Union organizers saw suppression of the antiwar demonstration as an attack on labor organizing. The IWW sent one of its most experienced organizers to Butte: Frank Little.
Butte’s history is replete with tumultuous years, but no year was more tumultuous than 1917. And it was here, in front of the Federal Building, that conflicts over labor and war first bubbled over into violence on a large scale in that year. The next few months would see the city descend into sorrow, anger, and fear.
Workers completed Butte’s Federal Building in 1904. The building’s Beaux Arts style is evident in its use of light stone, its symmetrical façade, and its monumental massing. These architectural elements were strongly associated with the then-popular City Beautiful movement, an urban planning philosophy that sought to bring order and beauty to cities at a time of massive immigration, rapid population growth, and intense industrialization.
Butte exemplified these urban changes. It was famous for its industrial riches, but also infamous for its industrial pollution and filth. And it grew rapidly to become one of the biggest cities in the Northwest in the early 1900s. Most of that growth came from immigrants. The city was exceptionally diverse. There were Bohemians, Turks, Chinese, Cornish, Finns, and dozens of other nationalities and ethnicities. One ethnicity was dominant, however: the Irish. In 1900, Butte had the highest proportion of Irish-Americans of any city in the nation.
For immigrants who hoped to settle permanently in the U.S., the Federal Building was an important place. It was here, in finely-crafted courtrooms, that thousands of naturalization ceremonies took place.
When the United States entered World War I on April 2, 1917, the Federal Building also became the location for draft registration.
Many of Butte’s immigrant groups, however, were hardly enthusiastic about the war. In particular, people from Ireland and Finland had no desire to fight in a war alongside their colonial oppressors, England and Russia. On June 5, Irish nationalists organized a thousand-strong antiwar and antidraft demonstration in front of the Federal Building. The protest soon turned into a large clash with the police. Yet again, the governor imposed martial law on the city.
The antiwar organizers were also involved in a simultaneous effort to reconstitute a miners’ union. Seeing the suppression of the antiwar demonstration as a deliberate attack on labor organizing, Butte unionists sent out calls for help to other unionists, including the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW, seeing Butte’s situation as vital to its cause, chose to send in one of its most experienced organizers: Frank Little.