This article is used with permission from
The Montana Standard, Butte, MT

Butte's archives a genealogist's treasure-trove

By Betsy Cohen
The Montana Standard - 12/16/97

More than 100 years of Butte's loves, deaths, murders and political arguments are contained within the walls of the old city fire station at 17 W. Quartz St.

It's the home of the Butte-Silver Bow archives, which hold county records from the 1860s to 1986.

County archivist Ellen Crain says the archives are far from being the home to moldy and dusty old books.

"You find out about murders, divorces -- a lot of rattling of ghosts," Crain said Monday at the archive's open house. "History is a living thing."

Although the archives' primary purpose is to manage the county's government records, it also is a clearinghouse for families interested in finding information about their forefathers.

"We get inquiries from around the world from people looking for documentation of their parents," Crain said.

Last summer Crain helped an Italian filmmaker who was looking for his parents' naturalization papers. the man's mother, an opera singer, met his father, an importer of Italian wines and olive oil, in Butte.

The couple married and later returned to Italy, Crain said.

"The man was just thrilled to see his parents' legal papers," Crain said.

A person's search for a connection to the past does not always turn up good news, Crain said.

"Even though the people being researched are dead, you still find out some bad things. One man came to find out more about his father and learned that he was married to a ... woman other than his mother," she said.

Deciphering local legends and proving long-held community assumptions are among Crain's tasks.

"As a historian we have to have facts for things to be true. And there is a lot of assuming of things that can happen in this field," Crain said.

Among her favorites is the story that the Anaconda Co. maintained files on employees it considered a threat to the war effort during world War II. That had never really been proven -- until the evidence arrived.

"One day somebody found an old filing cabinet with cards in it, dumped it on our table and asked 'what are these?'" Crain said.

The cards turned out to be the files Crain had heard about, but had never known they existed until they were discovered in the old cabinet decades later.

"They were those cards that Anaconda Co. kept -- the ones that had become legend."

The archives operates on a $54,000 annual budget funded by Butte-Silver Bow government.

Stories are written each year by researchers and writers who have scoured the archives' resources, Crain said. Books and movies have been produced from combing through the 1880 jail blotter, or turn-of-the-century cemetery index, or the 1910 widow's pension records, Crain said.

In January, the Lennon Documentary Group will air "Irish in America" on public radio, with an interview with retired Butte Catholic priest Sarsfield O'Sullivan, and historical background from the archives, Crain said.

"The significance of Butte is documented in photos and paper collections that exist," Crain said.

"Which is why it is important for families to think about us when they are cleaning out their basements, she said." "We love any kind of donations that help preserve and keep the history of Butte alive."