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The mayor of Alberton

by Jim Elliott
| May 25, 2023 12:00 AM

I hadn’t seen Joe Hanson for a few years. Mutual friends were saying that I should get over to Alberton to see him because — you know — he’s getting up there in years. Aren’t we all, I thought. And I also thought how much more I would miss friends who die without seeing them beforehand. So, I drove over to Alberton to see Joe, the several times former mayor of the former bustling railroad town.

The story of how I met Joe is pretty remarkable, at least to me. I was campaigning for the Montana Senate and was being introduced to people by a man named Harvey who worked at Stone Container in Frenchtown.

“Now this is the Thompson Ranch,” Harvey told me as we drove up to a ranch house a little way out of Alberton. I knocked on the door and a man answered and I gave him my pitch and my brochure. The first words he spoke were tinged with an accent I knew well from the mill towns of Pennsylvania near where I was raised. I asked him if he was from Pennsylvania and he said “Haowd djou know?” I told him where I was raised and he said he was from there, too, near a little town in the Crooked Hills area in the southeast part of the state. And as if this wasn’t coincidence enough he took a closer look at my brochure looked up at me in amazement and said, “Are you Franny’s brother?”

I was, and he and his wife Betty had double-dated with my older sister and her future husband years back and miles away. That’s how I met Bob and Betty Laveille and since Joe had helped out at the ranch for many years, I met him shortly after.

When I went to see Joe this year, I drove to the back of the old Alberton Mercantile store and went in the back gate to the back door. I didn’t knock, I just opened the door and yelled, “Joe.”

“Joe’s not here,” came back an answer, in Joe’s voice.

I went into the jumble that is both Joe’s home and personality. It was a largish room with a high ceiling and a couch, a couple of chairs, and a bed with an elderly mattress on which Joe was lying under the covers, a halo of long white wispy hair and an equally wispy white beard framed his head on the pillow. When he saw me he raised himself up and we shook hands. We shook hands for such a long time I realized that we were just holding hands, we were so happy to see one another. We talked about not much and shook our heads about everything and had a great time. Joe was wearing leopard patterned fleece pajama bottoms with a plaid pajama top. Joe never was one for keeping up with fashion.

He had come to Alberton over 50 years ago and never left. He was born in Chautauqua, New York and made his living wiring sound systems for schools across America. Alberton suited him, and he settled there. People liked him, and there was a lot to like because Joe liked people and liked to help them out.

He didn’t like to see things go to waste, and he had acquired — or maybe just borrowed — a piece of land from Betty Laveille’s father, Fred Thompson, and invited people to take their old cars there. He also invited people to see if those old cars had any parts they could use. There was a transaction fee, but it wasn’t much. Joe viewed it as a recycling center. It was not a moneymaker, but Joe wasn’t a businessman, he was just a neighbor. The state got after him for running an illicit dump and “They closed the gate on it,” Joe said. “Actually, they had to put up a gate so they had one to close.”

He was friends with the travelling troubadour U. Utah Phillips and was featured on the Montana PBS program “Back Roads of Montana” a couple of times. Worth looking at, too.

“You made my day,” he said when I took my leave. Just as he had made mine.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.