Carry that weight 

Butte’s women in the spotlight

One story found in Motherlode, an anthology of women’s oral histories in 20th century Butte, begins:

< i>In the fall of 1910, Caroline McGill, one of the first women pathologists in the country, decides to leave her comfortable position at the University of Missouri to board a train for Butte, Montana. She writes to her parents: “I’m making the biggest fool mistake to go to Butte…I have no business howling for it’s all my own fault that I’m going. But it’s all done and I have to let her rip.”

Let her rip she did. In less than two years, McGill proved instrumental in the establishment of a TB sanitarium and, in the process, decided to dedicate her life and medical career to the families of Butte, where mine-related illnesses and accidents kept life expectancy low and poverty high. For every miner who perished—whether in the Speculator Mine fire of 1917 where 165 miners lost their lives or in the 1918 flu outbreak—a family was left behind. Seeing such devastation up close, McGill decided to return to Johns Hopkins University for two years in 1912 to complete a medical degree. When she returned to Butte, she set up the first successful female medical practice and later purchased an office building for the express purpose of relieving her of the need to collect payment from her poorer patients. She would continue to practice until 1956.

While Dr. McGill administered to patients in 1920, a 10-year-old girl left home in Sasso Ferrato, Italy, bound for Butte. Lydia Micheletti knew she was traveling to Montana to meet up with the father who’d left for a mining camp in Elkhorn when she was only an infant, but she didn’t know that just three years later she would find herself manning the stoves at an eatery and gambling joint during Prohibition’s heyday. In her early 20s, Lydia embarked on a further gutsy move for a single immigrant girl: she became business partners with legendary Butte boxer and restaurateur Sonny O’Day. When their lease expired in 1946, Lydia bought her own restaurant. Lydia’s became a landmark in Butte, later added a second location, and continued on after Lydia’s death at age 79.

In a preface, the editors of Motherlode: Legacies of Women’s Lives and Labors in Butte, Montana, Ellen Crain and Janet Finn, explain that the book draws its title from a key mining term. The mother lode (written as two words in its original usage) is a region’s main vein of ore, or, more generally, an abundant or rich source. “We have chosen the single word—Motherlode—in the title to represent the fusion of gender, labor, and abundant resource, which lies at the heart of this book,” the editors write. “In the stories that follow we bring that abundance to the surface to be recognized and honored.”

More to the point, Crain and Finn sought to compile a collection of women’s stories that goes beyond the stereotype normally found in Butte myth.

“One is hard pressed to find fiction or history of Butte that does not feature a feisty widow who feeds, houses, and mothers scores of grown men and who has a soft spot for the boy in the man,” they write in the book’s introduction. “Likewise, Butte’s notorious red light district has been the subject of endless storytelling that usually features at least one tough, business minded madam with a heart of gold…Both images romanticize womanhood rather than reflect a more complicated reality.”

In a recent interview, Finn, a professor of social work at the University of Montana in Missoula who grew up in Butte, maintained that the female characters of traditional folklore idealize “icons of womanhood. Essentially, those stories are still about women aiding the men…they’re not about the women themselves.” Crain, a Butte native and director of the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, says the stories found in Motherlode comprise “an untold story…Butte is a pretty masculine place and the women get invisible fairly quickly. They simply don’t shout out from the history books.”

The stories in Motherlode illustrate a diverse and complex history of women who floundered, fought and flourished as much as and often more than their male counterparts. Furthermore, many of these stories begin in the latter part of the 20th century, as distinct from Butte folklore that tends to highlight the first 20 years of the 1900s. Finn explains that “most of what’s said about Butte stops mid-century,” but, as Crain points out, “when the mines closed, the men left town and the women stayed and went to work.”

Finn and Crain, who both attended Butte Central High School, came together when Finn was researching a separate project at the Butte-Silver Bow Archives. In 2003, they collaborated to “untap the wealth” of women’s stories in Butte, turning to boxes of oral histories stored in the archives, talking to women, and, finally, putting a call out to the public for stories.

“Here were these silent voices waiting to be heard,” says Finn. Motherlode lends those voices a long overdue ear.

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