On the verge of election day 1916, the Daily Missoulian gave its readers a glimpse of “campaigning in the old days” of the 1860s and '70s.
"Booze and Money Were Big Factors," the headline of the story said that Sunday, Nov. 4.
Judge Frank Woody and Bill Houston, longtime residents of Missoula, were tapped for their expertise and reminiscences. The Republicans of Missoula County had held their rally at the Missoula theater a few nights earlier, and the Democratic candidates were meeting there on Sunday night, the unidentified reporter said. Forty years earlier such conventions were nonexistent because of the scattered ranches.
“The majority of the voters were reached by a ‘bushwhacking’ campaign,” said Woody, who first arrived in the valley in 1856. “The candidate would get astride a good horse, stuff a bottle of whiskey in one pocket and a roll of bills in another, and start out to visit the ranches and mining camps.”
Woody recalled that as the 1860s turned to the ‘70s there was “a great strife between the Irish and the Missoulians.”
“In the days of placer mining the majority of the miners were Irishmen,” he said. “All sorts of tricks were resorted to in order to pull the election to one side or the other.”
It wasn’t unusual for half a dozen men to ride into a camp and “without giving previous notice, call a democratic primary and elect the delegate to the county convention,” Woody recalled. “The delegate was often one of the gang.”
The gang would then ride to the next precinct and repeat the operation, voting once again.
“One of these gangs was known to have covered three precincts this way in one day,” the judge concluded. “It is hard to say who got ahead, but I rather think the Irish won out eventually.”
While Prohibition was a hot topic in 1916, Houston said in the old days saloons were established specifically for political campaigns.
“Variety and burlesque shows opened up and ran at full blast,” Houston said. “The dealers in the gambling houses held the ceiling at a reasonable limit, but were willing to cut a hole in the roof and let you through the sky if you so desired. Everything was wide open.
“The man with the big gun record and a roll of bills was the strongest candidate. The bigger the roll the better the chances of election.”
Some were known to spend as much as $10,000 for a county office, Houston said.
The booze used to bribe voters was “rotten stuff,” the sheriff continued. “We called it ‘sheep-dip,’ but we had to lick our chops and say it was good.”
Houston admitted he “tried to get ahead of the game” one year. He brought $2,000 in one- and two-dollar bills and bought drinks all around, paying $20 “for a few drinks.”
Jeannette Rankin was known to drive automobiles on the campaign trail in 1916. In the old days candidates would start out in a stagecoach, Houston said.
“When the country got too rough for the coach, we would go horseback,” he said. “Sometimes we had to make the canvass on foot.”
Houston, who served his first term as Missoula County sheriff from 1890 to 1894, would be re-elected a second time in 1920, when Prohibition was in full swing. That term went down in flames the next year when Wellington Rankin, Jeannette’s little brother and the state attorney general, charged Houston with conniving with bootleggers and ran him out of office.
Government men who pursued illegal bootleggers were known as “rum chasers.”
Houston joked in 1916 that in the early days of Montana elections “the only signs of prohibition was the ‘chaser’ we sometimes used to take away the taste of the sheep-dip.”