watchman’s house at 1402 N. Main St., she lived there too after graduating in 1933 and taking a teaching job at Girls Central in her hometown.

There, McNelis found “thrown hodge-podge much old papers magazines, canceled checks, personal letters” and, crucially, “telegrams damp with mold and scattered separately,” according to the introduction to the master’s thesis she wrote at the University of Montana.

While a fire consumed much of the rooms, what McNelis discovered there would help form the basis for a much more comprehensive store of “Heinze lore,” as she called it, that she gradually grew and refined into her thesis.

After cramming her post-graduate studies into some 13 summers between semesters of school teaching and after receiving expansive dictated notes from Heinze’s brother Otto, McNelis finished her thesis in 1947.

Though she made some efforts to publish in book form what she knew was an important biographical work on one of the major figures in turn-of-the-20th-century American mining and finance, those efforts were not successful until 1968, when the eminent University of Montana historian K. Ross Toole asked to publish the thesis as the first release from the then-brand new University of Montana Press.

According to McGlashan, “It’s an odd book because they didn’t know what they were doing at the university press.”

While McNelis was thrilled to finally see her book in print, McGlashan says she didn’t make “a cent” from it.

Though she didn't write another book, McNelis remained in Butte, continued to teach, was active in the teachers union, pursued post-graduate studies at various institutions, volunteered with the World Museum of Mining, and otherwise kept busy until her death in 2003. Soon after, the man who had served as her and her sister Mary’s handyman and caretaker, Harold Walker, delivered boxes containing her papers to the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives.

And it was there that McGlashan and Lindsay Lambrecht Mulcahy, a curator at the WMM and McGlashan’s research assistant for the project, began digging through those boxes last year, as they sought to reissue McNelis’s book.

Now, with financial support from the Friends of the Butte Archives, the reissue has been released, with an in-depth afterword by McGlashan called “The Watchman’s Daughter.”

Asked why she and Mulcahy pushed so hard to bring the biography back, McGlashan offered a straightforward assessment: “It’s the 50th anniversary of the book, and it’s written by a woman, and it’s brilliant.”

And Ellen Crain, the director of the Archives, praised McGlashan’s contribution to a book she agrees is of great value, calling it the “definitive biography” of Heinze.

“I think Zena Beth really did a great job with that ‘Watchman’s Daughter’ (afterword),” Crain said. “I think it adds a lot of depth to the original manuscript. I think it’s an important piece.”

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