ANACONDA – We don’t think Eddie McCarthy can get in trouble telling this story, seeing as how he’s been retired for nearly 30 years.
First, a bit of background. For 41 years starting in 1944, McCarthy carried the mail to Anacondans. He walked more than 100,000 miles in his U.S. Postal Service uniform, while never setting foot outside the town, proudly wearing Badge No. 17 on his cap.
The many routes he covered over the decades took McCarthy – whose father was born in County Cork, Ireland – into every Anaconda neighborhood.
Perhaps his favorite, he confides, was the route that led him through Anaconda’s Italian neighborhood.
“You’d see all the guys up there,” McCarthy says. “Louie, Tony, Albert. They all made their own wine. Tony would invite you in for a glass. Then you’d get to Louie’s house and Louie would say, ‘I see you were with Tony. Did he give you any wine?’ ”
McCarthy would nod. Louie would ask him, “How was it?”
“Oh, I’m sure not as good as yours,” McCarthy would answer, and Louie would beam and pour him a glass of his wine, and the whole thing would be repeated yet again once McCarthy and the mail reached Albert’s house.
McCarthy, born on Jan. 2, 1929 in Anaconda, is 85 now. Eyes twinkling, he relates his homemade wine story over a glass of beer on an April afternoon at Club Moderne, the art deco-style watering hole opened in 1937 that most definitely was not Anaconda’s first bar, but still holds the first liquor license – No. 001 – granted in Deer Lodge County.
Club Moderne is owned by John Hekkel, who took over in 1997 on the day before St. Patrick’s Day, where the celebration in nearby Butte kicks off on March 16 with St. Urho’s Day.
“Everybody stopped in for one drink and went on to Butte,” Hekkel says. “My first day was the toughest day I ever had.”
Behind the bar hangs a framed 1950 Montana Grizzly football schedule. Don’t tell anyone, but the schedule was donated by a local Bobcat fan who thought the prominently displayed price for season tickets in 1950 – $7.50 bought you admission to all five home games – might tick off Grizzly fans who pay a bit more these days.
The bar, on the National Register of Historic Places, was originally owned by John “Skinny” Francisco.
“Skinny’s brother, ‘Fat,’ owned the Warm Springs Bar,” Hekkel says. “Skinny was not skinny, and Fat was a rail.”
Photographer Michael Gallacher and I have returned to Club Moderne on the advice of Hekkel, who the night before told us no trip to Anaconda is complete without a conversation with Eddie McCarthy.
And so Club Moderne is our last stop on the way out of town after two days in Anaconda.
At least, it’s supposed to be.
As a cold rain suddenly beats down after some pretty nice weather, McCarthy insists that we follow him home to see his memorabilia-filled basement and meet his wife, Bea, a one-time state legislator and former member of the Montana Board of Regents.
“Greatest day on my mail route,” McCarthy says. “A young lady had moved to town from Bozeman, I met her because I delivered her mail, and so I married her. That was 56 years ago.”
We follow McCarthy’s pickup and its personalized license plate – “MARCH 17,” otherwise known as St. Patrick’s Day – to a lovely home on Anaconda’s west side.
McCarthy’s Sunday-before-St. Patrick’s Day parties here, which he threw for more than 40 years, are legendary. Even though it’s his house, McCarthy rings the doorbell so we can hear it play “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”
Somewhere Anaconda’s founder, Irish immigrant Marcus Daly, is probably smiling too.
In the McCarthy basement, we are instantly under the influence of the Irish most everyplace we look. There’s far too much to inventory. The memorabilia include large maps of the island that show the routes McCarthy traveled on trips to Ireland in 1956, 1986, 1997, 2002 and 2009.
There’s also a copy of Ireland’s largest newspaper, the Irish Independent, with a large front-page color picture of a beaming McCarthy shaking hands with the then-president of Ireland. It was taken when Mary McAleese visited Butte in 2006.
So a retired mailman’s basement, and not Club Moderne, is our last stop in Anaconda.
The first, a day earlier, was the Old Works Golf Course.
Here, Jack Nicklaus did what no one else has ever attempted – build a championship 18-hole course on an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.
Old Works opened in 1997. It is one of the most unique courses you’ll ever see, with the remains of 19th century flues flowing down the hillsides, old kilns up above, and pitch-black sand traps filled with inert smelter-waste slag.
Old Works pro Ryan Stensrud, who came to Anaconda last year after working at courses in Arizona and southern California, says the first time he played the course he noticed he was hitting the ball farther than normal because of Anaconda’s elevation (5,335 feet).
“But the greens are a challenge,” Stensrud says. “They’re big. I three-putted a lot.”
In fact, the widest green at Old Works is 114 feet and the deepest runs 138 feet, or four yards shy of half a football field.
“People come here from everywhere to play it,” says Kathryn O’Connell, who has just played the three-hole practice facility in the middle of Old Works – she’s still working her way back to full speed after hip-replacement surgery – while her husband plays the back nine.
O’Connell and her husband, Robert Thill, are part of a relatively new demographic to Anaconda. Attracted in part by houses priced under $100,000 – some start in the $20,000s – some snowbirds are making the town their home for part of the year.
“We’re boomers who moved here on purpose, bought an older home and fixed it up, and it’s where we hang in the summer,” O’Connell says.
Golfers find it especially appealing. In addition to Old Works, there’s an 18-hole course at nearby Fairmont Hot Springs, and the nine-hole Anaconda Country Club as well.
Armed with highly questionable Internet research, we head off in search of 120 W. Park Ave.
Anaconda has three main streets, as long as you count Main Street. Main Street is where you’ll find the beautiful Washoe Theater, Anaconda High School and, at its southern terminus, the Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Courthouse, a domed building that sits next door to some of Anaconda’s five cemeteries.
Main Street is also one of four streets that fronts Kennedy Commons, a town square-like park that is flooded each winter and turned into an ice skating rink. It’s named for the late president of Irish descent.
What’s missing from Anaconda’s Main Street is the bulk of the downtown business district, which sits on two one-way streets that travel for a good 20 blocks apiece and intersect with Main Street. Commercial Avenue is for westbound traffic, and Park Avenue is for vehicles traveling east on what is also Montana Highway 1.
Lucille Ball spent a brief part of her childhood in Anaconda – the actress and comedienne even sometimes claimed it as her birthplace, believing it sounded more intriguing than her actual birthplace of Jamestown, N.Y. – and some website we can’t even relocate now said her family lived at 120 W. Park Ave.
If so, we discover the childhood home of Lucy now appears to be a Wells Fargo Bank.
Right across the street from that, however, is the Marcus Daly Motel. Back at Old Works, Ryan Stensrud had recommended it.
It’s where he lived his first month in town, before he moved his family to Anaconda, and owner Feyrouz Najjar (see story, Page A1) was so hospitable she invited Stensrud to dinner almost nightly, feeding him dishes like baba ghanoush from her native Lebanon.
After checking in, Gallacher and I climb back in the car and set off to see more of Anaconda.
We make it approximately one block.
To be honest, there’s not much to recommend the Washoe Theater from the outside. But, like so many places in Anaconda, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, and so we stop by to see if anyone is around.
Manager Jerry Lussy is, and boy, are we glad once he lets us into the darkened space and flips on a light switch.
It illuminates, with several chandeliers, a large, ornate hallway leading from a concessions area to the even more spectacular and massive theater.
Every flat surface and the domed ceiling in the theater is a mural painted by Colville Smythe.
“The ceiling is a mural of Montana that shows things from the start of man to now,” Lussy says. “Really, it covers everything from critters to now.”
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This is the last theater in America built in the Nuevo Deco style. Construction began in 1930, after a previous theater burned down, and even though it was nearly finished by 1931, the Washoe didn’t open its doors until 1936.
A little thing called the Great Depression got in the way.
A sign in the lobby shows some long-ago ticket prices, though they may not date to opening night. But there was a time you could watch a movie in the Washoe for 22 cents if you were an adult, and 9 cents if you were a child.
The tax brought it up to a quarter, or a dime.
Today, an intermission is still part of every movie and ticket prices are still very affordable, but it will take another 50 cents if you want to sit in the Washoe’s large stadium-style balcony, which houses some of the theater’s nearly 1,000 seats.
Why the extra cost?
“It’s warmer in the winter,” Lussy explains.
Up at the courthouse we turn down a residential street and run into a neighborhood feud.
On the side of the street stand James Neesmith and his buddy Dean McDowell, staring at us as we drive by slowly, staring at them and trying to read a host of signs posted in windows and the yard of the house next door.
“Signs don’t kill people. Knives kill people,” one big one says. “I bet James bribed the crooked county planner,” reads another. “The driveway is illegal. The sewer is illegal.”
“CRIME SCENE,” says yet another sign stuck in the ground, with an arrow pointing toward Neesmith’s place. It looks like a lot of bad blood here, a place to definitely avoid.
So we stop and introduce ourselves.
Neesmith and McDowell turn out to be friendly fellows who are busy building a homemade camper to use on fishing trips. The person who lives next door “fights with everybody in the neighborhood,” Neesmith says, “but I’m the center of her attention. They tell me she’ll make as many as 25 calls in one day” to law enforcement and county officials complaining about one thing or another.
The “Signs don’t kill people, knives kill people” message is in reference to a time the neighbor came over for a confrontation and he was in the garage using a pocketknife to sharpen a pencil, McDowell says.
We move on to Smoke Stack State Park on the east end of town, the smallest state park in Montana. After Atlantic Richfield Co. shut down the Anaconda smelter in 1980, locals rallied to save the stack, visible for miles around and Anaconda’s most identifiable landmark, from destruction.
The stack, once the tallest chimney in the world, rises more than 535 feet into the Montana sky. At the park, a much newer and somewhat shorter version, maybe four or five feet high, gives visitors an idea of the enormity of the taller stack visible in the distance.
Churches may now outnumber bars in Anaconda, but there was a time when it wasn’t close. Over our two days here, various people will tell us that in its heyday, blue-collar Anaconda was home to anywhere from 39 to 56 bars.
We visit one of the survivors, and one of the city’s best known, Club Moderne, on Park Avenue, after dinner. While Gallacher is taking pictures, I notice another bar at the end of the block.
The much smaller neon sign there reads “JFK Bar.”
Airports, schools, bridges I can understand, but who names a bar after an assassinated American president? I wonder.
“That stands for the first owner, John Francis Kovacich,” bartender Mick Miller tells me when I go to investigate. “The bar’s still in the family, but we get people in here all the time expecting to see pictures of John Kennedy on the walls.”
(It’s a mistake you can make in Anaconda. There’s also a city park named for Benny Goodman, but it turns out it wasn’t for the famed “King of Swing” bandleader, but rather, a former Anaconda mayor.)
Kovacich, O’Billovich, Antonich, Lazetich, Frankovich, Popovich – the Anaconda-associated names only start to scratch the surface of the “iches” that are a part of this town’s rich immigrant history.
One of the last of those immigrants drawn to Anaconda to work in the old copper smelter came from Lebanon. As we mentioned, Hassan Najjar – who arrived in 1971 – and his wife, Feyrouz, are our hosts at the Marcus Daly Motel.
It took us a while to check in the day before once we got to talking to Fay – it’s fun just to listen to the “r’s” roll off her tongue with her accent – and checking out early the next morning doesn’t go a whole lot quicker. She invites us into her home for a cup of Lebanese coffee.
Already sitting at the kitchen table is Connie Ternes Daniels, chief executive of Anaconda-Deer Lodge County and a friend of Fay’s who has popped in for a cup before heading to work.
The city and county governments here combined in 1977, three years before the smelter shut down, and “it’s been our saving grace,” Daniels says. “Certain folks in the county were unhappy because it meant higher taxes for them, but it’s worked well here.”
Anaconda was and is the only incorporated town in Deer Lodge County, she explains, and the county itself is one of Montana’s smallest, geographically speaking, covering only 700 of Montana’s 147,000 square miles.
From the cheery living area of the Najjars’ small home at the motel we move into a scene that seems right out of 1700s industrial London, when Jim Liebetrau is good enough to show us around the last industrial foundry left in Montana. (That, too, is covered in the related story on Page A1.)
Then it’s off to the Anaconda public library. The “p” and “l” are not capitalized, because that’s not the name of it.
I’ve been in Anaconda many times over the years, although it occurs to me on this trip that it hasn’t been that many, probably because – unless it’s your destination – the city is an eight-mile detour off Interstate 90.
When I have been here, however, I can only remember one time I had reason to venture off of Commercial or Park avenues, the one-ways that take you through town.
Pity that. Among the many things you’ll miss is the Hearst Free Library, two blocks off Park Avenue and yet another Anaconda landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.
U.S. Sen. George Hearst of California was a major investor in Marcus Daly’s mining and smelting operations, which brought him to Anaconda, back in the 19th century, on occasion.
His wife, Phoebe – mother of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and great-grandmother to Patty – accompanied her husband on some of his trips, and took a liking to the company town and its people.
“She was significantly younger than he was,” says library director Mitch Grady. “When he died, she had a pile of money and took up philanthropic causes.”
Phoebe wanted to do something for the people of Anaconda, but when she asked community leaders for suggestions in the late 1800s, they offered none.
So Phoebe suggested a library, at which point the town fathers told her that’s exactly what they wanted to ask for, but thought the request too extravagant.
Phoebe Hearst built them a danged nice one.
“She owned it from 1898 to 1903, and while it was technically a private library, it was still free to the public,” Grady says.
When Anaconda elected a slate of socialist candidates to local office a few years after it opened, and they tried to tax her beautiful library at exorbitant rates, Hearst told them, “Forget it, you can have it,” Grady says. “She donated it to Anaconda,” but continued to donate more books to it for years.
The library’s most prized book, however, came not from Hearst but from the first librarian, Fred Clark, a second cousin to the Hearsts.
“The Birds of America” by John James Audubon, a work of hand-colored prints made from engraved plates, is an 1860 edition locked in a glass display case on the second floor.
Each page cost $500 back then and was sold by subscription. Grady estimates the book’s value at $75,000, and “three times that if you cut it up and sold the pages individually.”
“Some librarian a long time ago figured out it was worth a lot of money,” Grady says. “She was worried the county commissioners would find out and sell it, so she sent it to the state historical society and it stayed there for a long time.”
With that, we’re off to Club Moderne to meet Eddie McCarthy for the first time.
Aside from two years in the Army, McCarthy has spent his entire life here, and we give him the last word on Anaconda.
“As far as I’m concerned,” McCarthy says, “it’s the best place in the world.”
That he hasn’t really lived anyplace else to have something to compare it to isn’t the point.
The point is that he’s never wanted to live anyplace but the town where he was born.