Libby State Fish Hatchery – gone, but not yet forgotten
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Eugene McBride, Foreman of the Libby State Fish Hatchery in the 1960’s, finds himself waste deep in the maintenance of a holding pond gate while Assistant Foreman, Bill Thompson works from the pond wall. The wooden gates can still be seen when visiting the former hatchery site today.
(Photo courtesy of Joanne McBride)
Though overgrown with marsh life today, the former holding ponds at 385 Fish Hatchery Road in Libby speak to a rich history where millions of fish were once raised and planted into the Kootenai River Drainage area by State Hatchery personnel. (Photos by Stacy Bender)
The primary food for fish until the early 1960s was ground meat (liver or horsemeat). In 1940, the Arlee Hatchery required one worker to be a butcher and about one horse per week was slaughtered to feed the fish. Hatchery employees would also pick up liver and horsemeat from Spokane, keeping a four-month supply in a freezer building. As needed, the liver was ground into a soup-like consistency for small fish, and horsemeat was ground for the large.
When dry food pellets became available to hatcheries, the use of meat was
discontinued. Though as a child/teenager living at the Libby Hatchery in the 1960s, I can still remember the stench of the ground meat.
After pellets were introduced, friends and I were easily entertained by sneaking pellets from food buckets and watching the feeding frenzy created by throwing a small handful into ponds.
Being an employee on a hatchery required much hard physical work and more. My father, Eugene McBride, was Foreman of the Libby Hatchery from 1962 until its closure in 1970. He was responsible for recordkeeping (not his favorite thing), reporting to Helena Montana Fish and Game Headquarters (now Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks), and with the help of assistant foremen and other personnel, raising fish from egg to fry to planting size, daily feeding, planting fish across Western Montana, continuous maintenance of buildings, ponds, and grounds (during record snowfalls some years), and much more. I think he probably saved the State a small fortune, since he could fix or build almost anything.
At first, many State hatcheries were not manned year-round, but with time they became home to State personnel and their families. The Libby Hatchery included two houses for living quarters, a garage, a main office building with indoor rearing raceways, storage buildings, a shop, and a freezer building. My mother, Luella Krantz McBride, also had fantastic flower and vegetable gardens, growing some of the biggest, juiciest strawberries around.
Life on the Hatchery provided many unique experiences, including temporary room and board for young wild animals orphaned by vehicle or gun, then brought in by the local State Game Warden and kept until a zoo or preserve was found. Fawns, flying squirrels, bear cubs and raccoons were among our “pets.” Care was provided by adults, but children could observe bear cubs and raccoons through windows and were able to occasionally bottle-feed the fawns and squirrels.
My sister, Janean McBride-Rowland, lived on the Hatchery from 1962-1968 and remembers it also had its own summer “swimming pool” (one cement outdoor raceway, at most 5ft. deep). The raceway would need a rigorous annual scrubbing of the cement walls and floor with wire brushes to remove months of accumulated “fish gunk.” My sister would recruit friends for the rigorous cleaning with the promise of solar-heated pool use (though warming by the sun took forever, and cold swims were the norm). Often noted when ready for use, the count of friends who showed up to swim far outnumbered those who had helped clean.
Also in the 1960s, the Libby Police Department had used the hatchery freezer to store a human foot (still in the boot!) of an unfortunate person who somehow managed to have it severed by a train. Talk about a conversation piece! It was wrapped in several layers of plastic and could not be seen, though peeking into the large freezer room and seeing a large ball of plastic was as close as I wanted to get.
The hatchery also hosted many classes of school children. Tours and some aquatic “sex education” transpired- an actual demonstration was given on how eggs are squeezed from female fish, then mixed with sperm squeezed from male fish. The fertilized eggs were kept in tall glass jars until hatched, then moved to indoor raceways, and eventually to outdoor raceways or ponds to await planting.
In 1970, the hatchery became infected with the systemic bacterial disease furunculosis. It proved to be a highly resistant strain at the time and could not be eliminated from the waters, effectively forcing closure of the hatchery. Murray Springs Trout Hatchery was then built in Eureka in 1978, managed and operated by Montana FWP, and helped to address the need of fish for Western Montana.
The Libby Hatchery was then converted to a still-active State biology station. Since that time, the house I called home in the 1960s has become the station office building. The main office and inside hatchery building has burned down, two
raceways remain utilized for biology station studies, and the rock ponds have now been overgrown by nature.
To try and convey the contribution and impact the Libby Hatchery held during its time, 1930-1960 records show distribution of millions of fish into the Kootenai River drainage area:
There is still a great deal of history at the site to be found. State biology station personnel have tried to preserve the integrity of the remaining structures and grounds. For me, the Montana Fish and Game Libby State Fish Hatchery may now be gone but will never be forgotten. I have no doubt it brings good memories to anyone who called it home or remembers visiting before its closure.
by Joanne McBride