By Brad Reynolds
Special Thanks to the Cascade County Historical Society
Mirroring the attitudes and actions of the country as a whole, Montana saw some big changes in the 1950s. Populations became more urbanized and modern conveniences worked their way into the Treasure State. Electricity spread to rural areas, roughly half of Montanans had indoor plumbing, and nationwide road construction was making it increasingly easier to travel. Servicemen who had fought in WWII returned home from battle to find the greatest economic prosperity they had ever known, with many of them building homes, starting families, and opening businesses under the Big Sky.
The average Montanan had many business ventures to choose from at the start of the 1950s. Agriculture, one of the state’s top industries, was particularly fruitful for the first half of the decade. With a growing middle class and WWII’s rations lifted, Montanans could buy more food, creating a high demand for farming and ranching. Even so, the mechanization of agriculture meant that fewer people could operate larger farms and ranches. Many rural families and young people moved into Montana’s larger cities or to other states entirely seeking work.
With an increase in Montana’s urban populations, cities like Great Falls, Bozeman, and Missoula needed to build more houses and factories. This demand for building supplies gave rise to the state’s lumber, aluminum, and oil industries. The discovery of oil at Williston Basin in 1951 helped to increase production dramatically and made Billings the epicenter of Montana’s oil business. Other oil fields, including Cat Creek near Lewistown and Kevin-Sunburst near Shelby, saw high activity as well.
As many businesses boomed, the world’s largest copper producer, Anaconda Copper saw a major shift in demand. Most of their profits were coming from Chile and underground mining in Montana was becoming too expensive and impractical. The process was phased out and in 1955 Butte’s Berkley Pit was opened. As an open-pit mine, low-grade copper could be removed with fewer skilled workers and more equipment. Many Butte residents lost their jobs and left the city to look for work elsewhere and as the Berkley Pit grew, the population shrank. Great Falls had overtaken Butte as Montana’s largest city with a population of over 39,000.
Large numbers of Montanans migrated to Great Falls due to the variety of job opportunities available. Many servicemen who chose to stay enlisted after WWII stayed at Great Falls’ East Base (which was renamed Malmstrom Air Force Base in 1956). In 1955 the McLaughlin Research Institute was started to investigate cancer and in 1958 Buttrey Foods opened the largest superstore in Montana on Great Falls’ 10th Avenue South. Numerous businesses opened and prospered, giving many something to be joyful about at the city’s 75th Anniversary Celebration in 1959.
While the 1950s were a golden age for many, others saw their fair share of hardships. One of Montana’s most important industries, railroads, saw a major decline. Thousands were laid off and many small towns lost their main source of transportation. Montana’s mainstay industries were changing and as a result, the per-capita income of the state was falling behind the rest of the nation.
Those who suffered financially during the 1950s were often those who suffered social hardships as well. While Montana’s racial landscape was much different than that of the south, the state was not without its racial injustice. Billings’ Mexican American population often faced segregation, despite the fact that their labor in the sugar beet fields had made Billings’ Great Western Sugar Company the largest sugar manufacturer in the United States. Filipinos in Great Falls reported that they were refused service in some establishments. Even white Hutterites were treated poorly by some in Montana, partly because their way of living strongly contrasted the consumeristic attitudes of the rest of the country and partly because their religion prohibited them from being drafted during wartime (which some resented).
Though many minorities were treated inhumanely in 1950s Montana, perhaps those who had it worst were not America’s immigrants but its natives. As it had done many times before, Congress decided to change its policy toward Native Americans, terminating federal support of dozens of tribes and selling their tribal land in hopes that the tribesmen would assimilate into modern American culture. Montana Indians successfully fought this shifting policy and not a single tribe in the state was marked for termination; however, government funded services such as schools and clinics were shut down. Without funding, schools, and an adequate number of jobs, thousands of Indians were forced to relocate. Some banded together in cities to form “urban tribes” while others were seen as outcasts by a white majority.
Race relations, natural disasters, and the looming threat of communism imparted fear and anxiety in Montanans during the 1950s, but the decade brought numerous reasons to celebrate as well. The post-war economy helped create a baby boom that started families, improved commerce, and opened schools around the state. Radio, television, and drive-in theaters provided entertainment for Montanans of all ages and incited a youth culture unlike the state had seen before. Family bonds were highly revered throughout the decade and the expansion of paved roads made it easier for families to connect on long car rides and trips to Montana’s national parks and tourist attractions. For many, life in Montana had become the perfect blend of innovation and modesty – a state with all the comforts of the modern age against the backdrop of nature’s pristine beauty.