Finding Common Ground at a Montana Barn Raising

The former Montana House speaker and Missoula mayor reflects on working together across differences

Daniel Kemmis April 6, 2023

My time as a state legislator in Helena, Mt., left me puzzled by what seemed a contradiction within our legislative body. On the one hand, we spent most of our time behaving like implacable enemies holding nothing in common. But on the other, the way we felt about being Montanans seemed indistinguishable on either side of the aisle—we were all proud to live in this beautiful land that we all love so much.

As I had moved into leadership positions during my last years in the House, serving as Speaker in 1983-84, I had assumed ever greater responsibility for making my party look good and theirs look bad. Yet that sense of shared affection for our shared landscapes persisted.

So it was that in the years following my legislative tenure, my reading and eventually my writing came to focus more and more sharply on two questions: What drove our politics so insistently toward polarization? And what, if anything could the shared affection for mutually inhabited landscapes do to moderate that situation? The result, eventually, was twofold: I wrote and published Community and the Politics of Place, my first book, and I decided to put its conclusions to the test by getting back into politics, now at the community level.

I spent the better part of a decade in city hall, most of it as mayor of Missoula. During that time, I pushed my communitarian investigations a bit further by writing The Good City and the Good Life. At the same time, the ideas I explored in Community and the Politics of Place continued to find an audience. The more people I talked to, the clearer it became to me that others were also drawn to the idea of transcending partisan and ideological divides by calling on the shared inhabitation of well-loved landscapes. It wasn’t that most of those people had discovered that idea for the first time in my book.  Instead, the book was one handy text for discussing something people were discovering on their own. One chapter that seemed to connect with readers told the story of a barn raising from my childhood, looking at how my family found common ground with our neighbors despite difference. 

Because the themes of Community and the Politics of Place book seemed particularly resonant in the public lands West, I devoted increasing amounts of attention to my home region, eventually moving from city hall to a regional studies institute, where I wrote This Sovereign Land. At that point, I felt no need to write any more books—until 2010, when the United States Supreme Court released its 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC. That radical overthrow of long-established campaign finance laws (including a century-old Montana prohibition of corporate contributions) stirred me to begin writing again, and it eventually brought me back to the barn-raising theme of Community.

I came to see the wound the Court had inflicted on our democracy as one among several very serious afflictions now besetting our body politic. Too much money, too much partisanship, too much gerrymandering—the list seemed endless. Yet my experience in city hall had left me convinced that, as people, we are still quite good at democracy, given the right conditions. 

So I began experimenting with the idea of opposing the damage caused by decisions like Citizens United with the healing power of citizens uniting. I wrote my latest book, Citizens Uniting to Restore Our Democracy, to emphasize the common ground of people’s stubbornly maintained and passionately held democratic principles. In those terms, the barn raising chapter of Community and the Politics of Place may be seen as the foundation on which my newer book rests. The barn raising section of that first book is excerpted below. 

Barn Raising

One night I sat in the Missoula City Council chambers and listened to the testimony on the draft comprehensive land use plan. The rural residents spoke passionately of their property rights, of their undying opposition to the urban arrogance which would presume to limit those rights in any way. The city dwellers who supported the plan spoke just as passionately of the quality of life which was so important to them and of the need they felt for some regulations to protect that quality of life against the developments which threatened it. What I did not hear was any sense of how these people’s fates were woven together, how the good life that they each wanted depended upon the others being secured in a different but equally good life.

I heard, that evening, almost no expression of that mutual stake in the shape of one another’s lives. People in this situation do not speak of what they have in common, or of how the common good might be guarded and enhanced. What they speak of is how a proposed initiative (in this case the land use plan) either enhances or threatens their individual rights. They speak in terms of the ideologies most conducive to their particular rights, and they leave the decision makers to choose between those opposing ideologies. Whichever side the decision makers opt for, the losing parties will either appeal to a higher decision maker or begin building political coalitions to reverse the dangerous trend which they see in this and similar decisions. So in most localities on most issues, the political pendulum is pushed back and forth endlessly, but the higher public good which everyone feels must be there never emerges.

In the example of the comprehensive plan, that higher public good can be spoken of, both figuratively and literally, as “common ground.” If we try to imagine the kind of thinking which would lead people, in that situation, to work for the “higher common good,” we seem them acknowledging to one another that they all want to live well on a certain, very definite part of the earth. If the hearing about the comprehensive plan? had been a genuine “public hearing,” the people from the country would have been able to hear how deeply the city residents are attached to this place, how they consistently pass up higher paying work elsewhere just to be in this place, how they want their children to be able to have the benefits of open space, of small-town neighborliness which means so much to them. And they, in turn, would have heard their rural neighbors speak of how important it was to them that their children have the experience of raising some animals, of chopping wood—some of those simple, subsistence practices that Thomas Jefferson found so important. If people could actually hear the ways in which their neighbors’ lives and hopes are rooted in this particular part of the earth that they all call home, they might be able to begin figuring out how to go about living well together here. But the oscillation between unrestrained individualism and stifling bureaucracy never seems to come to rest on that question.

For a start, we might refer again to language like that in the preamble to Montana’s constitution. It seems likely that people on both sides of that land use hearing would feel very much the same emotional response to the words, “We the people of Montana, grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of its mountains, the vastness of its rolling plains …” Here is common language, describing a relationship of diverse individuals to “common ground.” The language is not that of individual rights, but of shared gratitude, echoing of humility and hope. Such language is a start toward the articulation of common ground, but standing by itself, it can readily be dismissed as mere sentimentality.

We move a step further in the right direction by remembering Wallace Stegner’s call upon the people of the West (the “native land of hope”) to create a “society to match its scenery.” Stegner’s argument is that this can only be done by relying upon some other language and culture than that of “rugged individualism.” In calling for a renewal of the culture of cooperation, he invokes the barn building culture of the not yet forgotten days of the frontier. He thus calls to mind precisely a “language of tradition and commitment” which Westerners as a “community of memory” can still recall. Calling that culture to mind is something to celebrate, something to remember. But this should not be merely an exercise in nostalgia. At its best, such recalling can serve the same purpose as language like that of Montana’s preamble: it can help to remind us, in an active, creative way, of what we have in common.

In this spirit, I will tell a story about some men and women who have helped me understand what “cooperation” might mean. Most of us could tell different versions of this same story.

Men building a new barn for Alexander Krueger and his family in 1931. (Alexander Krueger, Wisconsin Historical Society)
Men building a new barn for Alexander Krueger and his family in 1931. (Alexander Krueger, Wisconsin Historical Society)

By the time I was eight or nine years old, the wind that blew almost ceaselessly across the high plains of eastern Montana had taken its toll on our barn. We planned to tear down the old one and from its remnants build a new barn in the swale of a dry creek bank, high enough to avoid the torrents that roared through every year or two. It never would have occurred to us, in the early 1950s, to tackle this massive job without calling on the neighbors for help.

Since my brother and I were too young to be much help to the builders, we spent most of the day down among the box elders on the creek bottom playing with the neighbor children. That day stands out in my mind, not so much for the new barn rising out of the old, but for the fact that our neighbor, Albert Volbrecht, had brought his children along. We didn’t exactly play with Albert’s children; we listened to them tell dirty stories that would have made our mother, Lilly, frying chicken up in the house, cry with rage. What fascinated me was the fact that the little Volbrecht girl was the one in the family with the best stock of stories. Her younger brothers revered her, at least on that score, for her prowess.

Though my mother did not know the exact wording of the stories the Volbrecht girl was entertaining us with, she did know the kind of language the child used under other circumstances, and she heartily disapproved. She would have done anything in her power to deny my brother and me that part of our education. But there was nothing she could do about it. The Volbrechts had to be at the barn raising, just as they had to be there when we branded calves. They were neighbors, and that was that. 

Albert’s presence loomed large on the scene no matter the situation. His hat was the biggest in the corral, his voice the loudest, his language the foulest, his intake of beer the most prodigious. His influence was pervasive. I saw my father drink a can of beer once after the last calf was branded. I was astonished to see him do such a thing, and so was my mother. The blame for my father’s indiscretion came to rest on Albert. Like his children, Albert was too fond of off-color stories for my mother’s tastes. The simplest event became colorful, wild, when Albert retold it. My mother accused him of being unable to open his mouth without storying. And Albert, for his part, delighted in watching my mother squirm at his bawdy jokes.

In another time and place, Albert and Lilly would have had nothing to do with one another. But on those Montana plains, life was still harsh enough that they had no choice. Avoiding people you did not like was not an option. Everyone was needed by everyone else in one capacity or another. If Albert and Lilly could have snubbed one another, our barn might not have been built, and neither our calves nor Albert’s branded. Lilly and Albert didn’t like each other much better at the end of the barn raising than at the beginning. But that day, and many others like it, taught them something important. They learned, whether they liked it or not, a certain tolerance for another slant on the world, another way of going at things that needed doing. They found in themselves an unsuspected capacity to accept one another. This acceptance, I believe, broadened them beyond the boundaries of their own likes and dislikes and made these personal idiosyncrasies seem less important. In addition, they learned that they could count on one another. If Albert said he would be there with a “farmhand” attachment on his tractor to lift the roof into place, he would be there with the “farmhand.” If Lilly said she would fry the chicken, she would do it whether she was in the mood that morning or not. And because Albert and Lily and the rest of our neighbors were able to count on one another, they experienced the satisfaction of accomplishing a big, tough job by working together.

The eastern Montana of my boyhood still echoed of the frontier. From Plymouth Rock onwards, Americans on the frontier had found themselves united with their neighbors in the face of an often hostile and precarious existence. Over the generations, the lessons of cooperation wove themselves into something that can only be called political education. People who had learned by repeated experience that they could count on each other, and in doing so accomplish difficult and important tasks together, were the people who eventually formed cooperatives to bring electricity to the most remote areas or to market wheat or beef out of those areas. This way of working together was still taken for granted in my childhood. When early in the 1950s the rural electric association lines marched across the hill to our farmstead, bringing us the magic of electricity, I was oblivious to the fact that generations of Alberts and Lilys learning to work together were behind this miracle.

The point here is not nostalgia. We cannot recreate the world of the frontier, even if we thought we wanted to. But there is something to be learned from the subtle but persistent process by which frontier families learned the politics of cooperation. They learned it the way almost anything worthwhile is learned—by practice. Republican theorists have always understood that citizens do not become capable of democratic self-determination by accident.

Republicans from Montesquieu to Jefferson (and we might add the populists) had recognized that the character which is required for participation in face-to-face self-government can only be instilled through repeated experiences of a very specific kind. For these democratic republicans, “…the virtuous citizen was one who understood that personal welfare is dependent on the general welfare and could be expected to act accordingly. Forming such character requires the context of practices in which the coincidence of personal concern and the common welfare can be experienced [emphasis added].”

From childhood, Albert and Lilly and their neighbors were schooled in those experiences. Because of that practical education, they could overcome many of their differences; they could recognize their need for one another and act accordingly. By contrast, the people at the comprehensive plan hearing had gone to a very different school, and they, too, acted accordingly. Their differences seemed insurmountable to them, and they seemed to see little of their mutual need for one another. The political education which had created this pessimism and isolation is exemplified by another brief story.

A group of citizens in a western town recently began making plans to initiate a major annual art and music festival. During the first summer, they wanted to hold a small one-day preview event, both to raise awareness within the community about the larger festival idea and to raise some money for next year’s festival. they settled on the idea of an old-fashioned box social, where people would be asked to bring picnic lunches, which could then be auctioned. the idea gathered momentum quickly and seemed like a nearly certain success until someone pointed out the possibility of a lawsuit. What if someone got sick from one of the lunches and filed suit? With that question, the box social was laid to rest.

How could it be that my parents and their neighbors could have box socials but we cannot? I have tried to imagine Albert suing us because my mother’s fried chicken laid him up or because he got hurt in our corral. But it is truly unimaginable. He no more had that option that we had the choice of not inviting him to help with the barn because we disapproved of the way he or his kids told stories. Most of us now do have these options, as a society we pursue them with a vengeance. We have as little as possible to do with those whose “lifestyles” make us uncomfortable. If we are injured by one of “them” (or even one of “us”), we will not lightly shrink from a lawsuit. Short of that, we readily and regularly oppose each other at public hearings, avidly pursuing our own interests and protecting our own rights with no sense of responsibility to hear or respond to the legitimate interests of those on the “other side” or to discover common ground. More and more often, the result is deadlock—and then frustration and withdrawal from all things public. Whereas the politics of cooperating gave people a robust sense of their capacity to get big, tough jobs done together, we increasingly come to the gloomy conclusion that “anybody can wreck anything,” so there is no purpose in trying anything. We have been practiced in the politics of alienation, separation, and blocked initiatives rather than in any “practices of commitment” which might “give us the strength to get up and do what needs be done.”

The kinds of values that might form the basis for a genuinely public life, then, arise out of a context which is concrete in at least two ways. It is concrete in the actual things or events—the barns and barn dances—which the practices of cooperation produce. But it is also concrete in the actual, specific places within which those practices and that cooperation take place. Clearly, the practices which shaped the behavior and the character of frontier families did not appear out of thing air; they grew out of the one thing those people had most fundamentally in common: the effort to survive in hard country. And when the effort to survive comes to rely upon shared and repeated practices like barn raising, survival itself is transformed; it becomes inhabitation. To inhabit a place is to dwell there in a practiced way, in a way which relies upon certain regular, trusted habits of behavior.

Our prevailing individualistic frame of mind has led us to forget this root sense of the concept of “inhabitation.” We take it for granted that the way we live in a place is a matter of individual choice (more or less constrained by bureaucratic regulations). We have largely lost the sense that our capacity to live well in a place might depend upon our ability to relate to neighbors (especially neighbors with a different lifestyle) on the basis of shared habits of behavior. Our loss of this sense of inhabitation is exactly parallel to our loss of the “republican” sense of what it is to be public.

In fact, no real public life is possible except among people who are engaged in the project of inhabiting a place. If there are not habituated patterns of work, play, grieving, and celebration designed to enable people to live well in a place, then those people will have at best a limited capacity for being public with one another. Conversely, when such inhibitory practices are being nurtured, the foundation for public life is also being created or maintained.

However Albert and Lilly may have differed in some of their personal values, they differed not at in their experience of winter on the high plains. For both of them alike, the prairie winter was cold and deadly, and it absolutely required a good barn. Strangely enough, that objective requirement of a good barn means that they were not free to treat their values as being purely subjective. In some things they could afford to be subjective, to be sure. Albert could value beer and salty language in a way that Lilly never would. But when it came to values like reliability, perseverance, or even a certain level of conviviality, they found themselves dealing in something more objective than we generally think of “values” as being. In fact, those people could no more do without those values than they could do without their barns, simply because they couldn’t get the barns built without the values. The shaping of their values was as much a communal response to their place as was the building of their barns.

You can purchase Community and the Politics of Place by Daniel Kemmis and his other books at the Barn Raiser Bookshop.

Daniel Kemmis

Daniel Kemmis is the former mayor of Missoula, Mont., (1990-96), and a former member (1974-84) and speaker (1983-84) of the Montana House of Representatives. He is the author of Community and the Politics of Place, This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West, and Citizens Uniting to Restore our Democracy.

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