Addie Irwin and Dancing with Time
By David R. James
Cognitive scientists believe we use our working memory for three kinds of processes as we write: planning what we intend to accomplish, transferring our plans into actual texts, then reviewing what we have done to see if it worked. (Umphrey)
A visit with Addie Brock Irwin was an exercise at flirting with events, people, and places that took place before World War I. Addie was born on March 6, 1899 and lived in the bustling little town of Gateway, Montana. A town now all but forgotten. A town that not only does not exist, its original location is under a hundred feet of water from Lake Koocanusa that backs up the Libby Dam in northwest Montana and British Colombia. Finding more about this little vibrant community of Gateway through the voice of Addie Irwin was the intent of my last conversation with Addie. The exercise, though a noble one (one to pursue further), was like dancing with time.
Addie Irwin photo Mountain View Manor, Eureka, MT 7/20/01
Gateway had one general store. It was a little town, but there were people who crossed the line (border) all the time. (Irwin)
The question posed to Addie was what kind of town was Gateway and how many people lived there. The recall of the town, though vague, points out two significant factors in her life as a teenager: going to the store, and all the people that crossed the U.S./Canada border daily.Gateway was not only on the Kootenai River and the Great Northern Railroad; it was also the border crossing into Canada. It was then that I asked her about the biggest social or cultural event of the year in Gateway.
The biggest event of the year was the Mulligan Dance and many people came from Eureka and all around to attend. Close to one hundred people attended. All the women of the town got together the day of the dance and prepared items grown or wild game was brought. We were pretty busy the day before and worked all day long getting ready. All the women were involved in one way or another. Some would be making pies and cakes for the dance as well. One of the things I remember (about the Mulligan Dance) is how well people got along together. There was no fusing. They seemed to care a lot about one another and they didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, as it seems they (people today) do now. (Irwin)
Addie’s comments about the now infamous Mulligan Dance are indicative of life in rural America around 1910. Â Dancing was a main way to get everyone together and the women had the arduous task of food preparation. Probably not much has changed in this regard; however, the male role of gatherer of food is not so easily defined in the 20th century. Much of the food that was brought to the dance, which was required for attendance, was wild. And, according to some sources, the bringing of food was the only requirement for admittance to the dance. (Stahl) Addie explained further in her comments that her brothers would sometimes get a deer to be butchered for the dance. Wild game was plentiful in the area so getting a deer was not difficult; however, dressing, skinning, and cutting up the deer for the stew (along with all the other vegetables, grouse, etc.) was a job not for the feint of heart. Yet, everyone did this willingly; consequently, her comments about how people got along together were quite poignant. At this point Addie was asked to describe the dance.
We had live music. My brothers would play musical instruments and we would have an orchestra and that is what we danced to. The dance would last quite awhile (all night) and then the ladies would announce that the mulligan was ready and the people would line up to get served.(In an orderly fashion) They would bring empty tin cans to eat out of. (Irwin)
What impressed the interviewer was in describing the dance how orderly the dancers were. There was a comment about respect and was emphasized in what Addie had said: people cared about each other and they didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Again, though the specifics of the dance are vague, what Addie remembers is the feeling of community, everyone being a part of this event that was apparent in the town of Gateway. At this point, Addie explained another fond remembrance of the dance.
The dance lasted all evening and into the next day. I would start to dance at a quarter of 7 PM and wouldn’t get home until 7 the next morning and I would not miss one dance. My mom would say I don’t care how tired you are you are still going to Sunday School. . . . . We went to the Baptist church, and it was held in the schoolhouse and people from Eureka and all over came. I never counted how many people attended, but all the pews were full. The school was fairly large so there must have been a large congregation. Around 50 people. (Irwin)
What can be determined from Addie’s comments about the dance is that when people gather sometimes only once a year from long distances they made sure that it lasted until exhaustion prevailed. What is also interesting is that once Sunday came, life returned to normal, though probably much slower. In this case, most attended the Baptist church in the schoolhouse. (A photo of the schoolhouse accompanies Addie’s first and second interviews.)Â When I left Addie after the third interview on July 20th, 2001, she thanked me for visiting with her and then commented that she just loved people. From her description of life in Gateway and the famed Mulligan Dance, this comment was an understatement. So at this point in the oral history process it is time for reflection.
A cognitive analysis of the conversation with Addie Irwin is at once heart-warming and perplexing. From the beginning of the interview, the purpose was to find out more about the lost town of Gateway. The conversation was enlightening, but not so much in the historical sense. At the prime age of 102 years young, much of the people and social events of Gateway circa 1910 have long since passed the memory of time. What was revealing is the genuine friendliness and sense of community that existed in the thriving little burg of Gateway, Montana. What was perplexing was that more information is needed to get a more complete historical picture of life in this Canadian border town before World War I. So now, as Michael Umphrey states, since the questions of intent and text have been answered, the last question to ask as a cognitive scientist is: did the methodology of oral interview work to find out about Gateway, Montana?
The story of the Mulligan Dance in Gateway, Montana is typical of the pitfalls of relying totally on oral history. The gaps in information are many. Yet, in a cognitive sense, the Mulligan Dance is symbolic because in trusting the memories of our elders it’s like a dance with time. It is a great exercise, it’s stimulating, it nurtures those who have gone before us by adding importance to their lives, and it leads us to further questions about our partners. the interviewee. And the longer it takes us to recall this dance, the less likely we are able to remember many of the nuisances people like to hear about. For example, who were the musicians at these dances, or who was the Baptist pastor at the local church. But maybe a more important question to ask is: are there general lessons that can be learned, knowing fully that there are these gaps in information? If learning about the goodness in people, and about how people cared for one another, or how these people of the past put such an importance in community is an important lesson, then the dance with time is well worth it. It certainly was with Addie Irwin.
Michael Umphrey, “Field Notes and Local Culture”, Montana Heritage Project Field School, Libby, MT, June, 2001.
Addie Irwin Interview with David R. James, Mountain View Manor, Eureka, Montana, July 20, 2001.
E.G. Stahl, edited by Olga Johnson, “Old timer spins Vivid Story of Boom Town,” Great Falls Tribune, June 8, 1952, pgs. 10-11.
Go To Full Interview with Addie Irwin
More on Gateway from Adrian Miller
Montana Heritage Project in Eureka, Montana