Neihart: A Town United
“Oro y Plata”—gold and silver—is the Montana State Motto, and while gold drew thousands of miners to the territory, silver drew many others, especially when the placer mining days were waning and hard rock mining came into prominence.
Roughly halfway between Great Falls and White Sulphur Springs on Highway 89 is Neihart. The mines surrounding it were so rich that for two years in the early 1880s, ore was shipped by wagon to Fort Benton and then sent to Swansea, Wales for processing.
More of a community than the gold camp at Gregory, it had its own newspaper, the Neihart Herald, which documented the town’s revolt against the company store system.
In May, 1895, the lead story began, “When the members of Belt Mountain Miners’ Union resolved to trade no more at the company store, they did so in the name of justice and right… “The fact is plain that Neihart will not endure the company store. Her proud people who have labored side by side for these many years are willing to fight side by side... If we do not prosecute that fight, if we do not expose this evil in all its monstrous hideousness, it will be because the editor and the whole office force drop dead before the tale is told. We are with the miners and with the citizens.”
The editor filled the pages with exhortations to stand firm, though the temptation to shop at the company store’s low prices was no doubt great. He added, “If a man thinks he can secure better bargains at the company store than at the other shops, let him pause and reflect upon what he will have to pay for those goods when every competing merchant is driven out, and only the devil fish remains. We cry, ‘DOWN WITH MONOPOLY.’”
The conflict was not as easily resolved as the Gregory hostage situation, but in June, the editor was able to quote supporting editorials from other Montana newspapers. The Glendive Independent wrote, “The NEIHART HERALD, backed by the miners, is making a gallant fight against the “Pluck-me-stores.” Go at them with vim and vigor.” The Billings Times reported that several citizens of the town, including the editor, had been served with injunctions to hold their peace and quit expressing their opinions. The editor of the Neihart Herald responded that Judge Armstrong will have to enjoin the whole town in order to check the popular outcry.”
By August, it appeared that the miners had won. The Glasgow Record reported “The company store and boarding house [at Neihart] against which such a bitter fight has been waged, have closed their doors, and laborers are at liberty to do business with whom they wish.”
It must be noted that stories about mining in Montana must always be read with a healthy degree of skepticism. A case in point is the tear-jerker which appeared in the Butte Miner in 1900:
“Sad Story of a Wife,” An Anaconda Woman Relates Her Experiences With the Company Store.
Husband Lost His Job Because His Wife Bought Shoes at Another Store—Unable to Meet Payments on Their Home—Death of Only Boy—Apologized to Manager—Thirteen Hours for $2.50
This tale continues for 2,000 teary words, but although many such abuses occurred in mining towns throughout the nation, the conclusion doesn’t ring true. After the husband and wife groveled before the manager, they were forgiven, she wrote. “To be sure, my husband’s wages were put down to $2.50 [per day], with 13 hours night shift and 11 day shift… I shudder at the thought of going to any but the company’s store now, and I care not what they charge…”
Here, it should be noted that the Butte Miner was owned by copper king, William Clark. A rebuttal appeared in the Anaconda Standard, which was owned by copper king Marcus Daly. If the alleged writer was as broken down as story contended, she would not have dared—even anonymously—to have the tale published. Knowing the rivalry of the two men, it is not a stretch to imagine that the stories were planted to discredit each other.
There is no question that abuses existed, however. In the United States, it remained legal to pay wages in scrip until 1938.
These days, some companies recompense employees with the volatile “bitcoin.” That might be like playing the lottery with your paycheck, and under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers must pay employees in “Cash or negotiable instruments payable at par.” There’s always a gimmick.