July 18, 2019

Flashback Montana 1969

Christine Brown
Historical Specialist

The world watched in awe in July 1969 as scientists and astronauts successfully launched the Apollo 11 spacecraft, explored the moon’s surface, and safely returned to Earth. The momentous occasion was ever-present in the media and for good reason. Nine years and billions of dollars brought unprecedented advances in engineering and technology, spawned whole new industries, and gave the world technological innovations we still benefit from (and can barely live without) today.

The Eagle has landed.  Apollo 11, July 22, 1969.  U.S. National Archives

While the nation focused on the space race, in Montana advances in aerospace engineering and space exploration took a back seat and local matters dominated the state’s newspaper headlines.

Governor Forrest Anderson took office in January 1969. Back then legislators had just sixty days to decide on a lengthy docket of proposed legislation. The state desperately needed money for infrastructure and programming, and the legislature passed a 15 to 18 percent increase in the individual income tax, along with increases in property tax, corporate income taxes and fees, gas and cigarette taxes, and a doubled beer tax.

Other historic legislation lowered the voting age to nineteen, created a Constitutional Revision Commission, funded the state’s five vocational-technical colleges, and condensed 100-plus agencies into 29 departments. Legislators failed to fund public kindergarten and a prison pre-release program, and voted down the minimum wage and collective bargaining for state employees.

The year 1969 saw low unemployment in Montana, but an increasing demand for federal welfare funds as county governments tried to help the working poor and correct social and economic inequalities. Federal funds transformed Montana’s physical landscape too, as Montana cities applied for urban renewal grants to clear deteriorated buildings in their historic commercial downtowns. At the same time, developers built new shopping centers at the outskirts of town.

Teens, college students, and drugs were of rising concern. Both Helena and Missoula reported multiple teen arrests and sentencing for marijuana crimes. The University of Montana addressed the issue by inviting noted professor and LSD user Timothy Leary to the campus for a debate on drug use.

The war in Vietnam also preoccupied Montana campuses. Thirty-four students and instructors at the University of Montana turned in their draft registration cards in April, refusing to serve in the war. On October 15, thousands of Montana students participated in a national day of protest against the war. By the end of 1969, Montana had lost 204 men to the conflict in Vietnam.
Peace march in Helena
Montana’s Jeanette Rankin, at age 89, participated in the October 15 Moratorium Day activities from her adopted home in Georgia and continued to campaign for women’s rights. Almost exactly fifty years after women won the vote, 30 percent of Montana women were full-time workers. While a few more women each year rose to prominent posts, female pay in 1969 was about 40 percent less than a male’s pay for doing the same work.

In many ways Montana in 1969 was in a parallel race alongside the U.S. and Russia. Instead of rocketing to the moon, Montana was racing to keep pace with neighboring states in the never-ending quest to fund, maintain, and modernize. Just prior to July 20, U.S. President Richard Nixon declared the impending moon landing a national holiday, a day to watch and reflect on the U.S.’s scientific achievements. While many Montanans stayed home, watched television, and toasted the moon landing with glasses of champagne, Montana state offices remained open and Governor Anderson was at work. He declined NASA’s invitation to watch the moon landing from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and instead traveled to Sun River with fish and game officials to survey problem elk range areas and help set antelope quotas.
The Independent Record (Helena, Montana) 22 July 1969