Lucille Ball’s Montana Roots
By Brian D’Ambrosio
Even today, “I Love Lucy” is syndicated all over the world, and new audiences are discovering the lure of Lucy’s slapstick antics.
Before she was Lucy, Lucille Ball was “the dreamy-eyed and easily frightened child” of a telephone electrical lineman, Henry Ball, who worked gruelingly in Montana for several years. Putting telephones through Montana was brutal, even deadly work. With its mountainous territory and relentless winters, the state required fortified nerves in its telephone men.
Indeed, Ball’s family epitomized America’s progress from the farming age to the era of mass-industry, the telegraph and the telephone.
Her great-grandparents on her father’s side, Clinton and Cynthia Ball, were farmers in Fredonia, New York; in 1890, they moved to the rural community of Busti, southwest of Buffalo. Busti had been the scene of early settlements in the region, where the landowners had lived in log cabins in the midst of forests of maple and fir. Clinton and Cynthia had made money buying and selling property; they bought a lovingly restored farmhouse set on a hill with a road running below it to a lake. The Balls were “popular and successful” in Busti, enjoying their agrarian harmony and raising several children “with stern but loving care,” according to Kathleen Brady’s account in “Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball.”
Their second son and fifth child, Jasper, “who was restless and bored with life on the farm,” became excited by the idea of the new discovery known as the telephone. Inspired by the model of Alexander Graham Bell, he persuaded his father, Clinton, to finance him in establishing the first telephone exchange in Busti. This was in 1891, only one year after his parents bought the farm (Clinton died in 1893).
Groups came from nearby Jamestown and Celeron and other towns in the area to see Jasper, as he with newfound zeal operated the primitive switchboard. According to Coyne Sanders, one of Lucille Ball’s biographers, “He would gladly give the time of day to any caller who came through the board; a private conversation was quite impossible with Jasper eavesdropping, and anyone making a telephone call would only criticize Jasper if he was very daring, as Jasper would cut people off at any moment if he heard the critical words.”
Jasper was married to Nellie, daughter of the “well-paid superintendant” of the Brooks Locomotive Works in Dunkirk, New York; and the result was that the young couple was able to build a homestead, a farm rivaling Clinton’s, which “boasted one of the largest apple orchards in New York State.” Unfortunately, the property burned to the ground in 1906. Jasper without delay built another farm, installing the electricity and telephone wires himself, and, “restless and energetic, suddenly left the company in the hands of colleagues and took off for Missoula, Montana,” where he started another firm, with a correspondent company in Anaconda, just twenty-five miles from Butte. He had five children; his second son, Henry, then in his late teens, apparently shared his father’s enthusiasm for telephone work and learned the business from the ground up by acting as an electrical lineman for Jasper.
Jasper, Henry, and the other men (including Henry’s brother, Frank) had to pounded their way through the mouth of blizzards with icicles suspended from their mustaches; they had to carry shovels in front of their faces to allow them to breathe. The Montana snow packed hard as marble, and at distances of mere twelve feet, the Ball team couldn’t see each other. Biographer Stefan Kanfer described the lineman’s work in “Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball.”
“They had to follow their course by watching the tops of telephone poles that stuck out from the snow levels. Often, the team would have snow up to their waists as they struggled through drifts, with gales sweeping down on them from the hills, guided only by the sharp glittering of the wires overhead. A slip could mean a possibly fatal fifty-foot fall to the earth; touching an electrical wire that ran along the telephone cable could kill instantly.”
Jasper grew weary of the work; he returned to Busti and then to Jamestown shortly before his granddaughter Lucy was born, while Henry kept to the job and his base in Anaconda, headquarters of the well-recognized Anaconda Copper Company, which supplied much of the wire the Ball Company used. Henry lived first at 300 Hickory Street, and then at 120 West Park Avenue; both apartments were “located on thoroughfares filled with the sound of clanking streetcars and the cries of street vendors, “ according to Jim Brochu’s “Lucy in the Afternoon: An Intimate Memoir of Lucille Ball.”
In August 1910, Henry went east to marry the pretty and lively Desiree (DeDe) Evelyn Hunt, daughter of Frederick and Florabelle Hunt of 38 Hall Avenue, Jamestown. The wedding took place on August 31 at the bride’s parents’ home. DeDe received many gifts of silverware, china, cut glass, furniture, and linen.
The couple had no honeymoon but left at once for Anaconda so that Henry could resume work for Jasper’s company while Jasper remained in Busti. In November 1910, while they were in Anaconda, sometimes going to the larger town of Butte for shopping or visits to the theater, DeDe became pregnant. In the tradition of the time, according to Brochu, “DeDe wanted to have her baby in her hometown,” and the couple returned there briefly. No sooner was Lucy born, on August 6, 1911, than Henry and DeDe ad their child moved back to Anaconda, “where they took an apartment on noisy, dusty Commercial Avenue in the downtown section (on the southwest corner of Oak Street). At least one of Ball’s biographers went so far as to blame “ugly and commercial” Anaconda as the source of the famous entertainer’s “lifelong issues with chronic nervousness and anxiety.”
“Lucy’s first impressions of life were of the cramped, flat, ugly little town dominated by the Anaconda Copper Company’s smoke-belching chimneys of blackened brick. The constant clanging of the streetcar was the dominant sound of her babyhood. Her mother’s tension over Henry’s dangerous work was another feature that influenced Lucy. Throughout her life, from childhood on, she was extremely tense, nervous, sensitive, and vulnerable, filled with anxiety and fear.”
Because Butte was the commercial hub of that region, Ball for many years believed she was born there, an understandable assumption that led many journalists to accuse her of inventing her birthplace. A number of magazines reported inaccurately that she had decided that Montana was a more romantic place to be born than New York State, and thus created a whimsy of a “Western childhood.”
When Ball was one year old, the family moved to Wyandotte, Michigan, located a few miles south of the industrial center of Detroit. Author Stefan Kanfer speculated on the cause of the move in his book.
“The reason is unknown, but it is probable that the all-consuming Bell Company, snapping up one local telephone system after another, had consumed Jasper Ball’s struggling enterprises in its path, and was offering experienced linemen better wages in Michigan. Wyandotte, like Anaconda and Jamestown, had recently changed from a rural town into a grim industrial center.”
Ball’s father died of typhoid fever when she was three years old, and she later became the victim of her stepfather’s parents, who would “literally chain her to a leash in the backyard.”
According to one biographer, interested in her family history, “she wrote to the Chamber of Commerce in Anaconda and Butte for informational pamphlets and then soon knew more about the towns than probably many people who actually lived there.”
When Ball went to the New York in the nineteen-twenties, she began telling people she was from Montana and continued to publicly state she was from Montana for many years after.
This unlikely candidate – the daughter of a lineman in Anaconda and elsewhere – would become the country’s most famous comedienne and truly a television pioneer.
On April 26, 1989, she died from a ruptured aorta following open-heart surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.