Libby’s Forgotten History

By Beacon Staff

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LIBBY – The images of roughneck loggers and fearless pioneers, of dusty sawmills and dark mine shafts, mean only one thing to Jeff Gruber: that it’s time to tell Libby’s story, again. After all, the last time anyone published a history book about the Northwest Montana town was in 1920.

“Each of these images has a story,” said Gruber, who has been working on a pictorial history of Libby for the past five years.

Gruber, a history teacher at Libby High School, has gathered almost 600 photos covering the early settlers through the 1970s. Most of the images are from the archives stored at The Heritage Museum in Libby and are the basis of a 216-page book, split into the three sections: one part on logging, another on the community and a final section on the areas around Libby, including the mines. The book will cover some of the mining operations of W. R. Grace and Co., a company that has become synonymous with the town and asbestos, but it won’t be a focal point. Gruber said entire books could address that story, which, in some ways, is still being sorted out.

Gruber said he decided to focus on the logging history of the town for a couple of reasons, mostly because it is such an important aspect of the city’s history, but also because it’s a forgotten part of Libby’s past.

“The narrative has changed,” Gruber said. “(People) view a stump or road as a failure, as an example of industry gone awry.”

But Gruber said people should remember that, without logging, Libby wouldn’t be the town it is today and at one point it was a prime example of responsible logging practices. In the 1950s, Northwest Montana, including Libby, was a testing ground for sustainable logging – planting more than what was cut – and that became a source of pride for the entire town.

“A community and industry worked in concert with the land,” Gruber said.

Because Libby, led by the J. Niels Lumber Company, was an early adopter of sustainable logging practices, it attracted attention from around the country and the company worked hard to record its practices and history. Gruber said company photos make up an important section of the book’s photos, but some pioneers also worked hard to take pictures of their activities in the early 1900s.

“If you feel that you’re doing something important or significant, you’ll document what you’re doing,” he said. “Some people realized that they were living in extraordinary times.”

Gruber also said in some instances the pictures the pioneers took were better than what people take today, even though it was much harder to capture an image back then. Gruber said without the efforts of those people to record what they did, his project would be nearly impossible.

After five years, people often ask Gruber when he plans on finishing the project: “It’s almost a bad joke (around school),” he said, laughing. But now that a variety of chores have been completed on his family’s new home, Gruber hopes to self-publish the book, which is currently in the design phase, in a year or so. Even though it’s taken time, he’s confident it will be successful.

“Libby has a fascinating history,” he said.

The last time someone told that fascinating history was in 1920, Gruber said, when the Libby Woman’s Club published “Nuggets to Timber.” And he may be the perfect person to tell it again.

“You teach for 22 years and you realize that everyone’s mind is wired differently,” he said. “My mind has been wired to try and understand the world, and what happened here.”

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