So you’re cruising old newspapers, looking for winter stories, and you come across — BUTTERCUPS.
Better yet, it’s a story about a guy named Dimpy Pickens.
Dimpy, born in Lolo in 1882 to a Montana pioneering family, made regular appearances in the Missoulian up to his death in 1950. In 1923 he was named by county commissioners “official grasshopper exterminator” of the area south of Missoula.
This story ran on Christmas Eve, 1933. The day before, Dimpy had brought to the Missoulian office a “nosegay” of bright yellow buttercups that were blooming southwest of Missoula “as other parts of the state shivered in temperatures around the zero mark and below.”
Pickens picked them near the entrance of the Fort Missoula reservation.
“The blooms were full-grown and perfectly formed, equal in every respect to those that normally make their appearance in the spring,” the paper reported.
He'd lived here more than 50 years but these were the first buttercups Dimpy had seen growing this time of year.
Maybe so. But offseason buttercup sightings pop up unexpectedly like, well, buttercups in each of the first six decades of the 20th century in Missoulian archives (missoulian.newspapers.com).
To come across them puts a spring in your step, and spring in your heart.
“Buttercups Grow Out in Snow. Bunch of Yellow Beauties is Picked Along the Rattlesnake,” was a headline on Jan. 21, 1905.
On display in Chauncey Woodworth’s store was a small bouquet of the yellow gems from “the vicinity of Jumbo.”
“A few strangers in the city who happened in Mr. Woodworth's store could hardly be made to believe it, one man remarking that they surely must have been raised in a hot bed,” the story read. “The winter thus far has undoubtedly been one of the mildest that Western Montana has had in years and it is quite in contrast with last year, when there was comparatively good sleighing during almost all of the winter.”
There were reports of winter buttercups in both 1918 and 1919 in the Rattlesnake and Mount Sentinel areas.
A man identified only as "an old timer" who had lived in these parts for 25 years told the paper on Jan. 23, 1919, he had "never seen a winter as mild as this one."
He'd just came back from a walk near the unversity where he met a group of students coming down from Hellgate Canyon. Two boys carried large bunches of pussy willows.
"Upon noting my surprise one young lady stepped forward and presented me with a buttercup," the man said. "They said they had found it on the side of Mount Sentinel."
To verify his story, the old timer brought a buttercup and pussy willows to the Missoulian office on West Main Street.
BUTTERCUPS. In January 1926 in Darby, and on Dec. 15, 1929, on Beckwith Avenue in Missoula.
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“Not only that, but … we saw several swarms of gnat! Can you tie that?” the Missoulian wrote of the latter discovery.
Dimpy Pickens’ find in 1933 was the first of five different winters in the 1930s in which December or January buttercups were documented.
“What would the little fellows do should a blizzard catch them?” worried “The Oracle” columnist F.T.F on Jan. 5, 1934. “They are hardy, we know, but are they that tough?”
In Stevensville in January 1935; in Paradise later that year on New Year’s Eve, and again on Dec. 6, 1937.
Buttercups were blooming near Blodgett Canyon west of Hamilton on Dec. 3, 1940. “The waxy brightness … equaled that of springtime,” Mrs. W.E. Walker told the newspaper. Mrs. Walter Ash of south Hamilton gathered pussy willows the same day.
Three days later, Hamilton motorists discovered “dozens of the yellow harbingers of springtime” between Trapper Creek and the West Fork Ranger Station.
A discovery on Lolo Creek a few miles above Lolo at the winter solstice, 1941, prompted the headline: Should Autumn or Spring Get the Credit?
The first buttercups of 1946 were brought to the Missoulian by a "nonchalant" Ted Stevens of Arlee on Jan. 4.
He told the paper it was “nothing at all for the Arlee district of the Flathead to be abloom before other less favored areas."
"There isn't any snow there, (and) the skies are blue and sunny he declared with a somewhat condescending glance at the Missoula weather, which was weeping snow at that particular moment.”
At a family Christmas dinner in 1954, the Grant Maclay family on South Avenue near today’s Rosauers combined buttercups with holly for their table centerpiece.
Max Hughes of Lolo went duck hunting on Dec. 12, 1962, “but brought his wife something more exciting than game — a buttercup,” the Missoulian reported. “It was blooming in a field near the Bitter Root River, apparently unconscious of the fact that this is not the season for buttercups.”
Something happened after 1962 that perhaps only a climatologist can explain.
Either buttercups stopped popping up in the winter or the Missoulian stopped reporting on them. One refreshing exception occurred in 1986.
Naturalist Kim Williams, in the months before cancer claimed her life, wrote: “Too slushy to ski, too wet to walk? Well, console yourself with this: the sagebrush buttercup is out!”
Mavis McKelvey had found a blooming buttercup on Mount Sentinel on Jan. 31, Williams reported with zest. McKelvey had also found open buttercups the previous Nov. 10.
“You know,” she told Williams, “Missoula in 1985 was without the buttercup for only 2½ months.”
Here’s hoping your 2019 is a good one, filled with new beginnings and spring-like surprises even in the darkest depths of winter.