Lucille Ball’s Montana Roots

BRIAN D’AMBROSIO
for Montana 55

Even today, “I Love Lucy” is syndicated all over the world and new audiences are discovering the charm of Lucy’s slapstick antics.

Before she was Lucy, Lucille Ball was the dreamy-eyed and easily frightened child of a telephone electrical lineman, Henry Ball, who worked gruelingly in Montana for several years. Putting telephones through Montana in those days was brutal, even deadly work. The state, with its mountainous territory and severe winters, called for ironclad nerves in its telephone linemen.

Indeed, Ball’s family epitomized America’s progress from the agrarian age to the era of industry, the telegraph and the telephone.

Her great-grandparents on her father’s side, Clinton and Cynthia Ball, were farmers in Fredonia, New York; in 1890, they moved to the community of Busti. The rural New York town had been the scene of early settlements in the region, where the landowners had lived in log cabins amid forests of maple and fir. The Balls made their money buying and selling property. In Busti they bought a fine, beautifully
restored farmhouse set on a hill with a road running below it to a lake. The Balls were popular and successful in Busti, enjoying their rural existence and raising several children “with stern but loving care,” according to one account.

One of their sons, Jasper, who was restless and bored with life on the farm, became excited by the idea of the invention known as the telephone. Inspired by the pioneer example of Alexander Graham Bell, he persuaded his father to finance him in establishing the first telephone exchange in Busti. This was in 1891, only one year after his parents bought the farm.

People came from nearby towns just to see him, as the younger Ball operated the primitive switchboard with great enthusiasm. According to one of Lucille Ball’s biographers, “He would gladly give the time of day to any caller who came through the board; a private conversation was quite impossible with Jasper eavesdropping, and anyone making a telephone call would only criticize Jasper if he was very daring, as Jasper would cut people off at any moment if he heard the critical words.”

Jasper married Nellie, the daughter of the well-paid superintendent of the Brooks Locomotive Works in Dunkirk, New York. The young couple was able to build a homestead rivaling Jasper father’s, which boasted one of the largest apple orchards in New York. Unfortunately, Jasper was more of an expert at running a switchboard than cleaning the flues in his house, and the property burned to the ground in 1906.

Jasper promptly built another farm, installing the electricity and telephone wires himself, and, restless and energetic, suddenly left the company in the hands of colleagues and took off for Missoula, where he started another firm, with a correspondent company in Anaconda. He and Nellie had five children; his second son, Henry, then in his late teens, shared his father’s enthusiasm for telephone work and learned the business from the ground up by acting as an electrical lineman.

Jasper, Henry and the other men had to beat their way through the teeth of blizzards, leaning hard against the sleet and pushing against the wind. Icicles suspended from their mustaches; they had to carry shovels in front of their faces to allow them to breathe. The Montana snow packed hard as marble, and at distances of mere 12 feet, the Ball team couldn’t see each other. They had to follow their course by watching the tops of telephone poles that stuck out from the snow levels. At times, linemen would be found half frozen to death. The transmission lines were conveyed over storm-blackened wilderness, following the old trapper or cow-punching routes.

There was always the danger that feet would be frozen, hands burned by the electrical current or eyes blinded by snow, but Jasper’s team was extremely resourceful. They could start a fire in a hard hat with a match, a candle and shavings, and they could make a snowshoe from willows. Sometimes, when they laid the wires on the snow, the wires were frozen solid. At times, the wind would take out miles of poles no sooner than they had been planted, and washouts, snowslides and blockades would disrupt the connections for months at a time.

Several men were assigned to each section of the telephone lines. They made their daily inspections in relays, or sometimes in shifts if there was a short section; they worked a 24-hour schedule, regardless of weather, because the slightest break due to the weather could mean a loss of business between the East Coast and West Coast, or between individual towns, that could cost thousands of dollars. Often, the team would have snow up to their waists as they struggled through drifts, with gales sweeping down on them from the hills, guided only by the sharp glittering of the wires overhead. A slip could mean a fatal 50-foot fall; touching an electrical wire that ran along the telephone cable could kill instantly.

Jasper grew weary of the work; he returned to Busti and then to Jamestown, New York, shortly before his granddaughter Lucy was born.

Henry kept to the job and his base in Anaconda, headquarters of the famous Anaconda Copper Company, which supplied much of the wire that the Ball Company used. Henry lived first at 300 Hickory St., and then at 120 West Park Ave.; both apartments were located on thoroughfares filled with the sound of clanking streetcars and the cries of street vendors. Over his shoulder was slung a coil of wire, plus climbing spurs, steel-tipped leggings used for scaling the poles. Around his waist hung 40 pounds of pliers, nippers, wrenches and other tools.

In August 1910, Henry married Desiree (DeDe) Evelyn Hunt, daughter of Frederick and Florabelle Hunt of Jamestown.

The couple had no honeymoon but left at once for Anaconda so Henry could resume work for Jasper’s company. In November 1910, DeDe became pregnant. In the tradition of the time, DeDe wanted to have her baby in her hometown, and the couple returned there briefly. After Lucy was born, on Aug. 6, 1911, Henry, DeDe and their child moved back to Anaconda, “where they took an apartment on noisy, dusty Commercial Avenue in the downtown section” (on the southwest corner of Oak Street). At least one of Ball’s biographers went so far as to blame “ugly and commercial” Anaconda as the source of the famous entertainer’s lifelong issues with chronic nervousness and anxiety.

“Lucy’s first impressions of life were of the cramped, flat, ugly little town dominated by the Anaconda Copper Company’s smoke-belching chimneys of blackened brick. The constant clanging of the streetcar was the dominant sound of her babyhood. Her mother’s tension over Henry’s dangerous work was another feature that influenced Lucy. Throughout her life, from childhood on, she was extremely tense, nervous, sensitive and vulnerable, filled with anxiety and fear.”

Because Butte was the commercial center of that region, Ball for many years believed she was born there, a conviction that led many journalists to accuse her of inventing her birthplace. A number of magazines reported that she had decided that Montana was a more romantic place to be born than New York, and thus created a fantasy of a “Western childhood.”

When Ball was 1 year old, the family moved to Wyandotte, Michigan, a few miles south of the industrial center of Detroit. The reason is unknown, but it is probable that the all-consuming Bell Company, snapping up one local telephone system after another, had consumed Jasper Ball’s struggling enterprises in its path, and was offering experienced linemen better wages in Michigan.

Wyandotte, like Anaconda and Jamestown, recently had changed from a rural town into a grim industrial center. Her father died of typhoid fever when she was 3 years old, and she later became the victim of her stepfather’s parents, who literally would chain her to a leash in the backyard.

According to one biographer, “she wrote to the Chamber of Commerce in Anaconda and Butte for informational pamphlets and then soon knew more about the towns than probably many people who actually lived there.”

When Ball went to New York in the 1920s, she began telling people she was from Montana and continued to publicly state she was from Montana for many years.

This unlikely candidate – the daughter of a lineman in Anaconda and elsewhere – would become one of the country’s most famous comedians and a television pioneer.

On April 26, 1989, she died from a ruptured aorta following open-heart surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. M55