Downtown business renovations reveal artifacts, stories from Missoula’s forgotten past

Archaeology students and researchers at the University of Montana have discovered artifacts in downtown Missoula that illuminate the lives of people from more than a century ago.

The finds were made during construction for a new brewery and pub on the 200 block of West Main Street. UM alumni Jed and Jennifer Heggen, owners of the Cranky Sam Public House, partnered last summer with a team that included UM archaeology graduate students Nikki Manning and Kate Kolwicz.

They salvaged artifacts uncovered during construction work.

The Heggens had unexpectedly found themselves atop a major archaeological site that was in the heart of Missoula’s red-light district and Chinese community from about 1880 to the early 1920s. Red-light districts and “Chinatowns” were found in close proximity to one another in many towns across the American West.

While research shows that the area was connected with the Chinese population, it also was the neighborhood of “female boarding houses” – a euphemism for prostitution that included brothels and one-room cribs.

“The site has turned up thousands of artifacts,” Kolwicz said. “We have found intact liquor, beer and medicine bottles, ceramics, countless ceramic sherds and glass shards. We also found artifact types associated with the Chinese specifically, such as Chinese-made ceramics, pill vials associated with Chinese traditional medicine, opium paraphernalia and Chinese game pieces and coins.”

She said artifacts associated with prostitution also were collected at the site, including perfume bottles, feminine hygiene products and cosmetic jars. The site is part of a small but diverse neighborhood that once housed people of various economic statuses, as well as people with Chinese, African and European ancestry.

Under the guidance of UM Department of Anthropology Professor Kelly Dixon, students and community volunteers recovered the artifacts and moved them to a UM archaeology laboratory for cleaning and analysis.

“The artifacts collected at the site are critical to understanding what life was like for these early Missoulians,” Manning said. “Because of the small size of the neighborhood and the amount of urban development that has occurred over the past century, this is one of the only intact archaeological sites pertaining to the red-light district and Chinese community in Missoula that we are likely to find.”

Dixon said the artifacts recovered at the site represent the lives of people largely forgotten by history. Historical sources were generally written about these people rather than by them.

“This type of archaeology helps democratize our multicultural history,” Dixon said. “Right now the sheer volume of artifacts will require time to properly research and analyze, so it’s too early to make any presumptions about the data. We hope to reveal more of the story as the research continues.”

She said a business adjacent to the Cranky Sam Public House, Biga Pizza, sits atop the location of a temple that served Missoula’s Chinese community from the 1890s to 1910s.

Dixon said recent construction work there is unearthing even more archaeological evidence that appears to align with the materials currently being analyzed. Historic maps reveal an area that contained Chinese dwellings and stores, as well as a hardware store, saloons, boarding houses and “female boarding” houses.

While infamous Missoula madam Mary Gleim owned multistory brothels along the south side of West Front Street, lesser known women with fewer economic opportunities worked in the cramped, tiny cribs that lined the north side of West Front, a detail of the area’s land-use history that the UM team recognized.

“We are incredibly grateful to Biga owner Bob Marshall, as well as the Heggens, for their sincere stewardship and support of the research programs that are blossoming as a result of these materials,” Dixon said. “I know it is important to the business owners and our research team to avoid sensationalizing the artifacts or using them to perpetuate common stereotypes based upon race, culture and social status.”

UM graduate student Kate Kolwicz works with fragments of Chinese utilitarian brownware, including a soy pot, that were excavated in downtown Missoula. (UM News Service)

The Heggens originally had a different name for the Cranky Sam Public House, but interacting with the UM research team helped them learn about an English-speaking Chinese immigrant who played a central role in some illicit activities in the Chinese district.

Known as Cranky Sam, his 1910 obituary reads: “He was known to every frequenter of the restricted district as a man who knew no law and respected no person.”

“Sam is the epitome of someone we know only through the words and perceptions of outsiders,” Kolwicz said.

Despite the “lawlessness” mentioned in this excerpt from his obituary, Manning noted that someone in Missoula took the time to prepare a nicely written obituary, reminding people living today that Sam was an appreciated, if not iconic, member of the community.

“The artifacts left behind by those who likely knew, worked with, socialized with and maybe even quarreled with the man known as Cranky Sam provide connections to Missoulians whose names did not make the newspapers as much as he did,” Manning said.

The UM team hopes to learn more as they continue analyzing the archaeological traces of historic Missoula. Dixon said some of the more notable artifacts will be displayed at the Cranky Sam Public House when it opens. The remainder will form a teaching and research collection that is already providing content for master’s theses, doctoral dissertations, hands-on undergraduate experiences and K-12 field trips.

Kolwicz said the excavation has been an incredible opportunity.

“As a native Missoulian, I have always been fascinated with the lives of ‘people of little note’ in historic Missoula,” she said. “I never dreamed that I would be lucky enough to find an archaeological site in downtown Missoula. This site is the topic of my master’s thesis, and I will be expanding it into a doctoral dissertation as well.”