In Montana there were four “major” (by Montana standards) newspapers in the state in the time of Joseph Kinsey Howard (1906-1951): The Billings Gazette, The Missoulian, the (Butte) Montana Standard, and the Helena Independent Record. They were collectively known as the “Copper Collar,” since they were owned by Anaconda Copper. That company operated the Berkeley Pit in Butte, one of the largest copper mines in North America.
It was said that if you wanted to hold office in Montana, you needed support of these newspapers, ergo Anaconda Copper ruled the state. Since that company was owned in large part by the Rockefeller’s, Montana was just another branch of that family’s holdings, a resource colony.
Those same newspapers are now owned by Lee Enterprises, and the assumption is that the Copper Collar was removed. Don’t bet on it. The odds more likely that hidden hands in control behind the scenes took a handoff, and that nothing really changed. One can still feel the heavy and hidden hand of censorship in that state – if one is paying attention.
I cannot say for sure that Joseph Kinsey Howard was an iconoclast, or whether his famous 1943 work, Montana, High, Wide and Handsome is just a limited hangout. It has been a long time since I read it. It was said that during the Copper Collar days, this book had to be sold under the counter in the books stores. Maybe.
However, the book was an eye-opener for me as it described with delightful prose the underlying corruption that was (is) Montana. In those days it might have been less hidden, as when railroad baron James Hill seduced homesteaders to Montana by use of slick advertising. By his work and that of others, 93 million acres, 80 percent of which was unfit for crop agriculture, came into private hands. Most of them would seek greener pastures, and the small homesteads would be largely consolidated into our major farms and ranches. Converting public land to private is a difficult task, these days the 1872 Mining Law and land swaps the only avenues I know of. The Homestead acts achieved the same purpose, putting our public lands in wealthy hands by a circuitous route.
Howard also discusses William A. Clark, who openly handed out envelopes of cash on the floor of the Montana legislature to buy himself a U. S. Senate seat. (In those days, U.S. Senators were appointed by state legislatures rather than elected.) But honestly, have things changed that much? Jon Tester was reelected to the U.S. Senate in 2012 by benefit of as much as $2 million in what we now call “dark money,” and which Howard would have called “bribes.” The cash is no longer stuffed in envelopes, but rather routed through fake grassroots groups like Montana Hunters and Anglers, an industry front group, controlled opposition.
Writer, environmental activist and Montana resident Steve Kelly knows a lot about the resource colony aspects of Montana, a state with 147,000 square miles and about a million people, or perhaps seven people per square mile. He has been fighting the good fight to preserve Montana’s wild lands against timber and mining barons for decades now, and lately against what I call the “motorbacks,” or motorized recreation fanatics who think that land does not have value if you cannot leave tire marks on it. I hope he can chime in the comments and help this post out.
Anyway, Joseph Kinsey Howard was a journalist and he wrote about corruption in Montana during some of its most corrupt times. Although nothing has changed in the state over the decades, these days the corruption is far more hidden from view. We don’t see books like this anymore.