“Fred Whiteside is one of Montana’s authentic unsung heroes.”
Thus observed Great Falls Tribune reporter and columnist Frank Adams in 1980, a year after a plaque was installed in an obscure Capitol hallway, the only monument in recognition of Whiteside, who was perhaps Montana’s most courageous statesman.
Barely 20, Fred Whiteside left home in Illinois in 1878 to make the dangerous trek to Montana Territory. Using profits from buffalo hunting, Whiteside became a building contractor, constructing several early structures in Miles City.
Whiteside soon became one of Montana’s most notable builders, constructing a major silver smelting facility in Great Falls, the Hennessy Block in Butte, and the magnificent Broadwater Natatorium in Helena.
In 1891, at 34, Whiteside settled down in semi-retirement in Kalispell, to raise apples. A scientific orchard man, Whiteside prided himself in his early use of pesticides and promised to pay $500 for any worm found in his apples. He never had to pay, but watching fruit grow wasn’t a fit challenge for the likes of young Fred Whiteside. He was soon back into building, and the fine old original Montana Veterans Home he constructed in Columbia Falls still stands. He also acquired the Kalispell Bee newspaper to express his political opinions. In 1896 was elected to the Legislature.
Then began the memorable yet forgotten saga of Fred Whiteside. A Capitol Commission had been authorized to plan and construct our state Capitol. Freshman Representative Whiteside examined the plan and cost estimate and was astounded. From his contracting experience, Whiteside quickly saw that a better plan could be completed for a fraction of the proposed cost
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When Whiteside voiced his objection about the fraudulent building scheme, legislative friends of the crooked commissioners maneuvered to discredit and stop him. In the end, an informant to Whiteside who had direct knowledge of the fraudulent plan, died under mysterious circumstances, but the scheme was thwarted. Because of Fred Whiteside what is now the magnificent central part on the Capitol building was constructed for about 10 percent of the original proposed cost.
In 1898 Whiteside was elected to the State Senate. Then, state legislators elected U.S. senators. “Copper King” William Andrews Clark was determined to become a U.S. senator even if he had to bribe every member of the Legislature to do it. Whiteside dramatically exposed the bribery in front of many of the legislators who had sold their votes to Clark. Incredibly, the corrupt lawmakers brazenly expelled Whiteside as a state senator and went on to elect Clark U.S. senator.
Fundamentally a fighter, Whiteside followed Clark to Washington where he presented compelling and incriminating testimony. The result was that this time, Clark was the one who was expelled. Clark attempted a ruse to get back into the Senate which failed. Incredibly, however, with Whiteside gone, the Montana Legislature again sent Clark to the Senate two years later.
The outrageous Clark example was prominently used nationwide to bring about the Constitutional amendment for the people to directly elect U.S. senators. If not for Whiteside, Clark would never have been exposed.
Courage and integrity matter. Therefore, so does history. No other Montanan has had as great an impact on the function of U.S. government as Fred Whiteside. The next time you’re in the state Capitol building see if you can find his plaque. Then cross the street to the Montana Historical Society. There you will find an extensive file on Fred Whiteside and a trove of other printed history, wonderful Russell paintings, countless priceless artifacts, and kind and helpful staffers to guide you in your explorations of Montana’s colorful and fascinating past.
-- Bob Brown, of Whitefish, is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.