By Diane Larson
April 5, 2020Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the March 2020 issue of the Shop.Dine.Play
“What drew me to the mining museum was that they were hiring for a seasonal position. It sounded fun,” explains Jeanette Kopf the Executive director of Butte’s World Mining Museum (WMM). A happenstance position for a season lead her to a new-found love and passion for not only Butte’s history but ways to preserve and show it off for all to experience.
Kopf started working as a seasonal employee at the Mining Museum and now occupies the Executive Director’s chair. One thing has kept her going is that she sees and understands the importance of maintaining a community’s heritage and the handing down of that heritage. “There’s a lot of reasons behind why it’s important to preserve our history and educate the community about that history,” said Kopf. She went on to explain that “history does tend to repeat itself and, and you know the old cliché, we can learn from the past.” There are things in place today that are there for our benefit and welfare because of the fights and struggles of those who went before. “Butte has such an interesting, unique history in and of itself, it really comes to show how so much has been developed because of that history, for instance with the unions,” said Kopf
Kopf explained that she grew up in a union house in California; her father was a representative for the teacher’s union, so union was common in her house. “Coming to Butte and starting to learn it’s past with the unions was an education. To learn for instance where the eight-hour day came from and more brings a new understanding and respect for our history.
When Kopf started her time at WMM she was a seasonal employee. She was the seasonal educational director running the education department with workshops and that sort. She held that position for a few years.
When the curator retired, a position came open. The museum had someone in place that took care of photos, and so, the director at that time asked Kopf if she would take over collections. Kopf’s kids were older, and she felt that she had the time and certainly the curiosity for the work, so she said yes. Kopf said that when she was in school, she hated history; however, being at the WMM and becoming entrenched in the history of a place like Butte, the field quickly became a real interest of hers, and she grew to love it.
Kopf received another bump up the ladder when then the photo archivist left. Kopf moved into the curator’s position. She liked the job, but it didn’t last long.
Another opening quickly appeared. “So in December our Director moved on and I took the Directors position as interim because someone needed to be in place for the running of the museum,” said Kopf.
By this time Kopf had just about worked all of the jobs. She had run the gift ship, been curator and even helped with some maintenance, and she had been education director. The only thing left was executive director. She inexorably moved from interim executive director to full time executive director, the position she holds today.
The museum saw 29,225 people in 2019, which was 2000 people up from the year before. In 2015 when she took over, they saw 18,000 or 19,000 people. “There has been a steady increase in visitor ship for a number of years. even before I took over but we’ve definitely seen a growth in tourism. Butte is becoming more and more popular,” said Kopf. She attributes this, in part to the fact that Butte and the WMM are advertising themselves better. However, she believes that the word of mouth positive advertising is really gaining momentum.
Because of this growth the museum has been able to extend the season the past few years. As they are drawing more people in, they have opened for weekends in November “when the weather is nice to us,” said Kopf.
Some changes have come to the museum as well. Exhibits have changed as interest changes and grows. Traffic to and between Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park has been up the past few years. Because Butte sits in between these, the numbers of visits increases as well. WMM gets stop-on-the-way traffic, Kopf said.
Some of the events for this year include, Miner’s Union Day, June 13th. There will be music, historical talks, vendors and possibly food truck on site. The WMM is partnering with another organization in town to do a Miner’s Union Day. This day generally brings in about 500 people.
‘Half-Way to St. Patrick’s Day’ is a relatively new celebration. The WMM held it’s first one last year and will continue the celebration this year. This will take place on September 13, 2020. The plans for the 2020 celebration promise to be quite a bit different. 2019 being a learning year was not without it’s growing pains said Kopf. “But we celebrated the Irish with some road bowling, bag pipers on top of the Orphan Girl headframe and even more music. Plans are still being made for this event. But it promises to be big fun.
Another event this year is called ‘Orphan Girl’s Fallen.’ This event is dedicated to the eight men that lost their lives in or on the Orphan Girl Mine Yard. “We are researching their stories, where they came from, trying to figure out why they came here and if they had families here,” said Kopf. We do know what position they held within the mine so we are just trying to tie their story all together to tell it in earnest and with respect. There will be a couple days of presentations where you get to go and hear these stories. The event will be a peripatetic narrative, which means that, “There will be a trail into the underground mine where you can hear and experience the story as you are walking through the mine,” she said. Actors are in place and lined up to play these characters. “We’re taking these new, never before heard stories beyond Copper Kings; beyond the well-known, well loved and respected popular stories that are already documented and held dear in our history to the people who worked the mines, gave their lives. We are going to the common man and we are going to try and tell those stories,” explained Kopf. Because, after all it is on their backs also that this town was built, she noted.
At the World Mining Museum, “we have a Memorial wall with the names of over 2,500 people who lost their lives in or on the mine yards here in Butte. So, this is just the beginning of our story telling. We are hoping to grow this event and find out more personal histories so we can tell more stories,” said Kopf.
This December, in 2020, the museum holds its National Miners day Gala. This is an event that happens every other year and this is the year. The event will be at Copper King Convention Center on December 6, 2020. The gala is “our big fundraiser for our mining heritage center that we’re working on and actually breaking ground for one of the phases as soon as we get the okay from the fire Marshall,” said Kopf.
Another exciting event that will take place this year is a collaboration between the WMM and the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives. “I’m extremely excited about this event. Every fifth grader in the Butte unified school district will be visiting the archives and the museum in April. They will complete a project that will include using the resources of both the archives and the museum,” said Kopf. This will teach the students, not only a bit of our history, it will teach them what resources are available, how to use the resources, and how they tie together.
With all of this going on the WMM have been in the process of adding on. “Since I was hired as director in 2015, we started talking about a new building; we need a building, our bathroom facilities are interesting to say the least,” said Kopf. She explained that not only are the bathroom facilities inadequate, but the museum doesn’t have proper archival storage. Even the gift shop barely gets by with enough room when they have large groups visit the museum.
An architect was hired a couple years ago to do a conceptual design for the building. They held a week long series of workshops with the community, with the board and other organizations around town. From this they mapped out what they were doing and why. They came up with three key things which were laid out in the conceptual design of the building.
Those include space in which to preserve the past, space to explain the present, and room to explore the future of mining.
Preserving the past is one section. A gift shop and new exhibit area will promote the present “Our mission and our policy is to preserve Butte and its mining history prior to World War II, but we want to grow that. There is still so much going on in mining and mining still affects the history here today,” said Kopf. The new exhibit space will be about promoting the present and telling the story of how the past has influenced today.
Next, new classrooms will be installed. The museum will not only promote the present, but also educate the future “because in order to preserve the past and promote the present we need people to do that,” said Kopf. The classroom will fill that purpose.
Also, Kopf explained that because of several generous donors and grants construction of an outside pavilion has been made possible. That will provide Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant bathrooms. The stage area or the pavilion area will be available for rent so guests can hold outdoor conferences, weddings, and family gatherings. This area will be used for outdoor education at the museum. The education program hasn’t been in place of late because of the lack of proper facilities; this new area will give the needed space. The hope is, Kopf explained, that if everything falls into place, there will be a new pavilion at the WMM by the end of the summer.
The museum holds tons of Butte history and it shares it with other organizations so that it can be appreciated. “We have so much in storage and that’s not where it should be. We want to share it with the public,” said Kopf. One example is the bar at Headframe Spirits which is on loan from WMM. There are also several smaller exhibits around town at participating organizations. These exhibits make visible our past and the people who went before. Montana Tech, Hampton Inn, Butte-Silver Bow Public Library all have displays from WMM.
In the 1960s a group of people got together and decided that they wanted to preserve Butte and its mining history. They thought that it was important because Butte stands because of mining. These volunteers were gathering artifacts and looking for a place to put a museum. They were looking at a space over by the mall. “The Anaconda Company caught wind of what this group of volunteers was trying to do and they donated the Orphan Girl Mine Yard,” said Kopf. It had ceased operations in the 1950s and was just sitting there so they donated the land that the Orphan Girl is on to the museum, and in July of 1965 the museum opened its doors for the first time.
The World Mining Museum holds over 22 acres of mining history. The headframe and the engine room were the only two things there when the Anaconda Company donated it. Then Hell Roaring Gulch went up: St. Helena’s Church was moved over as well as St. Patrick’s Church. There are about 18 exhibits that were moved to that spot for Hell Roaring Gulch. To say the least, it has grown considerably in the last 55 years. Most of the gathering, moving and building of this museum was done with only volunteers. The first paid staff didn’t happen until the 1990s
The World Mining Museum is a treasure in Butte; we are a lucky community to be able to have this history at our fingertips. This year, 2020, the museum is 55 years old. It was started by volunteers and continues to have a generous volunteer base.
The official season for the museum is April 1, through October 31, weather depending. “If we have good weather before April 1 we can open, as well as at the end of the season. If November is good, we will open for some hours generally on weekends,” said Kopf The underground mine tours go on, if at all possible, daily.
The museum is open 7 days a week, Monday through Saturday 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, and on Sunday they open at 10:00 am and stay until 6:00 pm. In the past two years they have stayed open until 7:00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. This may happen again this year in June. For ticket costs and more information go to https://miningmuseum.org/
Memberships are key to sustaining the museum. It is one of the things that keeps the museum running. Memberships are for a year and include admission to the museum for that entire year. Other benefits include special events at reduced rates, discounts in the gift shops and the newsletter. Currently Kopf is looking to add to and extend membership benefits. For the membership information go to their website.