Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Good Times are All Gone Now - book

The Good Times are All Gone Now, by Julie Whitesel Weston (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009)

This is, I think, kind of a strange book. The subtitle would lead you to believe it is about “Life, Death, and Rebirth in an Idaho Mining Town.” It is a bit about a mining town, but then it becomes more about going down into the Bunker Hill Mine (on a tour), and then, before you fully realize it, it becomes an autobiographical account of a girl going through Elementary and High School in Kellogg, Idaho, during the 50’s and 60’s. Then, at the end, there is a bit about the town reviving itself and its economy by attempting to become an all-season skiing and golfing resort. This is not to say it is a book without merit or interest, it is just not exactly what it seems.
Ms. Weston was born in Kellogg and went through High School there. She discusses this at some length, playing in the school band, giving up the flute to become a majorette, the football and basketball games, the flirtations, first kiss, first boy friend, fights with her father, and so on. This was a life probably not much different than schoolgirls that age everywhere. The fact that her father was a respected doctor, who was also a musician with a drinking problem, does make it perhaps more interesting than most. He not only had a drinking problem, when drinking he was also very abusive to his wife and children. He apparently was a fine doctor, did not drink when on duty, and was well-liked by the community, the stuff of a small town where everyone knows everyone else. People in such places tend to understand and forgive the problems of their peers.

Weston’s account of being taken down into the Bunker Hill Mine, as much as a mile underground, is both interesting and compelling as a description of what life was like for hard rock miners in North Idaho. She obviously had an ear for the language and writes her account to give the impression she knows more than she probably does (she was in reality little more than an insightful tourist). Her account of the famous brothels of Kellogg and Wallace, Idaho, also suffers from an imperfect knowledge of those institutions. For example, she offers what is purported to be a “menu” for one of the brothels, suggesting different charges for different sexual activities. I am quite certain that no such “menu” ever existed before one of the brothels was converted into a tourist attraction, and I doubt that most of the miners and muckers I knew in Wallace even would have understood what some of the items meant. What was undoubtedly true was that her father inspected the prostitutes regularly to insure they were free of diseases (just like an army, it would not do to have the miners infected and unable to work).

The account of mining, the procedures and their inherent dangers, is well described, and her description of the 1972 underground fire that killed 91 men makes the point dramatically. Her description of living in Kellogg where the polluting waste piled deeper each year, the air was foul, the trees and vegetation disappeared, the “Lead creek” (the Coeur d’ Alene river), filthy with mine waste and garbage ran through the center of town, and many children suffered from far too much lead in their bodies, reminds us of just how much people are willing to tolerate for jobs and security. Interestingly, she does not mention what we called “the con,” the lung disease that many of the miners almost inevitably contracted after long years in the mine.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is her discussion of the miners’ strike that ended in 1960 with the replacement of a national union with a local one, all because of the pathological anti-communism of the 50’s that lingered on in Kellogg even after McCarthy had been discredited. This obsession with communism was so strong it captured the entire city, where they saw communists everywhere. It seemed to be so strong that even whatever few might not have believed it kept their opinions to themselves. I suspect this fear of communism was not unique to Kellogg and probably existed more or less in most of the small North Idaho communities (and seems to linger in some even to the present day). In Kellogg and Wallace this was no doubt related to the history of violent miners’ strikes around the turn of the century, strikes that were the result of the socialist movements of that time that resulted in the assassination of one of the Idaho Governors and the blowing up of the Bunker Hill.

I believe Weston has written an interesting book, it certainly should be of interest to anyone not familiar with the mining districts of Idaho and life in one of the most polluted areas in the United States. The clean up continues even now and is related to the attempt to convert Kellogg into a fine resort by cleaning up the disaster that was Kellogg, Idaho, previously. One thing I never understood is why a consultant they hired to suggest what they should do, suggested a Bavarian theme for the town. There were so many Italians in Kellogg: Faracas, Pechias, Damianos, Puccis, Rinaldis, Biottis, and others, I would have thought an Italian theme would have been more appropriate. Perhaps this is one reason the Bavarian theme has not been very successful. Kellogg did almost die and it is now undergoing a kind of rebirth. What is unfortunate for Weston, although certainly not her fault, is that the truly “good times” were mostly dead by the time she was born (1943). Kellogg and Wallace, at the turn of the century and into the 20’s and 30’s were genuine boom towns, far more exciting and colorful than anything that came later. She seems to have overlooked a wealth of “old timers” who still survive and could have told her much more. But of course one cannot have and do everything.

No comments: