It was nothing short of heroic what H.M. Kleinschmidt did that cold, clear night 65 years ago.
Kleinschmidt was one of thousands of unpaid government weather observers, and the world wouldn’t have known the difference if he’d decided not to bundle up in his cabin at 4K’s Mine on the Continental Divide near Rogers Pass and step outside.
It was 2 a.m. on Jan. 20, 1954, and Kleinschmidt felt compelled to check the thermometer in its louvered shelter box.
As Rick and Susie Graetz chronicled in the Missoulian Territory feature last Sunday, Kleinschmidt’s reading was later verified by the National Weather Service at 70 degrees below zero. At the time it was the coldest temperature ever recorded in the United States and it remains the record for the Lower 48, since Alaska joined the union in the meantime. (For the record, the U.S. record is minus-80, set at Prospect Creek in Alaska in 1971.)
But what of H.M. Kleinschmidt?
Bob Gilluly tried to puzzle out answers to that question in 1976.
The veteran reporter for the Great Falls Tribune found that Kleinschmidt belonged to a well-known family that had been mining in the Lincoln-Helena area for generations. He and three uncles (thus, the 4K’s Mine) were tunneling into the mountainside just west of the summit of Rogers Pass.
"All four men had long been interested in weather observations, enthusiastic enough to set up a station in the early 1950s at the Mike Horse Mine farther south,” Gilluly reported in a Nov. 28, 1976, Tribune story. “They moved the station closer to Rogers Pass when the 4K's tunneling work began sometime in 1953.”
Gilluly noted that Kleinschmidt moved to Carmel, California, a year or two later, and the Kleinschmidts closed the 4K’s Mine in 1956. He talked to a Lincoln-area contractor who knew H.M. in the 1950s and learned that our history-making miner and weather tracker had died “a few years before.” His uncles all preceded him in death.
In his typical fashion, Gilluly, whose newspaper career spanned 70 years before his death in 2018, worked hard to learn that much.
What he didn’t have in 1976 were all the dot-coms we have at our fingertips today. A search of the internet, in all its fabulous and insidious wonders, reveals much more about H.M. Kleinschmidt.
On Nov. 1, 1972, the Bay Area Reporter in California carried an obituary for a Harrison M. Kleinschmidt. It didn’t say what killed him, but that Kleinschmidt had died on Oct. 28 in Palo Alto, California. Among other tidbits, which we’ll get back to, the obit said Kleinschmidt’s “lifelong interests were centered in Montana and Idaho — mining properties and claims.”
It seems likely then that Harrison Kleinschmidt was our H.M. Kleinschmidt. And since it listed his age at 54, it’s probable that he was the Harrison Mercer Kleinschmidt born on Aug. 21, 1918, to Julia Graham Holtzclaw Kleinschmidt and Naylor Harrison Kleinschmidt of San Francisco. That according to genealogy.com and a Google book on the Holtzclaw family from 1540-1935.
It didn’t say where Harrison was born, but it did reveal that Julia and Naylor were married in Helena in April 1917.
Little is found about young Harrison’s growing-up years, at least while they were happening. Later it became clear that most of them were spent in the Bay Area of California. By all indications, his father Naylor went by “Harrison.” He was born in 1891, and it was with sadness that we ran across the Associated Press story about the paralytic stroke and death of a 46-year-old miner named Harrison Kleinschmidt in late March 1938 in the wilds of western Idaho.
It said a group of three men, including the sheriff and coroner of Adams County, skied 10 miles in to retrieve the body. When they arrived at the cabin, they found a small, half-famished dog howling mournfully over Kleinschmidt.
“Evidence showed the little dog tried to arouse its master by lightly nipping the man’s cheek, but not biting deeply,” Sheriff Ed Wade said.
Fame, or in this case notoriety, caught up to H.M. the following year.
On Aug. 24, 1939, Oregon newspapers reported that a “21-year-old playboy” from San Francisco by the name of Harrison M. Kleinschmidt was arrested in Portland as a “suspected pyromaniac.”
In September he was indicted for arson by a Multnomah County grand jury for setting a $10,000 fire that destroyed a barn and dairy cattle in southeast Portland. H.M. confessed to lighting at least nine other fires in Oregon and California, starting in 1925, when at age 6 or 7, he burned down the family home in Oakland, California. Police said they traced him by the “peculiarly consistent manner in which the fires were set by a bundle of lighted cigarettes tied to matches.”
Kleinschmidt pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and the jury agreed. In November the presiding judge sent him to the Oregon State Hospital for the Insane.
It’s a bizarre twist to the story that 11 months earlier, in January 1939, his uncle Reinhold Kleinschmidt died at the Montana State Hospital. According to findagrave.com, he was killed in an accident when he was scalded by hot water and suffered first-degree burns to the lumbar region. Two months later Reinhold’s younger brother Franz died at the Idaho State Hospital in Orofino.
Down a father, H.M. was running out of uncles.
By November 1946 he was on the streets of Helena, where he got mugged. The Independent Record reported on Nov. 19 that H.M. Kleinschmidt of the Helena Hotel had been relieved by a “stick-up man” of $300 in cash, $70 in traveler’s checks, a watch and a ring.
Two years later ads appeared in Montana papers soliciting dealers of “America’s lowest priced car, the Town Shopper.
“Contact H.M. Kleinschmidt, Hotel Florence, Oct. 27 only, or write Box 679, Helena,” the Missoulian ad said.
In February 1951, Harrison Mercer Kleinschmidt of San Francisco resurfaced when he sued the city of San Diego for $12,085 “for unlawful arrest, being held in jail without bail and without being allowed to communicate with anyone, for cash that was taken from his car during his detention, and for damage to the car by a dog confined therein.”
His claim was denied.
Did we mention H.M. sued his dead grandfather for libel?
In a bizarre intersection of fate and dates, arguments were heard in the Oregon Supreme Court on Jan. 20, 1954 — the very day of Kleinschmidt's historic weather reading on Rogers Pass.
Kleinschmidt’s legal representative challenged the will of the late Graham Thornton (Holtzclaw) Woodlaw that left to Harrison Mercer Kleinschmidt of Helena and Lincoln, Montana, just $10. Woodlaw, who died in 1950, said he’d already given Harrison $1,000, which he’d squandered.
The 10 bucks “expresses the regard in which I hold my said grandson, who deserted his mother and myself by taking sides against me in a lawsuit, and because he is a slacker, having shirked his duty in World War II,” dear old grandpa wrote.
Citing no precedent, “since the question of a right to recover for libel by will has never arisen under … common law,” the Supreme Court sided with Kleinschmidt.
We could swerve into the story out of Portland in December 1929, where Circus Theater owner G.T. Woodlaw and his daughter, Mrs. H. Kleinschmidt, were injured when a Christmas package delivered to the theater exploded as Woodlaw was opening it. The bomb contained a mixture of tear and mustard gas. Union operators had been picketing Woodlaw’s theater since September.
And there was the story in 1932, when Woodlaw was arrested for showing the new Al Capone movie, "Scarface," after the local censor board banned it in the face of protests by Portland Italians.
Harrison’s last two uncles on the Kleinschmidt side, Albert and Harry, died in 1955 and 1959, respectively. Both were miners and engineers. Harry, 75, died at the Rogers Pass mine of natural causes. His body was found by Harry and a nephew, presumably Harrison.
Then things got interesting.
Remember Harrison’s obituary in 1972 in the Bay Area Reporter?
The weekly newspaper, founded in 1971, is still operating. According to its website it is “the newspaper of record for the San Francisco Bay Area Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender community.”
The obit said that Harrison M. Kleinschmidt was better known as J.D. Mercer, or “Merc” as some of his associates called him.
Merc was “an investor in several businesses related to the gay community,” including a sauna bath enterprise in Palo Alto and a bookstore in San Francisco.
In 1959, it went on, Mercer had published “They Walk in Shadow,” described as a “compendium on sexual variations with emphasis on the ambi-sexual and homosexual components.”
It was nearly 600 pages long, which might explain how Merc was whiling away the winter hours on Rogers Pass five years earlier.
“J.D. Mercer has spoken out sanely and courageously against the needless and inhuman persecution of sex deviants which still persists in our society and he makes suggestions for changes in our sex laws that invite serious consideration,” wrote a marriage counselor and therapist reviewer in New York.
If you google “They Walk in Shadow,” you’ll find citations and mentions of Mercer’s book in at least a dozen studies of homosexuality and gay rights, several of them in the 21st century. The most recent, “Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement” by David K. Johnson has a publication date of Feb. 26, 2019.
The obituary turned to Mercer/Kleinschmidt’s “lifelong interests” of mining in Montana and Idaho. It said that a few years before Kleinschmidt had sold “some of his vast copper holdings” to a large Montana mining company. At about the same time, he invested in a company that manufactured rubber bumpers. It developed a design for a safety bumper used on taxicabs and buses in San Francisco. In 1971, Mercer was recognized as the Bay Area Reporter’s Promotional Genius of the Year, though you can't tell from the obituary whether or not it was a tongue-in-cheek accolade.
“Once a cab driver in Vallejo, Mercer always drove with deadly direction and determination,” the obituary read. “Many who have ridden with him in various big cars often marveled at how he had so few accidents — but that was Mercer.”
There was no mention of Harrison M. Kleinschmidt’s serial arson days as a youth, nor of H.M. Kleinschmidt’s heroism on Rogers Pass that cold January night in 1954.
Those stories were left for the internet age.