Extractive wisdom 

Words from a historian who helped make history

Lest Harry Fritz ever be tarred with the brush of Ivory Tower academic, he can point to a record of concrete action which has tangibly changed the state of Montana. Now the head of the history department at the University of Montana, Fritz served in the Legislature from 1985 to 1993. As a result of his bills, Montana now has venerable historical monuments like the Daly Mansion in Hamilton, a Martin Luther King Day holiday, and a drinking age of 21.

Fritz is quick to point out, though, that with the national tide turning to an older drinking age, his bill served his college-age constituents by grandfathering in current 19- and 20-year-olds.

“It pissed off all the bartenders,” Fritz says, chuckling. “They had to keep track of two dates.”

Harry Fritz’s experience making Montana history and his 20-plus years of teaching it are synthesized in the new edition of his book, Montana, Land of Contrast. The book, which first came out in 1984, is a lively and readable, fully illustrated history of the state. It combines incisive historical analysis with colorful stories and vignettes. Perhaps the book’s most unique feature is the sense that nothing in it is really past, that the state’s history is directly and inextricably tied to its present.

“People have different interpretations of history, but not in Montana,” says Fritz.

The great Montana historians, from Michael Malone and Richard Roeder to Fritz’s UM predecessor Ross Toole, have all worked around the same central concept: Extraction of national resources by powerful outside interests.

“It’s easy to draw the thread from the past to the present in Montana,” Fritz says.

In his book, Fritz uses the framing device of contrast to travel easily between past and present. In discussing the east/west divide in the state, he begins in the 19th century, when eastern Montana was part of the Louisiana Purchase territory, and western Montana was part of Oregon Country, claimed by several nations. Eastern Montana attracted a subdued breed of mostly Republican, Lutheran homesteaders, while western Montana drew in waves of Democratic, Irish, Catholic, male miners. The cultural legacy remains today.

“Rural, Protestant eastern Montanans still look askance at their polyglot, urban, western counterparts,” Fritz writes.

The balance of academic analysis and dynamic storytelling carries the book through the various stages of the state’s history. Fritz explains how Lewis and Clark were “the Enlightenment’s advance agents in Montana” and then goes on to tell how Clark was once mistaken for an elk and shot in the seat of his pants. Prohibition is described as a watershed moment in the history of the state’s self-government, but we also learn that 24-hour bars were such an institution in turn-of-the-century Montana that Butte tavern keepers symbolically flushed their front door keys down the toilet.

The 20th century, Fritz writes, marked a stark change of direction for the state. Symbolically, the Fort Peck Dam, the state’s largest New Deal project, “stitched together Montana’s past and Montana’s future—a past characterized by isolation, individualism, and recurrent cycles of dreams and despair, and a future marked by a close, interdependent relationship with the nation and its government.”

Fritz thinks the book’s strongest parts are its most recent. Indeed, it is remarkably up to date, even covering the 2000 elections and census. Certainly his thesis comes through more strongly as the book nears the end of the 20th century. After 30 years of economic depression in the state, he says, it is time for a new approach.

“My argument is that you can’t talk about Montana in terms of the traditional extractive industries, mining, logging, agriculture, and energy,” Fritz says. He bolsters this argument in the last section of the book with a focus on demographic changes. Once again, the east/west divide becomes crucial, as the population continues to rise in the mountainous west and fall in the east. Scaling back environmental protections and catering to old-fashioned industry, he points out, runs counter to the demographics.

“One hundred thousand people moved here in the ’90s, and not a one of them moved here to get a job in the mines. They moved here because of environmental protections, not because we’re cutting them. But the governor and the Republicans in the Legislature can’t see it. They’re all corporate lackeys.”

Among his words of advice for the state’s leaders: Study your history, and look at the Montana Power Company, which got out of natural resource extraction and entered into telecommunications, a field which Fritz believes should be the state’s new focus.

“The state should be doing everything it can to hook up Montana and to preserve its environmental quality,” Fritz says. “That’s what people come here for.”

The very end of the book is a rather discordant section of business profiles entitled “Chronicles of Leadership.” If it seems like Fritz didn’t write them, it’s because he didn’t. In fact, he hasn’t even read them. The company histories paid the way for the book’s first edition in 1984. They’re back for the new edition, and Fritz says once again he had nothing to do with them. He laughs them off as a way to finance the publication, and as “an old Montana tradition.”

The last part of the book that Fritz had a hand in focuses heavily on the deregulation of Montana’s energy industry. Deregulation, he writes, cost Montana much of its industrial base. He quotes Cal Sweet of Kalispell Electric who says that “In modern Montana history, there is one defining moment, and that defining moment is deregulation.” As timely as the section is, Fritz notes that the crisis seems to be subsiding with energy prices falling again in recent months. The Montana Power Company has said residential power rates will probably go up by only 20 percent next year, instead of 50 percent.

“So hell,” he says, shrugging, “I’m already out of date.”

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