On Watch

Linda Burton posting from Helena, Montana – The brisk hot wind had the flags at the State Capitol furled out full today, and Montana, the 17-foot statue atop the handsome copper dome, stood watch. From below, it’s hard to see the liberty cap Montana wears but we know it represents freedom. The literature tells us she holds three symbolic items – a shield for the United States, a laurel wreath for victory, and a torch to light the way. Governor Brian Schweitzer introduces the Capitol as the People’s House in the Montana Historical Society publication that is handed out to one and all; he calls it “a readily recognizable icon of democracy.” And the people come; to gather in solidarity or opposition, to speak their mind, to celebrate, or just to see. Washington DC-based Concerned Women for America (CWA) made a bus stop at the Capitol today, urging women of faith to register and vote in the 2012 elections. Inside, a Missoula group called the Blue Skies Campaign continued their week-long sit-in opposing coal development in eastern Montana. At the Visitor’s Desk a couple from Germany inquired about the significance of the Capitol’s copper dome; another couple stopped for directions to “the famous Russell painting.” I headed for the rotunda.

Several people in folding chairs sat in the spacious area; they faced the hallway leading to the Governor’s office. A blue sign in the shape of the state hung from the balcony; No Coal Exports in the Last Best Place, it said. Visitors mingled with occupiers, chatting about issues. “Coal from this mine will be shipped to China,” I was told by a member of the group. ”We don’t want to mess up Montana with the mining, we don’t want the long coal cars crossing the country to the port, and we don’t want China burning coal either; it’s all bad for the environment.” A sign reading United From The Ports To The Plains hung from another balcony, behind the statues of Montana’s Senator Mike Mansfield, a Democrat, (1903-2001, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989) and his wife Maureen (he would only allow his statue to be erected if hers was too).

I headed up the stairs towards the statues. Just at the top stands a bronze of Montana’s Jeanette Rankin (1880-1973), the first woman ever elected to Congress, a Republican. That was back in 1914, before women nationally had the right to vote. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement, advocating civil rights, women’s rights, and a grassroots democracy. A pacifist, she voted against the country’s entry into WWI (along with 49 others), and WWII (the only dissenting vote after the Pearl Harbor attack). A matching statue represents Montana in Statuary Hall in Washington, DC.

I continued my walk around this beautifully restored Capitol; reds and greens the dominant color scheme, murals and stained glass adding to the show, all a design to remember the past and honor those who helped to shape the Treasure State. The CWA bus was gone when I exited the building; a few tents were scattered on the Capitol lawn; a small group bearing signs promoting renewable energy over coal was just beginning a march to downtown.

Back in my room, I read more of the state’s history, interested in those who have come to the Capitol’s steps over the years, under Montana’s watch. I found some interesting photos. A huge crowd gathered on the lawn to hear President Theodore Roosevelt speak from the Capitol steps on May 27, 1903; the story goes a large St Bernard climbed up and sat beside him. Attempts were made to remove the dog but Roosevelt allowed him to stay. After his speech he toured the Capitol and received visitors. May seemed to be a month of celebrations; I read of the 1920 Maypole Pageant on the Capitol lawn, when more than 200 children from the Helena schools put on a program of drills and dancing and a crowning of the queen, brightly colored ribbons weaving around the Maypole, “a lovely affair.” The Montana Centennial Parade passed by in May 1964, celebrating 100 years since Montana became a Territory; this was part of a year-long series of events.

In September 1951, the Radio Free Europe Crusade for Freedom Motorcade stopped out front. The caravan consisted of a flatbed Ford and a Chevrolet car, equipped with public address equipment. The words Truth and Iron Curtain were part of the display on the truck, along with an image of a radio tower; Radio Free Europe was broadcasting to Soviet-held Europe at the time. Today’s Concerned Women for America bus displayed the words She’s Conservative. She’s Confident. She’s Christian. She Votes. on the side, along with a high-heeled red shoe as part of its logo; it seeks “to mobilize conservative women to change the trajectory of our nation….” Representatives from Planned Parenthood Montana showed up as well, stating “The 2012 elections should be about jobs and the economy, not on attacking our right to the best health care possible.”

My car has stopped out front too, Journey Across America emblazoned on its sides; part of the picture shows a child in front of a capitol building, learning about democracy first-hand. Montana stays on watch.