By Caroline Kurtz
Throughout her career as a social work professor and in writings about the history of Butte, where she grew up, UM Professor Janet Finn repeatedly has explored, captured and given voice to the often-overlooked stories of women and their unique contributions to society.
In her most recent book, “Mining Childhood: Growing up in Butte, 1900-1960,” published in December by the Montana Historical Society, Finn turns her attention to children and what childhood once was like on “The Richest Hill on Earth.”
“I was curious whether we would get a different sense of Butte by using this lens of childhood,” she says, “and also whether we might get a different sense of childhood in general from looking at this particular example.”
“Mining Childhood” is written for the general reader, as well as anyone interested in labor or local history. This book, Finn says, more than any other of her works, really is about listening to people’s memories of their experiences growing up and paying close attention to the child’s view.
“It’s easy to assume that we as adults ‘know best’ about childhood and that we know the ‘best thing’ for children,” she says. “Yet, obviously, this is not always true.”
She began her research with archival accounts, spending the summers of 2009 and 2010 blissfully cellphone- and email-free among the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives in the Mining City.
There she found previously recorded oral histories, reading them carefully for specific childhood stories and the ways in which people remembered their youth. Those histories led her to other documents from institutions such as the Soroptimist’s Home and the Paul Clark Home for Children, as well as newspaper accounts beginning in the early 20th century. She began to see common themes emerge, such as the significance of ethnic and neighborhood identities, how children worked and played and their insightful awareness of “good times versus bad” — both for their families and for the community as a whole.
The early 1900s were a progressive time for children, Finn says, during which many present-day institutions developed around compulsory public education, youth safety and justice, and childhood enrichment, as embodied in boys’ clubs, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls and the YMCA. And Butte was something of a test case for these emerging social systems and watched closely by the rest of the state.
“You really get a sense from newspaper accounts for how much was going on then relating to children,” she says.
Ultimately, Finn combined this research with about 20 new interviews she conducted with people between 70 and 95 years old with a specific focus on their childhood memories. She met about a dozen at the Belmont Senior Center, where she would eat lunch and listen informally at first, later conducting in-depth oral histories.
“We think that Butte was always about copper and the Anaconda Company,” Finn says. “But it was really so much more. It was also about working hard to give a leg up and a better life to children. There’s no denying, however, the powerful presence and impact of mining.”
The personal memories that narrate and carry “Mining Childhood” capture children’s accounts of strikes, the outbreak of Spanish flu, World War II and other social upheavals of the day. Agitation between miners and the Anaconda Copper Mining Company was ever-present, and children felt the conflict on a personal level.
One source, for example, recounted the particularly violent strike of 1946, when she was 5. Her father, not a miner, had a job in plant maintenance that required him to cross the picket line. Finn’s source recalled her home being surrounded by an angry mob that broke windows and spray-painted the outside. She described her uncomprehending fear as neighbors she knew and trusted turned on her family. Her older sister suffered even more at school. She remembered being taken to an aunt and uncle’s house while the confrontation was going on, then having to live for several months in an apartment in Uptown Butte while the damage was repaired.
Yet afterward, when the family finally moved back home, a neighborhood group brought toys and gifts to try to make amends.
“Children almost always have a more nuanced interpretation of what is going on,” says Finn, adding that their stories speak directly from the heart and capture the poignancy of a complicated situation.
According to Finn’s accounts, children very much were aware of the pattern of good times, followed by bad times, followed by good again. Throughout the memories that people shared with her runs a sense of pride in the uniqueness of Butte as a hardscrabble place where dirty and dangerous work was done to provide important material to the nation. Kids growing up there took particular pride in that and in navigating the unusual cultural and physical landscape that was Butte.
Finn says that one of the first things people talk about in remembering childhood is their sense of the different ethnic identities and neighborhoods and how they learned to understand and appreciate the differences. Mostly this happened through play, which took place amid unsafe mining structures and omnipresent machinery and which children took to be their rightful realm.
Above all, people remember stories of their active participation in the success of the family. Even though unions ensured good wages for miners, it was an extremely difficult way to make a living and every little bit of extra income was important. Children as young as 9 found ingenious ways to make money, which went into family coffers.
Peddling newspapers, setting up pins in the bowling alley and collecting, cleaning and filling miners’ lunch buckets were standard occupations for children. More enterprising, perhaps, was how one man remembered parlaying a keen ear for accents into learning the songs of specific Irish counties, then finding the bars patronized by those men and singing the particular “come all ye’s” that had the most meaning, which often translated to tearful, grateful tips. Or the lad who learned to play the accordion and entertained patrons in a neighborhood bar until 2 a.m., then was escorted safely home by his father.
The stories in “Mining Childhood” provide firsthand accounts of the remarkable resilience and ingenuity of children, who are “capable of much richer social, economic and political lives than we typically give them credit for,” Finn says.
Whether in stories of Butte childhoods or of gender oppression and globalization in the Americas, one thing in Finn’s research is primary: letting individual stories truly be told.
“It shows respect to let people tell their own versions,” she says.
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