Harmon’s Histories: It’s okay to be swinish

popcorn-graphicBy Jim Harmon

I think I may have Attention Deficit Disorder, or I’m just enjoying the freedom of retirement too much.

Either way, I’ve been utterly distracted from my weekly research on a specific historical topic. Not that I’m unhappy about stopping to read random, enjoyable stories. It’s just that I should be getting back on task.

I thought about doing a piece on railroads. But, I got sidetracked (more puns, later).

Did you know that in June, 1883 there were wild dogs lurking along the banks of Rattlesnake Creek? Or that the paving of downtown streets forced J. Solomon to hire workers to “raise” his store to match the new street grade? Useless information, but still, I can’t make myself stop.

Then, I started researching Missoula’s city election of 1914. It was a doozy, by the way. But my eye kept drifting to interesting items on totally unrelated subjects as I went through the papers of the day. I’ll probably get around to that story sometime soon, but not today.

Concentrate. I need to concentrate.

I called up my lists of digital “clippings” from the 1800s, looking for a worthy topic. Lots of possibilities, but no motivation.

I give up.

Perhaps I’ll be more disciplined next week. In the meantime, why not share these distractions? There are so many minor newspaper stories from the past that catch my eye.

Speaking of “catching”…

Rock Creek, the Missoula-area’s blue-ribbon trout stream, is a fisher’s delight. But these days, it’s heavily restricted compared with the past. In September 1868, the Deer Lodge Weekly Independent ran a story titled, “Fisherman’s Luck,” detailing the adventures of Mr. J. W. Bready of Bear Gulch.

“One day last week (he) caught three hundred pounds of the finest trout ever seen in the Territory. This story may seem decidedly fishy to those not acquainted with the prolific character of our mountain streams, but it is nevertheless true.”

Then, there’s the 1914 story of Missoula’s two “popcorn peddlers.” They felt misused; their city licenses too pricey. So they approached the city commission, asking for a 50 pecent reduction, from $5 per month to $2.50. Bad idea. The commissioners called the popcorn stands a nuisance, adding that “$60 a year is cheap rent for the best business locations in the city.” Request denied.

Now, I promised some jokes and puns. Here are some from the 1878 papers.

“A fowl-fancier calls his roosters ‘the flowers of the flock,’ because they are crow-cusses.”

“When will there be only twenty five letters in the alphabet? When U and I are made one.”

“It has been discovered that lager beer is a certain remedy for painful corns. We believe the usual method of applying the remedy is to let it soak into the corn from the inside of the foot.”

Hmmm. That last one sounded less like humor and more like well reasoned, practical advice to me.

Concentrate. I need to concentrate.

But then I’m distracted by this item from the Missoula Weekly Gazette, dated October 14, 1891. It seemed an odd subject for a news story – more an observation than a story. Still, I found myself absorbed in the moment, as though I was the mesmerized 19th-century observer.

“It is a genuine pleasure to see an expert typewritist manipulate one of the machines built for speed. One often hears that they can go as fast as the average man speaks, but it is seen so infrequently that it is often taken as an exaggerated statement.

“There is at least one of these experts, however, in an office in the city who takes testimony in contested land cases just as it comes off the tongue of the witness, without stop or break or going back to rub out.

“The longer the words are the easier it seems to be, and proper names, requiring capitalization, failed to cause a pause in the lightning like speed at which the machine is run.

“Of course it requires concentration and constant attention, but it is done with an appearance of ease which makes it look, to the man who has never tried it, like a fascinating occupation.

“One amusing thing about the performance is the surprise it causes to some of the witnesses. When they pause in their testimony and look up to give the typewritist a chance to catch up, or to go back and repeat if necessary, they find the machine silent and the supple fingers poised ready for the next sentence.”

Sometimes I find myself (digitally) “clipping” a story simply because of the writing style or the use of a particular phrase. I love this wonderful 1895 description of a less-than-honest person.

“It is claimed that the accusation made last spring that property on Front Street is unequally assessed for taxation has nothing of truth in it. It is also claimed that the person who makes the assertion has elements in his composition not hewn from the block of truth and crushed into lime to be used in the mortar of veracity. Or words to that effect.”


I’ll leave you with the remarks of William Lincoln of the Worcester, MA. Agricultural Society to the Swine Convention in Albany, New York, on September 29, 1842 as reported by the New York Herald.

“Pigs are happy people. We may talk disparagingly about living like a pig. To live like a pig is to live like a gentlemen. Although it is not permitted by the order of nature that a pig should laugh, or even smile, he enjoys the next best blessing of humanity, the disposition to grow fat.

“How easily he goes through the world! He has no fancy stocks to buy – no banknotes to pay – no indignation meetings to attend – no log cabin assemblies to hold.

“He has no occasion to take the benefit of the Bankrupt Act, or have his estate confiscated to defray the expenses of the settlement.

“When we look at the comparative condition of the human race and of the swinish multitude, we may come to the conclusion that if a man will not be a man, he had better be a pig!”

Perhaps that’s it. I’ve been acting too “swinish” this week, enjoying little moments too much, going too “easily through the world.”

I promise to concentrate and be more “human” next week.

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.