Obama Heads Back to Butte

As scheduled, Evel Knievel days will be coming back to town late in July. On top of that I hear the lad from Chicago who wants to live in the White House is on the way for our 109th straight July 4 parade.

As you may know, Knievel is no longer with us and could it be possible Mr. Obama will ride the route in a big shiny Harley wearing one of those knockout red, white and blue daredevil outfits that Bob Knievel made so famous around the world. I have my doubts but if governor Brian Schweitzer shows up a la Evil Knievel, who here would be surprised?

And when in Chicago, Knievel hung out at a joint called Chester’s at 63rd & Archer. The Chicago Sun-Times visited Chester’s after Knievel’s death last winter and talked to Archie Greenaberg who said Knievel drank beer and Wild Turkey, “I asked him how he could drink that stuff.”

Knievel said. ‘I’m a daredevil. What do you think I’m gonna drink? Pink squirrels?’ ”

And so it was in this neighborhood bar in Chicago, where the famous Knievel would hold court and tell his stories, but never in a bragging sort of way according to Archie.

Sometimes neighborhood kids would interrupt, and Knievel would send them off with an autographed picture or lead a group back to his motor home and trailer to show them his motorcycles and colorful jumpsuits and on some days deliver a talk on bicycle safety and the importance of wearing a helmet
at the next door fire department..
“There’s a lot of bad you hear about him. You don’t hear the good,” said Greenaberg. “There was so much good to that guy.”
As for Knievel, he remembered  Chester’s was just down the street from the best Friday night fish fry in Chicago done by the Summit V.F.W  where he would entertain the kiddies on his motorcycle. Could it be Obama ran into Knievel in Chester’s or at the fire department’s Friday night fish fry?  Stranger things have happened.

Then there are Democrats and Republicans in this so called “red state.” Since statehood in 1889, there have been no Republicans in Butte. And even today you can go months or years without seeing a cowboy hat here.  But FDR, Harry Truman, John and Bobby Kennedy have drawn big crowds. And it will do well to remember that Butte’s most famous political speech came from Harry Truman in June of 1948. Truman’s car was nearly swallowed by the men, women and children of that boisterous working class Butte of 1948. The street crowd up to old Eso Naranche stadium for the speech was estimated at 40,000 spirited people. Inside the stadium were another 18,000 supporters were waiting. Many of those on the street route then surrounded the stadium to cheer Truman on.

And with Butte yelling “give em hell,” Truman could say he was only telling the truth and the Republicans thought it was hell. See JACKIE CORR: When Harry Truman Stopped in Butte   https://www.counterpunch.org/corr03202004.html


So when the news came that Barack Obama was coming back to the old mining city a few hours ago –
Mike Mansfield worked nine years underground at the Leonard Mine- I was reflecting on the upcoming “Knievel Days” and another famous lad from our past who is seldom mentioned anymore.


It is quiet now on the first block of East Galena.

And in the quiet, Stanley Ketchell has reclaimed the block. And like East Galena Street, Stanley Ketchell has been dead for a long time. But in Butte, before there was a Knievel, there was a Ketchell.

On a Saturday evening in 1910, a wire reached William Floto, sport’s editor of the Butte Intermountain. In the next day’s paper a simple box ran under his byline. “Stanley Ketchell is dead and not yet 24 years old. May God have mercy on his soul.”

In New York City, Ketchel’s manager, Wilson Mizner. expressed shock to the big city’s papers: “It’s not him. The kid can’t be dead. Start counting and he will get up.”


But not all were surprised to hear of the gunning down of the 24 year old world champion, the self-proclaimed “toughest guy on the planet.” In death, the Anaconda Standard, Montana’s largest and most influential newspaper, noted Ketchell’s many ties to the Butte underworld.

“For a long time Stanley Ketchell hung around the bad lands making his living in as easy a fashion as he could, but always ready to fight. He lived by taking on other fighters at resorts in the rough part of town where a prize fight was an added attraction to the varieties and the liquor. At one point in his career in Butte, Ketchell was in danger of being run out of the city by the police for ‘having no visible means of support.’

In a few years, another Rocky Mountain mining camp fighter was making a name for himself in red-light mining towns far south of Butte. Out of Manassa, Colorado, hopeful followers were calling a new guy “another Ketchell.” The new guy was fighting under the name of Jack Dempsey. For many years Dempsey ran a celebrated New York resturant where a picture of Ketchell was prominently displayed.

In the 1930’s and 40’s, New York’s celebrity writer, Daymon Runyon (“Guys and Dolls”) noted  “the memory of Stanley Ketchell prejudiced the judgment of anyone who was ever associated with him. They can never see any other fighter.”

And seventy years after Ketchell’s death, in 1980, the World Boxing Hall of Fame named its first twelve members. Along with Ketchell were Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Henry Armstrong, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore. All but Ketchell had long ring careers, some spanning decades.

But in death as in life, Stanley Ketchell’s qualifications for admission were brief yet as spectacular as any firework show ever seen anywhere. His official record covered but seven years and only 26 of his 67 or so fights took place outside of Montana.

Unsaid or unknown, was the fact that most of Ketchell’s bouts took place in the Butte red-light district, at a quasi-brothel and hurdy gurdy house where the scanty costumes of the females earned it the nickname of “The Fairy Palace.”  To Mary MacLane up at Butte High School, the girls that worked these red-light theaters were known as “box rustlers” and this particular red-light nightspot contained a full stage and seating for a 1,000. Officially it was the Casino and it was located at 15 East Galena.


On September 2,1907, the 20 year old Ketchell won the middleweight title and was quick about it when he knocked out the respected Mike “Twin” Sullivan in San Francisco in the first round..

The San Francisco Chroncile described the win over Sullivan: “Ketchell swung a vicious left to the jaw.Then before he could whip over his right the Boston man dropped to the mat and lay there like ‘a cod in a pot.’ There were not six blows landed in a fight that lasted one minute and 18 seconds. Sullivan did not recover consciousness for several minutes. The referee Billy Roche mumbled “My goodness, he’s dead.”

In 1909, Ketchell went to New York City to meet the bigger and highly regarded light-heavyweight champion, “Philadelphia Jack ” O’Brien who had fought Jack Johnson to a draw the year before. By then, Ketchell was a fighter who could guarantee a big gate anywhere. With the inactive and evasive Tommy Burns ducking Jack Johnson, who in turn showed no interest in fighting Ketchell, Butte’s red-light kid, with his boyish movie star good looks, was boxing’s matinee idol. Along with  the Detroit Tigers baseball player Ty Cobb, his was the most recognized name in American sport.
New York fell in love with Stanley Ketchell and those at ringside that night, like a young reporter named Nat Fleisher along with the great Damon Runyon, never forgot the sudden explosion that left New York talking for days.

Living up to his star billing, Ketchell stunned the crowd by knocking O’Brien out of the ring in the tenth where O’Brien would lay with his head resting in a resin box in his own corner. “Philadelphia Jack” was out for nearly five minutes.

Finally six moths later, just south of San Francisoco in Colma, Ketchell finally caught up with Jack Johnson, who in Ketchell’s eyes had been ducking him. Ketchell even had Johnson on the canvas the twelvth round  before Johnson knocked him out in October of 1909. That was the last fight Stanley Ketchell ever lost.

Edward “Gunboat ” Smith, a top heavyweight contender of a later era told a story of his youthful experiences as a sparring partner for both Ketchell and Johnson at San Francisco before the bout. After the fight the two got together and Butte’s Red-Light Kid gained a little revenge.

“The same night they went down to Jim Crawfords, across the city line. He run a gambling hall down there, down at Colma. Johnson and Ketchell that night of the fight – they fought in the afternoon – that night they went down there and they were shooting craps and Stanley Ketchell took seven hundred dollars off big Jack Johnson in a crap game. Now you figure it!”

And when Barack Obama arrives in Butte on Friday, the very first block of East Galena Street, once the heart and soul of the old Butte underworld, will be quiet and mostly deserted..  And if a person is so inclined, a good place as any to reflect on the fleeting nature of what we know as the world.

And if the Ketchell story remains an improbable one – and it is – it  because of, or despite the fact this ring legend was described as a heavy drinker, gambler and womanizer? And if that wasn’t enough he smoked cigars and had a well know taste for opium, the old Butte vice. Even Hollywood couldn’t have imagined such a story as Stanley Ketchell and a century later what better choice to represent Butte’s Ragtime-Red-Light era then this most memorable ghost of East Galena Street.

Not only that. Butte (Silver Bow County)  has yet to vote for the Republican candidate for president in the 19th or 20th century and I see no reason to think it will be any different this November which will make it  30 defeats n a row for the hated Republicans. And anybody that knows anything knows that , at heart, Butte has always been closer to the “wobblies” then any Republican political party.

Remember that next time you hear Montana is a “red state.”

JACKIE CORR can be reached in Butte, Montana at jcorr@bigskyhsd.com