No trip is complete without a book or two-meticulously researched and preferably adventurous-to give a sense of wherever you visit. If you’re visiting Butte, then Ivan Doig’s Work Song fits the ticket. If the polar vortex has you feeling like you never want to leave your house again, well, Work Song can entertain you there too.
The book’s narrator, smooth-talking Morris Morgan, arrives in Butte in 1919 with little concept of the city beyond the vague propaganda promise of the “Richest Hill on Earth.” He quickly finds that in a town where the moderate Unions, the socialist International Workers of the World and the corporate Anaconda Company constantly battle for control, it is impossible not to take sides. Even showing up can embroil you in the rough politics of the city. Morrie’s smooth tongue and quick wits get him into as many scrapes as they get him out of and as we follow his adventures we also receive a delightfully entertaining primer into the culture and history of Butte. Throughout the narrative, Doig weaves in details of Butte-the hope of the Hill, the blatant corruption, the brutal working conditions, the boozing, gambling, and prostitution-that have made the Butte heyday famously infamous. There are few things more satisfying than visiting a place you’ve read about, and Doig’s beautifully described city easily entwines with the Butte of today. One almost expects to bump into his colorful characters while wandering the hilly streets of town.
Things to do while reading the book:
Visit Butte. Take the Old Trolley No. 1 for a tour of Butte history. The Mineral Museum, World Museum of Mining, and the Dumas Victorian Brothel Museum all have displays that will help you understand the book. Or, wander through the streets, marveling at the magnificent turn-of-the-century architecture. Doig writes that Butte looked “as if bits of Chicago’s State Street or New York’s Fifth Avenue had been crated up and shipped west.”
Visit Deer Lodge. In the book, Sam Sandison owned a ranch north of Butte. In reality, the best-known ranch in the region was the one that Conrad Kohrs bought from Johnny Grant in 1866. The Grant-Kohrs Ranch of today is a fifteen hundred acre interactive National Historic Site that illustrates the development of Montana agriculture from the 1850s to the 1960s. The land of the modern ranch formed the headquarters of Con Kohrs’ ten million acre fiefdom.
Read Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman. I know I’ve already recommended it (Nov 1), but I’ll do it again. While Morrie tells the story of Butte through the eyes of the workers, the first quarter of this New York Times Bestseller tracks the rise of W.A. Clark, one of Montana’s “Copper Kings” and most powerful men.
Read Forty Years on the Frontier by Granville Stuart. A quintessential Montana pioneer, Stuart tried his hand at just about everything, from trapping to prospecting to cattle ranching. He was even Butte’s librarian for a time. Doig based the unforgettable character of Samuel S. Sandison, including a dark and mysterious page of his past, on Granville Stuart.