Butte book brings history to life through postcards

By: - July 26, 2021 8:46 am

Photo of miners featured on the cover of book featuring Butte postcards. Butte was known as “The Richest Hill on Earth.” (Courtesy Arcadia Publishers)

Maybe no other Montana place or subject has had more written about it than Butte. There are dozens of books on it from the recipes of the once-ethnically separated neighborhoods to the underground warfare in the mines.

For all the books that have been written on the subject of Butte and its history, there’s one that was oddly absent – a collection of Butte postcards, something that Arcadia publishers have produced across America, often in towns smaller or less significant than the one that gave the world “the richest hill on earth.”

Ken Hamlin, an avid postcard historian, along with husband-wife team, Terry and Martha Lonner, have authored the book which tells the town’s history through its postcards.

Simply titled, “Butte” in the Postcard Series History, Arcadia has just recently released the title.

“I thought it was strange that no one had done one on Butte,” Hamlin told the Daily Montana. “Because Butte really does come of age in the golden era of postcards.”

Postcards, as Hamlin said, were the social media of the day, letting folks know where a loved one was, and what they were seeing – not so unlike Facebook or Instagram.

Hamlin had more than 800 postcards from Butte – and those are just the postcards that he knew about or had collected. Like so many places, postcards were popular for nearly a century and could be found at motels, diners, dime-stores and landmarks.

“It’s always a little intimidating writing something about Butte, and writing something different,” Hamlin said.

However, for a place that is so proud of its history and mindful of its past, Butte made perfect sense. Many of the postcards feature scenes that are no longer possible – like men and mules in the underground mines, Columbia Gardens, the state’s version of Disneyland built by copper king William Andrews Clark, or even parades stretching for blocks during Labor Day.

While many images curated in books and libraries feature official portraits of building or leaders, postcards feature moments in time, snapshots of everyday life. Some of the postcards feature street scenes, and one features a 1958 Christmas Greeting from Mike Mansfield, who would go on to be the longest serving Senate majority leader in U.S. History.

Hamlin said postcards can be a valuable historical and research tool as historians try to piece together how a place evolved.

“Think about how fast things are changing in Gallatin,” Hamlin said.

One of the biggest challenges was deciding what to include. With more than 800 to choose from, plus a mountain of history, winnowing the photo captions to just 50 to 75 words proved just as hard as deciding which images to include.

While Butte’s identity as a mining town is uniform, Hamlin said the postcards show a diverse, dynamic community that was more than just mining.

“I think that it accentuates or reiterates the diversity of Butte in the people lived there and even the diversity of architecture in it. It’s really unique for a mountain town,” Hamiln said.

For example, the Hirbour Tower was just the second skyscraper west of the Mississippi build with structural steel. There was a training school for dogs in Butte, as well as being home to “Luigi’s one-man Band.”

Terry said the goal was to show postcards that hadn’t been seen before.

Martha, who grew up in Butte and whose grandmother had immigrated to Butte, said that she didn’t fully appreciate the area’s history until she was an adult.

“When you’re raised in an area, you don’t appreciate the area’s history because you’re just a part of it,” she said.

She remembers her grandmother working inside the old Woolworth building, making pasties by the hundreds for the men heading off to work in the mines.

“I think what this shows is that folks were proud of their work and they had a work ethic,” Terry said. “Even the newspaper delivery boys had their own union.”

Often postcards photographed a street scene which only becomes more valuable as time goes on.

“These street scenes tell a lot more than you realize,” Martha said. “There are music halls, churches and they’re there in the background.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.