As famous union organizer Frank Little's body was swinging from a railroad trestle in Butte, Billings had its own union problems.
Billings came close to adding a body to the count of casualties in the restless and paranoid year of 1917.
Although historians would remember Little, who was martyred for his IWW cause — Industrial Workers of the World union members, referred to as "Wobblies" — many would forget the violence, strikes, brawls, mobs and spies in Montana during 1917 and 1918.
The Magic City of Billings, which became synonymous for tolerance and solidarity with its "Not In Our Town" motto in latter part of the century, was equally well known during World War I for its patriotic zeal that would declare "not in our town" to all things German.
1917 was a tough year — America had officially entered the war on the side of France and Britain, but not without criticism at home, largely from a wave of immigrants and first-generation Americans who had ties to Germany and Austria. At home, the Speculator Mine fire in Butte had started labor unrest that culminated in Little's murder. The state's largest company, Anaconda Mining, feared union interference would slow copper production desperately needed for the war effort.
Around the state, unrest was spreading, and local officials were jittery.
In Billings — on the same day as Little was murdered — restaurant owner George Brachos narrowly escaped a lynching of his own when he was chased by a mob of striking union men.
Brachos owned the Princess Cafe, a restaurant at 11 N. Broadway.
The union mob had gathered at his restaurant to protest one of their members who had been assaulted the night before.
Dave Petrovich, who was a member of the cooks and waiters union, had been beaten by a fellow Princess Cafe employee, Mike Cachicapolis. Petrovich had been picketing the cafe with a sign that read, "Unfair to organized labor." Cachicapolis rushed from the cafe and belted Petrovich. As Petrovich was on the ground, Cachicapolis continued to hit and kick him.
The next day, a larger crowd had gathered outside the Princess Cafe. When Brachos decided to use the front door instead of the alley exit, a mob began to follow.
The mob matched his speed.
“Then, bedlam broke loose,” the Billings Evening Journal reported.
Brachos ducked into the Forum bar, and “his pursuers gathered around the door, planning their next move against the Greek.”
At this point, a Billings Police captain arrived and told the crowd to disperse. Another union official stepped forward to help quell the crowd. But for safe measure, police escorted Brachos back to his cafe.
But the union wasn’t finished there.
It continued to beef up the picket lines and threaten other businesses who weren’t sympathetic to the union cause. The organizers “made notes of the names of various business men and their wives who entered the place.” The picketers then threatened to picket and place the placard of “unfair” in front of those businesses who supported Brachos.
An editorial in The Billings Evening Journal said that Billings had enjoyed “sensible agreements” between employer and employee.
“Billings employers and Billings union men cannot afford to discard this policy now; so The Journal respectfully asks that the rough stuff be canned.”
The Wobblies are coming
The union discord didn't stop with the dustup at the Princess. A handful of Wobblies went to Butte for Little's funeral. His funeral would be the largest ever recorded there.
Meanwhile, local officials feared for more unrest — and they had good reason.
As soon as the funeral was done, Wobblies, many of whom were scared by Little's murder and the threats made to other union leaders, looked for places to get work or lay low.
The Billings Evening Journal warned residents “we are preparing for an influx of members of that organization within the next few weeks that will make members who have been in the city recently look small.”
A week later, the government began asking citizens to spy on each other. In a headline that read, “Citizens asked to Report Enemies,” the Assistant U.S. Attorney in Billings asked anyone who had “overheard conversations in which the government is attacked or who knows of treasonable acts” to report them.
The Yellowstone County attorney assured residents in Billings that those tips would be acted upon promptly.
“It is believed from the tenor of Attorney Baldwin’s letter that the United States government is contemplating some drastic action against the members of the Industrial Workers of the World in this and other states, where, it is charged, they have been stirring up sedition,” the Journal wrote.
Unrest had spread to Billings' sugar refinery where some members of the workforce were still holding out against management for better working conditions.
The situation was so skittish that even reports of sabotage ran rampant in Billings.
For example, The Billings Evening Journal had sent a reporter to the Russell-Miller Milling Company because of a supposed explosion. When the journalist arrived, the employees were confused, saying they hadn't heard anything. No one at the Northern Pacific railyards next door had heard anything about sabotage or bombing, either.
The reporter had heard that a Wobbly had planted a bomb. Instead, the company told the concerned reporter that it had just completed some blasting at the site in preparation for a new scale. Blasting, but no bombs.
When news of a IWW strike happened in Spokane, federal troops had to be called into Washington. Local leaders pondered in the press whether railyards in Laurel might need the same because there was a small contingent of Wobblies at work there.
Newspapers reassured residents that the police were keeping a secret list of union members.
Just in case.
Yellowstone Jail Blues
The only credible case of union organizing taking place was safely behind bars at the Yellowstone County Jail.
Having possibly heard of other sympathy strikes around the country, inmates from Yellowstone County Jail organized a protest of sorts on Aug. 19 — less than two weeks after the murder of Little.
It started at about 9 p.m., when prisoners started banging on bars, yelling about mistreatment. The racket caused such a disturbance that nearby residents gathered outside the jail and the reserve police force was called in, fearful that a full-scale riot had broken out.
Yet, when the reserves rushed the building, they found prisoners behind bars and guards just fine, if not a bit frazzled by the ruckus.
County officials had planned to let the prisoners scream themselves hoarse.
Still, Billings Police Chief Bert Talgo reassured residents.
“If any members of that organization want trouble, trouble is what they will encounter,” Talgo said.
The next night, prisoners gave an encore performance — this time to weary nearby residents and neighbors. Residents within a five-block area were apparently kept up all night by speeches, banging and clanking, and “ribald songs.”
Sheriff Matlock threatened that he would turn the water hoses on any of them, but as soon as the hoses were brought out, the noise died down, only to start up again as the hoses were put away.
According to accounts, there were songs, speeches in favor of the Wobblies, and then yelling.
Unable to sleep, as many as 500 people gathered on the south part of the jail, at approximately Fourth Avenue North and North 27th Street.
The prisoners charged that Matlock had cut the daily rations at the jail in order to buy gasoline for his automobile.
The newspaper reporter couldn’t quite get all the lyrics of the song the prisoners seemed to repeat, but he did record some parts, “Hallelujah, give us a handout; hallelujah, I’m a bum.”
The song was surely the famous IWW song, "Hallelujah I'm a Bum."
The next morning, after the prisoners had again worn themselves out, tired citizens arrived at the jail and demanded that Matlock do one of three things: Give them T-bone steaks, turn them loose or "compel them to stop the nightly performance."
On the third night, nearly 100 people showed up south of the jail for what had become a nightly show. But, Matlock had put the city fire department on standby, ready turn the fire hoses on at a moment's notice.
The crowd left disappointed.
Nothing happened except, “the peaceful singing of an extremely amateur quartet.”
Editor's note: The online version of this story has been edited to correct a name misspelling.