The mine produced coal for the engines of the Milwaukee Railroad. Mike McCready’s great-grandfather helped
start the mine in 1907. Photo courtesy of Musselsheel Valley Historical Photographs
A rock legend digs deep into his family’s Montana roots.
BY BRIAN HURLBUT
Pearl Jam lead guitarist Mike McCready runs onto the stage at Big Sky’s inaugural Peak to Sky music event in August of 2019, the roaring Montana crowd on their feet. McCready, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer with Pearl Jam, and his all-star band—featuring members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters and Guns N’ Roses—rip through some of classic rock’s greatest tunes over a three-hour show, and a huge smile lights up his face. Indeed, he seems right at home. In many ways, he is.
McCready’s roots run deep in the history of the Treasure State. Though he only recently discovered Montana as a family getaway when he wasn’t on the road with Pearl Jam, McCready’s genealogical studies revealed several Montana connections on both sides of his family. From Butte to Roundup, his lineage has history in turn-of-the-century mining interests on both sides of the state, and an old family cabin still stands today outside of Pony.
For McCready, the tales associated with this history transcend time. They allow him to reconnect to his past, even more important today as he and his wife Ashley and their three children spend more and more time in Montana.
“I’m getting older,” McCready, 55, admits. “If my kids ever want to know this stuff, we’ll have it documented. If they ever have questions, I want something to show them.”
Much like learning a new song on a six-string, McCready dug in and discovered connections around nearly every corner.
Butte, Montana, was the true Wild West in the late 1800s and early 1900s as copper mining turned the city into one of the wealthiest and rowdiest places in the country. McCready’s father’s side of the family lived in Butte during its heyday, and like many residents they had deep ties to mining. His great-grandfather, John Harrison McCready, was born in Grangeville, Idaho, in 1892, and after attending Washington State College moved to Butte when the city’s population was just topping 11,000. In just 18 years, Butte’s population would peak at 100,000, and the “Richest Hill on Earth” would produce one-third of the entire world’s copper.
The elder McCready, who later operated a trucking company, married Joanna Grigg, the daughter of a prominent city doctor, and the couple had three children. Mike’s grandfather, Roy, was born in Butte in 1917, attended the Montana State School of Mines (now the Montana Technological University) and worked in the mining industry.
It was while living in Butte that Roy met a girl named Aino “Ina” Kero, whose parents owned and operated a bath house for miners, as did many of the Finnish immigrant families in the northeast area of Butte called Finntown. They met at the School of Mines when she asked him for help with a science project. Ina then transferred to the University of Montana in Missoula her sophomore year, and Roy would drive for weekend visits.
After college the couple headed further west to the Seattle area where Roy worked as an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Washington. Ina went on to teach at Perkins Preschool, where McCready went in 1970. They married and had two boys, Roy and Ron, and the younger Ron married Louise Wiepke. Michael David McCready was born in 1966.
Mike never got to meet his grandfather Roy, who died the same year Mike was born. Ina, however, died only recently in 2020 at the age of 102. She never made it back to Butte, but her father—McCready’s great grandfather— died in the house he built and lived in for his entire life.
Though Mike didn’t grow up coming to Montana, he listened to his grandmother Ina’s stories—one involving riding a donkey around town—of growing up in Butte.
In a way, Montana has been ingrained in him since he was young, but life gets in the way—especially the rock ‘n’ roll version where so much time is spent on the road. When the COVID-19 pandemic canceled a year’s worth of Pearl Jam concert dates, though, McCready and his young family lit out for the mountains.
“I want my kids to be here right now,” he says, noting that most winter days include skiing and snowboarding sessions sandwiched between online school classes. “They shred, and it makes me so proud that they get to ski here.”
Roundup, Montana, couldn’t be more different than Butte. Situated on the Musselshell River about an hour north of Billings, it’s one of those places that people say have more cows and horses than people. In the early 1900s, however, and much like Butte, mining took center stage in the area’s development. But it was coal, not copper, that miners pulled from the earth.
McCready’s great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side, Henry Fletcher, helped start the Klein coal mine outside of Roundup in 1907 after moving there from Illinois. The mine produced coal for the locomotives running the Milwaukee Railroad, and workers laid its tracks to Roundup that same year. At one point the mine had more than 500 workers, and a post office was in operation from 1909-1957. Klein’s population was about 1,500 in 1917, with another 2,000 living in Roundup, and that year the mine produced nearly 400,000 tons of coal.
The plane, a 1932 Pietenpol, was fully restored in 2007 and now sits in Roundup’s Musselshell Valley Historical Museum.
Mining was, of course, dangerous work, and Fletcher was killed in a mining accident in 1917 at age 53. He left behind a wife and two children, one of which also worked in the mine. “He was so loved by the miners that they called him Dad,” notes Louise McCready, Mike’s mother and Fletcher’s great granddaughter. “He died inspecting the mine, when a large chunk of coal fell on him.”
Henry’s son and McCready’s great- grandfather, Earl Roy Fletcher, was a shift boss at the mine, and later ran the post office. He passed away in Seattle in 1967, a year after Mike was born, leaving his wife, Emma, and two children, Doris and Alice.
Doris, McCready’s grandmother, was born inside the Klein Post Office in 1915. She was six when the family moved to Roundup, where, by all accounts, the family enjoyed good living in a picturesque, small Montana town. Doris liked to swim, fish, raise and sell rabbits, and golf—she was three-time Roundup Golf Club women’s champion in her late teens. She was considered a firecracker, always up for an adventure, and was proud to have a Red Cross life-saving insignia. In the early 1930s, Doris and her high school boyfriend, David Comstock, flew in his home- built airplane—complete with a Ford Model A engine—above Roundup and Doris took the controls for 45 minutes. The plane, a 1932 Pietenpol, was fully restored in 2007 and now sits in Roundup’s Musselshell Valley Historical Museum.
“When her parents, Earl and Emma Fletcher, found out about it, that was the end of mom’s flying career,” says Louise Wiepke McCready, Doris’ daughter.
At the same time she met her future husband, Henry Wiepke, Doris entered a contest through the then-popular Physical Culture magazine, run by media mogul Bernarr MacFadden. She was given an all-expenses paid trip to New York City for the final judging.
Doris and Henry were married in 1938, moving to California in 1948 before settling in Seattle in 1949. She passed away in 1997, but never forgot the memories she made in Montana.
Now that McCready and his family spend more time in Montana, his appreciation has grown for what his ancestors went through in those early days.
“I’m definitely not as strong as these people,” he says, smiling on the back deck of his Big Sky home, a fire roaring in the outdoor fireplace. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them.”
And his children wouldn’t be in Montana either, something that’s not lost on one of the best-known rock guitarists in the world, one who now seems right at home at his cabin in the woods.
“I think it’s critical that they can be out here in Montana at this time,” he says. “I love it. I’m so happy.”
Brian Hurlbut has lived in Montana for more than half his life and is the author of the Insider’s Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and Montana: Skiing the Last Best Place. His writing has appeared in Montana Quarterly, Montana Magazine, Big Sky Journal, Western Art and Architecture, Outside Bozeman and more. He lives in Big Sky, Montana.