Guest Column

One Lifetime Ago

It’s exciting to see what the next generation will build. This is your time.  

By Mike Jopek

I walked down the field toward dinner. Having just finished harvesting the first farm shares of the year, I thought about people I knew who’d labored hard to assure family had adequate provisions. I had all the luxury of a modern life yet still felt tired.

Jim stood in the bottom of the dug hole that was to become the base of a tower for the power lines that would come from the nearby dam. His job was tamping the dirt to stabilize the forthcoming footings. 

Jim didn’t know to which houses the power would go but imagined it would be revolutionary. He was a thinker. Rural electrification of the West changed lives, and it wasn’t long ago.

After the war, Gladys moved to the Flathead. Their property on the edge of town had no power. That was common and one lifetime ago. It made daily living tougher.

Gladys’s husband worked on the lake in the deep winter harvesting ice, much of which was transported by freight to other states. The ice he brought home kept the food cool in the box. Ice that was buried in mounds of sawdust lasted into the season.

Gladys was tough. When her first house burned down, she sifted through the charred remains and recycled the nails to build their next house. There was no choice, nails were scarce. The next house would have power, thanks to Jim and many like him who worked to electrify rural Montana. 

Now with power, moving water, doing laundry, and keeping food frozen became a whole lot easier and life better. Gladys had a car so getting places required plenty of 30-cent-a-gallon gasoline.

By the 1960s, Bill was hauling crude oil across the open seas in 500-foot cargo ships to help feed the growing demands of a fuel-hungry nation. The ships are massive, an engineering marvel.

Crude made its way across the coasts. People worked hard to refine that oily product into something Gladys could use to fill up the car. 

Lots of men hauled fuel. It arrives at stations, inspectors check for water in the tanks, then hauled hoses to attach to the underground reservoirs. Crude arrived in the Flathead via rail, dumped into open, unlined pits in places like Kalispell and refined into usable fuel.

A lifetime ago people worked hard with their hands to help families across the valley advance. There was no Wi-Fi, no video teleconferencing, and barely electricity in rural Montana. People labored, hunted for food, and grew gardens.

Gladys told stories of the hunt, of sitting by the campfires at night keeping warm as wolf eyes peered inward toward the raging firepit. I hear similar modern-day stories today of wolves attracted to the sound of gunshot anticipating an easy dinner.

People around Montana work hard trying to make life better for family and community. We get by with what we have, do what we must, and put family, faith and community at the center. For working people, much politics is just more noise.

The working people a lifetime ago were ever as tough as those laboring today. We’re determined to put in an honest day’s work. If you work for a living, you know it.  

We’re up early and off to do our jobs throughout the valley. Workers seek dignity, good wages to pay the never-ending bills, and a chance to get ahead. Workers care for family and need to earn enough to buy a place to live. 

I’m grateful that over the past lifetime people like Gladys, Jim, Bill, and thousands of others worked hard to bring us electricity, fuel, and a better life. It’s exciting to see what the next generation will build. This is your time.