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Saturday Night on the Range: Rural Life in World War I Era Montana

by Tom Staff/Laurie Mercier

We often like to imagine rural life in the past as timeless, “traditional,” and in some way simpler and more authentic. Yet, rural life in the years around World War I, while sometimes recalled as simpler, could often seem very much like life anywhere else. In this interview, conducted by Laurie Mercier in 1982 for the Montana Historical Society, Tom Staff remembers how Montana farmers took other jobs to supplement their incomes. Here he described how the road crew he worked on left camp for dances in town—events which, well after midnight, might turn a little ugly.

Listen to Audio:

Tom Staff: We had to live out there in that camp all summer, all summer and fry bacon... and we didn’t have no refrigeration, you know... and bacon maybe, ham... We lived pretty good, though. [inaudible] and some of us were kind of rough coats but then they... We lived through it, then go to dances on Saturday night. We’d give the girls a bad time.

Laurie Mercier: Give the who a bad time?

Staff: The girls.

Mercier: Where would you go for dances?

Staff: We had little dances around schoolhouses. [inaudible] A feller came in there and he built a nice hall there, just to have dances. They had a store there, kind of a hotel. They had rooms upstairs over the store and then they had people who’d want to come. Why you could get a meal there. They’d give a dance and get quite a crowd and then they’d feed 'em a nice supper in the evening. That was really a good place. Then along toward morning you might have a drunken Indian fight or two. That could get kind of rough. It wasn’t always a drunken Indian. Sometimes it was the white guys who’d get into a little dispute. But anyhow, those things’s part and parcel of it, I guess.

Source: Oral history courtesy of Montana Historical Society.

See Also:Dancing after Dark: A Rural Woman Recalls Farm Life in the Early 20th century
Good Neighbors and Bad: Religious Differences on the Plains in the Early 20th century