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"A Rebel Girl" - Elizabeth Gurley Flynn - "I liked Missoula and hated to leave."

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The Rebel Girl - Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890 – 1964) – “I liked Missoula and hated to leave.”

The excerpts below are from Flynn’s autobiography – The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography, My First Life (1906 – 1926) – 1973.

“I attended the grammar school, P.S. No. 9 on 138th Street. It was a decrepit old building then, with toilets in the yard . . . My teacher in an upper grade was James A. Hamilton who was studying law and later became a New York State official. He fired me with ambition to be a constitutional lawyer and drilled us so thoroughly in the U. S. Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights that I have been defending it ever since. (I have been arrested at least ten times in my lifetime and in every instance the denial of the Bill of Rights has been involved.) I joined a debating society which Mr. Hamilton had organized and took to it like a duck to water.”

Westward Ho!

It was in a spirit of high adventure that I set out in the Summer of 1909 to see my country and to meet its people. I went as far as Puget Sound and up into Canada. I traveled alone and was surrounded by men in the IWW halls, where there were only a few women members. Yet, I never had a disagreeable experience (outside of getting arrested). The IWW used to say: “Gurley is as safe with us as if she was in God’s pocket!”

The western country still had traces of the frontier. It was sparsely settled and had a natural wild beauty. All cities did not look alike as they do today, with the same chain stores and hotels, movies and illuminated advertisements, chromium fronts and cars. There were Indians, horses, cowboys, men in big wide hats, wearing lumber jackets and calked boots. Silver dollars and five-dollar gold pieces were in circulation. People were more original. They did not look alike, talk alike, think alike. From place to place there were different styles of clothing, speech and architecture. I fell in love with my country – its rivers, prairies, forests, mountains, cities and people. No one can take my love of country away from me! I felt then, as I do now, it’s a rich, fertile, beautiful land, capable of satisfying all the needs of its people. It could be a paradise on earth if it belonged to the people, not to a small owning class. I expressed all this in my speeches for socialism.

As I left Chicago, where I had lived for nearly a year, I had a sensation of excitement, which I have never lost, no matter how many trips I take over the spacious bosom of my country – whether I go by the far north route through snow and fir trees, or the southern way that takes you to palm and olive trees. Sprawled-out Chicago soon lay behind us, as we went along Lake Michigan to Milwaukee, then to Minneapolis and St. Paul, I saw the Mississippi River. On my earlier trip to the Mesabi Range, I had visited Lake Itasca, the small source of this mighty river, where it is but 12 feet wide and 18 inches deep. In my speeches this became an allegory of human progress. Leaving the Mississippi behind, the next strange sight was “the bad lands” of South Dakota, in the Black Hills – mile on mile of weird shapes, grotesque mounds of clay and sandstone. Then came the grandeur of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. On the Continental Divide, I made my first stop – Butte, Montana.

My lifetime traveling habits were conditioned in my early youth by my great desire to see all I could of my country. Trains were slow in those days. In spring there were floods. In winter there were snow slides. Sometimes yesterday’s overland express pulled in today. But even now I prefer a slow train that makes plenty of stops en route so you can get out a few minutes and look around – no mad rushing streamliner with a blur outside the window for me, or fast flying airplane with the earth out of sight, riding on cream-puff clouds. Except to go over oceans, I do not prefer a plane. I love to look out of train windows at night to see the low hanging stars and the Big Dipper, or to glimpse Mt. Hood or Mt. Shasta, or the disappearing ghost of the Great Salt Lake. I like to pull into stations in remote places, where signboards say so many miles from Chicago, so many miles to San Francisco. For short trips, I prefer a bus where one meets the simple good people of our country from whom I learn so much in friendly conversation.

Butte was my main destination. I came as the honored guest speaker to an all-day annual affair of the miners, celebrating the founding of the Western Federation of Miners in 1898. Their Butte local was No. 1. They put me up in “the best hotel in town,” where I had a room and parlor with a balcony overlooking the main street. A famous speculator who fought the Anaconda Company, named Heinz, had once occupied it several years before, and used the balcony to receive the cheers of the populace, which were predominantly Irish. A man named Paddy Flynn was now president of the union. Butte is situated nearly a mile above sea level and should have been a healthy place. Instead it was a blighted city. The mines were in the very heart of the city, which has grown up around them.

A practice then prevailed to burn the sulfur out of the copper in great piles near the mines before it was sent to the smelters. The poisoned fumes pervaded the city and killed all vegetation. Not a blade of grass, a flower, a tree, could be seen in this terrible city. A sprawly, ugly place, with dusty shacks for the miners, it had an ever-expanding cemetery out on the flat lands. The city of the dead, mostly young miners, was almost as large as the living population, even in this very young city. “Human life was the cheapest by-product of this great copper camp,” wrote Bill Haywood of his visit there in 1898. After years of civic effort the Anaconda Copper Company was forced to abandon the ore burning at the mines and the ore was shipped to the smelters. People have nursed the foliage so Butte looks more like a human habitation today. But its gutted landscape is permanently scarred and defaced by the ravages of the mines.

Before I left Butte they gave me $100 (a fabulous amount in those days) for Vincent St. John. They wanted him to use it to go to the next convention of the Western Federation of Miners, where they figured there was a chance of getting the Federation back into the IWW. They gave me as a personal memento of the occasion a beautiful gold locket with a replica of a miner’s sifting pan, with nuggets, pick and shovel around it, reminiscent of the early days when gold mining predominated. It is one of my most precious possessions. Whenever I return to Butte I take it with me and it is always open sesame to the miner’s hearts. President Flynn and a committee also escorted me down into a mine. We donned miners’ caps and overalls to make the trip. The mine was so deep that the earth was actually hot. They also took me through a smelter, where a friendly worker ran an iron bar an inch or two into the molten copper and then cooled and hardened it, so I had another odd souvenir which served as an ash tray in my home in New York for years afterward.

THE MIGRATORY WORKERS

From Butte I went to Kalispell, Montana, where the IWW was leading a lumber strike. It took about 18 hours to go from Butte over the Continental Divide of the Rockies and around the mountains. It is in the northwest section of the state. I arrived there at about 3 a.m. There was no one to meet me at the station. The whole town was sleeping. But a railroad worker said: “Are you Gurley Flynn? Mrs. Heslewood said to go to the hotel,” which he pointed out nearby. There I found a room waiting for me. Fred Heslewood, a giant of a man, had been one of the top organizers of the Western Federation of Miners. He was there in charge of the strike of timber workers. He was greatly embarrassed by the presence of an IWW musical band which had set up camp in town, like gypsies. They had red uniforms and went out on the street corners like the Salvation Army.

Their leader, named Walsh, had previously organized the so-called “Overalls Brigade” to go to the 1908 Chicago Convention. There they had contributed to expelling De Leon and he had dubbed them “The Bummery.” Heslewood was able to bring the strike to a successful conclusion and he and his wife went on to Spokane with me. The band traveled around a while longer and then split up. They were workers and preferred the camps to a minstrel’s life. That they could descend upon a strike, and the organizer there had no control over them, indicated one of the fatal weaknesses of the IWW. It was “rank-and-file-ism” carried to excess, which I saw in many later strikes.

I remained in Spokane the rest of the summer, speaking three and four times a week in the IWW hall to an ever-changing audience of migratory workers. We had a custom in those days to send a speaker into a district for an indefinite period – until the speaker was worn out or the local audiences got tired. It was a good plan, for both the speaker and for the organization. Instead of being a fly-by-night lecturer, voicing generalities, one was compelled to study and deal with the conditions confronting the workers in that area and the remedies the organization proposed, and to speak about these matters. I came to know the people as they really were, their strengths and weaknesses. The speaker had to speak in a manner to interest people to whom he was not a passing novelty. It was hard on the lazy ones – speech orators – of which we had a few.

I learned a great deal about the lives of the migratory workers. The majority were American-born Eastern youth of adventurist spirit, who had followed Horace Greeley’s advice: “Go West, young man and grow up with the country!” Out there they became floaters, without homes or families. The IWW hall was their only social center, where they were able to park their blankets and suitcases, take a shower, or – more important – “boil up” their clothes and blankets in order to delouse themselves. Here they discussed their grievances and exchanged experiences which led to placing some particularly bad lumber camps on a blacklist. Here were lectures, discussions, and even parties.

I recall one Christmas the IWW in Tacoma, Washington, had a beautiful tree dedicated to “Fellow-worker Jesus” with many of his sayings about workers and common people decorating the hall. Ministers came from local churches to see for themselves how the IWW honored the Carpenter of Nazareth and the Fisherman of Galilee. They came to criticize but were impressed with the simplicity and sincerity of the tribute.

The bad conditions in the lumber camps of those days were notorious. The food was poor, the sleeping bunks dirty and crowded, sanitary facilities inadequate. The working hours were long, speedup prevailed, there were many accidents. Life was dreary and monotonous, the lengthy seasons out in the woods were broken only by July 4th and the Christmas holidays. The IWW carried on a crusade against drink. Many of these lonely men came to town with a substantial sum in accumulated wages. Before they bought much needed shoes and clothing, they were “rolled” (robbed) in a saloon or house of prostitution and thrown out in the gutter penniless.

FREE SPEECH IN MONTANA

The IWW organizers were volunteers who worked on the jobs for wages. They carried small suitcases with supplies. Thousands of dollars were collected for initiations, dues, literature, subs, etc. The percentage defaulted was amazingly low. If an organizer was fired by the boss, he moved on to another job and somebody came shortly after to take over the first one. The language of the Western IWW was picturesque, earthy and salty. The street meetings often conflicted with the Salvation Army. Peaceable arrangements to follow them were finally made in most places. The IWW developed the use of songs as a medium to hold the crowd and for propaganda purposes. Many of them were written to religious airs, others to popular tunes. Some were written by Joe Hill, with original words and music. They were collected together in various editions of the little Red Song Book and sold in millions of copies. They are now part of the folklore of America.

The life of the migratory workers was isolated from the stationary workers in the cities. They seldom left the skid row areas of the various cities. They were not welcome “uptown.” They traveled by freight cars. Their work was hard and laborious. They were strong and hardy, tanned and weather-beaten by summer suns and winter snows. They regarded the city workers as stay-at-home softies – “scissor-bills.” They referred to a wife as “the ball and chain.” But the free-speech fights and mass strikes helped to break all this down, when support from other workers became a necessity.

Jack Jones came to organize in Missoula, Montana, in the Fall of 1908, sent there by St. John. I was happy to rejoin him. It was the first and only time we actually lived and worked together for any length of time. My first participation in an IWW free speech fight and my second arrest occurred in this little place, not an industrial town but a gateway to many lumber camps and mining areas. It was surrounded by mountains, the air clear and invigorating. It was a clean and attractive little place, the site of a State University.

We held street meetings on one of the principal corners and drew large crowds, mainly the migratory workers who flocked in and out of town. We had rented as an IWW hall a large roomy space in the basement of the leading theater and were rapidly recruiting members into the organization. The storekeepers objected to our meetings, especially the employment agencies, which we attacked mercilessly. Under their pressure the City Council passed an ordinance making street speaking unlawful. We decided to defy this ordinance as unconstitutional, a violation of the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech. Only five or six of us were in town at that time. One was Frank Little, who was lynched in Butte, Montana, eight years later, during World War I. When we tried to hold meetings, two were arrested the first night and dismissed with a warning not to speak again. Four were arrested the second night, including my husband Jones, Frank Little and a stranger to us, Herman Tucker. He was employed by the U. S. Forestry Department which had an office in a building overlooking the corner. He rushed downstairs when he saw a young logger dragged off the platform for attempting to read the Declaration of Independence. Tucker took it over, jumped on the platform and continued to read until he was arrested. (A few years later this young man, an aviator of World War I, lost his life in San Francisco Bay while distributing “Hands Off Russia” leaflets from the air over the city.) Our Missoula free speechers were sentenced to 15 days in the county jail. Those of us who were left planned the mass tactics which were advocated in free speech fights, of which Missoula was one of the first examples.

We sent out a call to all “foot-loose rebels to come at once – to defend the Bill of Rights.” A steady stream of IWW members began to flock in, by freight cars – on top, inside and below. As soon as one speaker was arrested, another took his place. The jail was soon filled and the cell under the firehouse was turned into an additional jail. The excrement from the horses leaked through and made this place so unbearable that the IWW prisoners protested by song and speech, night and day. They were directly across the street from the city’s main hotel and the guests complained of the uproar. The court was nearby and its proceedings were disrupted by the noise. People came to listen to the hubbub, until finally all IWWs were taken back to the county jail.

The fire department turned the hose on one of the meetings, but the townspeople protested vigorously against this after several people were hurt. College professors at the university took up the cudgels for free speech, especially when another woman, Mrs. Edith Frenette, and I were arrested. We were treated with kid gloves by the sheriff and his wife, although my husband had been badly beaten up in the jail by this same Sheriff Graham. Senator La Follette spoke at a public forum in the theater over our hall. One of our members gave him a copy of a fighting paper defending our struggle, the Montana Socialist, published by a woman, Mrs. Hazlett, in Helena, Montana. He made a favorable comment in his speech. Butte Miners Union No. 1, the biggest local in Montana, passed a strong resolution condemning the local officials for “an un-American and unjust action in preventing men and women from speaking on the streets of Missoula” and commending “our gallant fight for free speech.” They sent it to the Missoula papers, stating that my arrest had caused them to investigate the matter and adopt the resolution.

There were some humorous aspects to our efforts. Not all the IWW workers were speakers. Some suffered from stage fright. We gave them copies of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. They would read along slowly, with one eye hopefully on the cop, fearful that they would finish before he would arrest them. One man was being escorted to jail, about two blocks away, when a couple of drunks got into a pitched battle. The cop dropped him to arrest them. When they arrived at the jail, the big strapping IWW was tagging along behind. The cop said in surprise: “What are you doing here?” The prisoner retorted: “What do you want me to do – go back there and make another speech?”

Eventually, the townspeople got tired of the unfavorable publicity and excitement. The taxpayers were complaining of the cost to the little city, demanding it be reduced. An amusing tussle then ensued between the IWW and the authorities as to who should feed our army. We held our meeting early so the men would go to jail before supper. The police began to turn them out the next morning before breakfast, forcing us to provide rations for the day. Finally, the men refused to leave the jail although the door was thrown wide open. They had been arrested. They demanded a trial, and individual trials and jury trials at that! At last one man “broke solidarity.” He was married and he sneaked out to see his wife. But when he returned the door was locked. He clamored to get in – he did not want his fellow workers to think he was a quitter. The cop said: “You’re out. Now stay out!” The townsfolk gathered around and roared with laughter.

Finally, the authorities gave up. All cases were dropped, and we were allowed to resume our meetings. We returned to our peaceful pursuit of agitating and organizing the IWW. I liked Missoula and hated to leave. The distant purple mountains seemed close at hand. The air was clear and invigorating. Our second IWW hall was a small cabin on the river bank. We used the front room for an office and had a bedroom and kitchen in the back. When Jones went out to the camps, a daughter of one of the college professors stayed with me. I could never hear enough of the life and adventure of the lumberjacks and miners who dropped in regularly. But Spokane called me to their free speech fight. “When loud and clear the call I hear, I must arise and go!” I went in December 1909, although I was again pregnant. I expected Jones would come later.

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 15 November 2017 18:19