Harmon’s Histories: Gold-nugget chickens, a fabled bicycle crash & bad Helena whiskey

Perhaps it’s the summer heat. Whatever the reason, your writer has found it difficult this week to do what it is he does – write.

It’s certainly not for a lack of fodder. My digital files are filled with hundreds of potential stories gleaned from old newspapers.

But inspiration, I fear, has been washed away by perspiration.

So I devote this week’s space to a patchwork of small items, singularly not worthy of a column but collectively sufficient to accomplish the deed, in hopes inspiration may return in a week’s time.

In the summer of 1883, the Helena Herald reported that “water consumers are rapidly increasing in number, and larger mains and more of the aqueous fluid are an urgent necessity.” The Missoulian, in response, wondered, “What is the matter with the capital whiskey?”

That same summer, the New Orleans Times-Democrat noted that “of 100 Swedes who went to Quincy, Florida, in 1874, everyone has died.” James H. Mills, publisher of the Deer Lodge New Northwest newspaper, noted the story and added, “For every hundred that came to the Northwest at that time, it is safe to say there are now at least two hundred.”

In 1895, bicycling was all the rage. On a pleasant mid-June day, a group of friends, including Mr. W. H. Mace, pedaled out west of Missoula. The Evening Republican recapped the adventure for its readers.

“W. H. Mace wants no more coasting. (H)e started down a long, steep hill near the O’Keefe ranch. The road was not smooth, and, while going at a speed of fifty miles an hour, the rear wheel collapsed, throwing Mr. Mace head foremost.

“Those who witnessed the interesting spectacle say he slid over a hundred feet before he stopped. That he escaped serious injury is due to his rotundity of person. The damages are nothing more than a few bruises, but he had to walk home.”

The Deer Lodge Weekly Independent passed along a bit of newspaper-rivalry humor in November 1867. “A bachelor editor, sensitive in relation to his rights, objects to taking a wife for fear that if she should have a baby his contemporaries, who habitually copy without credit, would refuse to give him credit for the baby.”

The Weekly Missoulian on December 19, 1873 ran a column entitled, “Feminine Personals.” Among the items was this: “I clasped her tiny hand in mine; I vowed to shield her from the wind and from the world’s cold storm. She set her beauteous eyes on mine, and with her little lips she said: ‘An umbrella will do as well.’ ”

On November 12, 1893, the Western Democrat declared, “Missoula has more than its quota of story-tellers … (and) has always held its own pretty well on state and other occasions, until a Butte man struck the town. That settled it.

“In conversation with a party of friends in the Florence hotel lobby the other evening he perpetrated a story that should entitle him to honorary membership in the Ananias Club and a life sentence in the Montana legislature.

“The gentleman’s name is withheld to protect him from possible violence at the hands of his friends. Here is what he had the nerve to say.

“A few days ago J. A. McConville, who lives on Montana street, in Butte, killed one of his chickens for dinner, and on cleaning it was surprised to find a quantity of gold nuggets.

“Mr. McConville had about thirty more chickens on hand and he began killing and examining them. In each one of them he found a pro rata of nuggets, the total amount gathered from the thirty-one hens being $387.55, an average of $12.50 a head. The gold was sold to the State National bank and pronounced eighteen carats fine.

“Mr. McConville bought fifty more chickens and turned them out on the gold fields in the vicinity of the hen coop. As an experiment one of them was killed and $2.80 of gold taken from its inside works, the result of a four day’s run. McConville has a virtual bonanza, and expects to be a millionaire if the chickens …

“But at this juncture the clock stopped, the electric lights exploded and the victims of the story fled precipitately from the hotel. That Butte man is a peach.”

Finally, there was this from the Daily Yellowstone Journal onNovember 20, 1891, reprinting an item from the Brooklyn Eagle.

“After an election in the academy I mentioned to a fellow that Mr. X had at last been chosen to an associate membership and that the honor had been long a-coming.

“‘Yes,’ he answered, with a smile. ‘X is an unqualified ass now.’

“I suggested that it was carrying professional jealousy rather far to give him that term.

“‘Oh, you evidently don’t understand,’ he said. ‘When a man is elected an associate they call him, for brevity’s sake by the first syllable of that word. That makes him an ass.’

“‘It is one of the conditions of membership that he shall furnish his portrait to the academy within a certain time. That is what they call ‘qualifying,’ and until he qualifies, he is an unqualified ass. See?’”

And with that, I have successfully filled the required space for this week.

Where’s that tall, cool one?

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.