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Restoration begins on historic home of Mary MacLane, notorious Butte author

Mary MacLane's childhood home in Butte
Posted at 8:40 AM, May 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-12 10:43:32-04

BUTTE — In an old room filled with fragments of vintage wallpaper and exposed beams, one man has been working for the past 20 years to restore a space that he says helps bring to life the work of Mary MacLane.

Located on Butte’s Upper west side, the historic Italianate-style building once belonged to MacLane. In its 122 years, it has seen better days and was almost lost to time until a Butte man stepped up in 2006 and rescued the home from demolition.

"It’s important that we not just sort of let evidence of what she experienced fade away," says Bill MacGregor, a retired Montana Tech professor who spent years in the home with his students studying the best way to restore the crumbling building.

"We would have lost something. Because, I mean, if you look out the window here, you can really imagine Butte at the time. There’s enough here of the little houses that she writes about, the mine yards, they’re just right here. And from her window, it brings it back."

MacLane’s life story is full of extreme lows and highs, and those experiences along with her surroundings in the rough mining town informed the 19-year-old's work.

MacLane's first novel wasn't even published under her desired name until decades after her death, and it scandalized the town and even the nation.

Mary MacLane

Her work was banned from the Butte-Silver Bow Public Library where she writes in a later novel of fond memories she spent as a child poring over books.

After her first novel was published, the money she earned from the novel gave her a ticket to big cities.

"She was part of what made Butte, Butte. We want to talk about the Copper Kings, we want to talk about Evel Knievel, we want to talk about all sorts of notorious folks. Well, for a lot of people Mary MacLane is about as notorious as they get," says MacGregor.

His vision for the MacLane home includes a space for public use that might look like a museum dedicated to the experience of women in Butte’s early days with one part of the building being dedicated to a writer’s residence program.

"The space tells the story; it is the texture of the town. I mean, I look out and I can see from this one window, I can see four different headframes," says MacGregor as he gasps.

He counts four old headframes from MacLane's perch. He calls them a little forest of iron—a description that MacLane might enjoy.

"Where can you do that?" asks MacGregor and then he offers an answer. "In a town that’s not a dead ghost town."

With help from the Butte Citizens for Preservation and grant funding from the Superfund Advisory and Redevelopment Trust Authority, or SARTA, MacGregor continues his preservation work.