Here’s a World War I story that’s so good it has to be true. Doesn’t it?
It supposedly happened in Bonner 100 years ago, in early 1918, when labor, war and loyalty hysteria ran high.
Members of the Industrial Workers of the World, a.k.a. “Wobblies,” had turned their attention to the deplorable working conditions of lumber camps in the Pacific Northwest. As many as 100 of them set up camp below the Bonner mill. From there they proceeded to harangue workers and pass out union literature at the gate at quitting time.
Kenneth Ross seethed, according to his grandson John H. Toole of Missoula, who wrote about the so-called Milltown Massacre in at least two books in the 1980s.
Ross was the “big boss” at the mill and “after two days of forays by the IWW. ... had his bellyful,” Toole said in the 1989 book “Red Ribbons.”
Jalmer “Yum” Karkanen witnessed what happened next. He would become a scion in Bonner in his own right as a deputy sheriff and chief security officer for the Anaconda Co. and Anaconda Forest Products Co, retiring in 1971 and dying in 1978.
In 1918 Karkanen was an 11-year-old boy roaming the streets of the company town.
“Your granddad sent a telegram to the Burns Detective Agency in Spokane,” Karkanen told Toole, who quoted him in the 1984 book “The Baron, The Logger, The Miner and Me.”
“These fellows were strikebreakers, big, tough men, and they wore derby hats. They hit the Wobbly camp before daybreak. They carried billy clubs and guns. The Wobblies never knew what hit ‘em. The Burns men waded through the camp beatin’ up the Wobblies and settin’ fire to the shacks. They shot a fellow who was called the ‘Silver-tongued Orator.’ He never made another speech. He got shot in the throat. The Wobblies took off in all directions.”
In “Red Ribbons,” Toole gave more detail, though he didn’t cite his source.
The Burns men peeled off the train at daylight, dressed in black suits and derby hats, and they carried sawed-off shotguns.
“They charged into the camp growling and roaring,” Toole wrote. “The terrorized IWW revolutionaries fled in a panic, and the Burns boys fired a blast at every moving figure.”
Toole claimed they “succeeded in killing or wounding between 21 and 30 men” and a handful of Wobblies grabbed a freight.
Meanwhile, a mile or so across the mill yard, Kenneth Ross sat “impassively eating his breakfast in the Margaret Hotel at Bonner, then sent a crew of security men down the Milwaukee branch tracks to bury the casualties.”
Deliciously incendiary stuff, if it did indeed happen. But mum was the word in the company town of Bonner, and in the local press.
To the latter Toole attributed the May 1917 purchase of the Missoulian and the Missoula Sentinel, in clandestine fashion, by the Anaconda Copper Mining Co.
By then the corporate mammoth owned almost every newspaper in Montana, not to mention the Bonner mill.
What perplexes, after all these years, is that no report of the incident has surfaced in IWW histories, which are reasonably extensive. The so-called Everett Massacre in Washington in 1916 resulted in the deaths of five to 12 Wobblies and two citizen deputies, with nearly 50 others wounded. It’s well-documented from both sides. So is a later “massacre” in Centralia, Washington, involving the IWW on the first anniversary of Armistice Day in 1919. Six people died in that one.
Also puzzling is the date. The previous year, 1917, was the apex of labor strife and violence in Montana. Even as the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the IWW was in Lincoln County organizing a strike of Eureka Lumber’s Fortine River drive. The action spread throughout the Northwest in ensuing months, practically paralyzing a timber industry trying to ramp up for the war effort.
In June the Speculator Mine disaster in Butte, in which 168 men died, led to a massive strike of miners, electricians and others. Frank Little, an IWW leader, was hanged in the midst of it. Reactions to IWW-led walkouts in other states made for what one Wobbly later called “a crescendo of hatred with all stops pulled.”
The profile of the IWW office in Missoula was raised in late June 1917, but mysteriously disappeared from contemporary news accounts by mid-July.
On June 28, some 900 men from the ACM mill in Bonner and the logging camps in the Blackfoot Valley walked off the job.
IWW organizer John I. Turner said their motives were pure. They wanted better working conditions in the woods, an eight-hour day, and a minimum wage of $60 a month.
Ross was convinced German agents were behind the walkout, though he admitted he had no evidence.
“The spies and pro-German element are just using the migratory worker to further the ends they have set out to accomplish,” Ross told the Daily Missoulian.
Turner denied the claim.
“We are more anxious than Mr. Ross is to see German militarism overthrown," he said. "So far as I know there were no Germans working as laborers for the mill.”
We’ll never know what went on behind the scenes in the next 10 days. On July 8, Ross announced the mill and camps would reopen the next day and he expected all workers who were loyal Americans to return to their jobs.
The timber industry isn’t commonly thought of as a public utility, Ross said in a long statement published in the Missoulian. “Yet at a time when the nation is in a state of war, every industry which contributes to the resources of the nation becomes vested with a public interest.”
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By then Turner had gone back to Spokane, where he was among more than two dozen arrested at IWW headquarters in August. Arthur Smith became the Wobblies’ leader in Missoula. He said the men would not be kept from returning to work, but he didn’t think many of them would.
“The IWW does not stand for violence," he insisted. "If we can’t appeal to a man’s reason we have no use for him.”
“We are all American sympathizers, of course,” Smith added. “We are striking for an eight-hour day, better pay and better working conditions, not because of lack of sympathy for the American government. We’ll be as patriotic as the A.C.M. If the company will give all its receipts to Uncle Sam, we’ll give our wages.”
The Missoulian on July 11 said mill officials reported “proceedings as usual.”
“The strikers have established lines of pickets, it is said, but there has been no disorder of any sort,” the paper said.
Editor Martin Hutchens paid a visit to Butte on July 23 and talked to the Butte Daily Post, another Anaconda Co. paper.
“There was some IWW trouble at the timber mills of the Anaconda Copper Mining company at Bonner and the mills were shut down for a few weeks,” Hutchens said. “They are working again.”
And then silence again. In November, the Daily Missoulian reported that IWW agents were circulating posters in Missoula seeking to renew the strike of lumber workers. “Don’t scab,” the circulars urged. “Watch where you work. Washington and Idaho are open; go there to work.”
They said a strike was in force at no fewer than 14 mills in western Montana, including the ACM and William Clark’s Western Lumber company across the river.
“The agitation has had no effect at Bonner,” Ross said. “We are employing none but Americans and American sympathizers, so that the IWW has no chance there.”
“I can’t really say my dad talked very much about it,” Howard Toole said last week, “other than the fact that he felt strongly that Kenneth Ross was the hero of the whole thing.”
Toole, a Missoula attorney, said his father, John H. Toole, would have been 15 when Ross died in 1933. John wrote brilliantly about his experiences with his grandfather as a boy.
“But I don’t think he ever got any inside stories about something like that,” Howard Toole said.
He cited his father's written accounts of the Wobbly incident, including a speech Ross made in September to the Montana Lumberman’s Manufacturing Association. Ross detailed enhancements the Anaconda Co. had already made in its logging camps and prevailed on reticent timber operators to install bathing and reading facilities, steel bunks and springs.
He repudiated the Wobblies' way of doing things, but said in a letter to the secretary of the Western Pine Association in October: “I am convinced that useful work cannot be altogether regulated by the mill whistle, but depends more largely upon the satisfied mental attitude of the employee."
Howard Toole wonders if his father truly quoted Karkanen about the Wobbly “massacre.”
“It might just be reconstructing a statement in his (Toole’s) own words,” he said.
Just as Milltown Massacre stories weren’t passed down to Ross’ descendants, neither were they in the Karkanen family.
“I guess I’m not really surprised to hear about this,” Steve Karkanen said.
He’s the retired director and now a consultant for the West Central Montana Avalanche Center. Karkanen has fond memories of his grandfather and the fishing trips Yum would take him on when he was a boy. Often they were accompanied by his grandfather’s friend, John Moe, Missoula’s sheriff through much of the 1970s.
Steve Karkanen said he was too young to question about the “crazy stories” he heard the two men share.
“There were a number of times he’d start talking about some of the things from the deep, dark past,” he recalled. “But I knew there was a lot of stuff he was very reluctant to talk about.”
In his later years, Yum Karkanen was one of the first to build a home in Bonner Pines, a wooded area across a railroad spur from Bonner School. Like the rest of Bonner, this was once Anaconda Co. property.
John Toole and others cited an archaeological dig there in the 1970s, perhaps initiated by Karkanen. Some remember it as having discovered the bones of buried Wobblies. Other reports say they were American Indian remains. One neighbor said the survey found nothing.
Carling Malouf, a key player at University of Montana in the birth and development of the anthropology and Native American Studies departments, was chairman of the latter from 1969-1977. Many of his records are found in the UM Mansfield Library archives, but there's no mention of a Piltzville or Bonner project.
Riley Auge, curator of the University of Montana Anthropological Curation Facility, said there are no known records in that facility of an archaeological dig in the area. Boxes of Malouf's papers were left to the facility after his death in 2007 but they haven't been inventoried or indexed.
"If he was involved in this project and kept notes on it, they may be in these boxes," Auge said.
In 2007, a group of history-minded locals and former locals convened at Bonner School to consider evidence of the Milltown Massacre. They read Toole's accounts, the evidence from IWW accounts of violence, and considered the geography of their town, in 1917 and nine decades later.
Their conclusion? Yes, Ross probably did something to disperse the Wobblies camp, no doubt using force. No, there was probably no "massacre." And yes, the mystery and intrigue will go on, until proof positive cements or dissolves the mystery of the Milltown Massacre.