City Desk

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May 15, 2022

 A Chinese grave marker in Butte’s Mount Moriah Cemetery (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).


In the far southwest corner of Mount Moriah Cemetery — even farther away than the space reserved for babies and infants — sit around 30 headstones.

Many look more like a trail marker than the wider counterparts that span for acres in one of Montana’s largest cemeteries. A few have a date, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, with Chinese characters.

The graves sit closer to heavy machinery and road construction located adjacent to the cemetery than they sit to the other graves, a still present reminder of the hardships, exclusion and oppression faced by Chinese immigrants who came to seek their fortunes in places like Montana.

Few descendants remain in Butte or even Montana, so instead the Mai Wah Society, a dedicated cultural and historical preservation group, take it upon themselves to perform the annual Qingming, or tomb sweeping festival. It’s a ceremony meant to welcome Spring, honor the dead and celebrate new life.

In that distant portion of the cemetery, there is a simple squat stone oven, called a “burner” where fake paper money, or “hell money,” is burned to send cash to the spirit world in the afterlife. A similar stone platform stands a few feet away now in a state of gradual, gentle decay. The Mai Wah Society hopes to invest enough to restore the stand, which still has the metal holder for incense sticks. It remains one of the oldest artifacts in Montana and in the Mountain West that commemorates the Chinese cultural impact on the state. As many as 1,000 Chinese laborers, restaurant owners, miners, and merchants called Butte home at one time.

 People throw joss, or fake money, into a funerary burner at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Butte, Montana. Burning joss is a way of honoring the dead (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).


“If you look around and see where we are, it’s a metaphor for how they were treated,” said author and historian Mark Johnson.

The annual tomb sweeping ceremony marks the beginning of Spring, when the graves are cleaned, food, wine and joss — or fake money — is offered to spirits and willow branches instead of gaudy plastic flowers are laid atop of headstones, marking new life.

“But those willows also have another purpose, they are the boundary between the dead and the living and they placate the dead,” said Pat Munday, a Mai Wah Society board member. He explained to a crowd of around 30 who gathered to clean, burn joss and fly kites, also part of the tradition.

 Brooms rest against a funerary stand that was likely constructed in the 1870s in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Butte, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).


Mount Moriah is one of the few cemeteries dotted throughout Montana to have Chinese headstones or any graves at all, said Johnson, who helped lead the ceremony in Butte on Saturday. And few cemeteries still have burners or stands, something usually reserved for places with sizable Chinese immigrants.

Though places like, for instance Bozeman and Billings, have a few headstones that are written in Chinese, those usually number less than a dozen, even in places where hundreds of Chinese may have called home — temporarily.

“They never meant to stay here permanently,” Munday said.

And it was that temporary nature that helps explain the cultural uniqueness of the size of Butte’s Chinese section, and why few may know of how many Chinese actually occupied the city at one time.

Munday explained that usually Chinese immigrants were interred for five to seven years after their death, but after that time, the bodies were exhumed, placed on the stand, while the clothes and any remaining flesh was removed. The bones were counted to ensure they were all there and then placed in a box. That box was sent back to China where it would be returned to the person’s home village where family and friends could venerate it. That, Munday explained, is why thousands of Chinese immigrants could live and even die in Butte but the headstones number only about 30.

 Willow branches rest upon a Chinese grave in Butte’s Mount Moriah Cemetery after the 2022 Qingming festival (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).


It wasn’t until after the last Chinese emperor fell in 1912 did some families decide to stay longer, marry and sink roots in America. Most of the graves, Munday said, represent the first- or second-generation of immigrants, essentially those who spent their entire lives in America.

On Saturday, extra brooms, wine and cookies were featured. Despite the chilly, rainy weather, children swept the headstones and burned joss. The cookies were crumbled around the stand. A bottle of wine was poured out around it, too, to appease the spirits and assuage any jealousy and anger.

 Judy Chadwick of Butte, Montana holds her broom that she uses once a year at the Qingming Festival, or sweeping of the tombs, at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Butte (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).


Judy Chadwick of Butte brought her handcarved, handmade broom to the ceremony again, just like she has every year for around a decade.

“It only has one job,” Chadwick said. The broom, given to her as a Mother’s Day gift, is reserved for tomb sweeping.

The Offutt family decided to bring a few screwdrivers and picks. At first father Gabriel Offutt didn’t know if they’d need them, but the tools were put to good use scraping moss and lichens off the names.

“It’s really hard with these Chinese letters,” one of four kids said as they all scraped.

“Next year, we’ll bring more tools,” Gabriel said.

 The Offutt family scrapes and cleans headstones in Butte’s Mount Moriah Cemetery (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

May 14, 2022
Photo: Ray Ueland
Story and Photo by Jim Larson

It’s official.

Ray Ueland is retired.

He made no formal announcement.

He wouldn’t even let his people throw a retirement party for him.

But, as he said in an interview in the vault in Metals Sports Bar, “I’m a totally retired individual. I don’t have any place to go, which I’m happy with.”

Well-known for his restaurants, he began that aspect of his career in 1983. He opened McDuff’s, Pancake and Steak House. Then, he said, “It was just me and whoever I could get off the street.”

He had been selling for Coca Cola, and was in and out of kitchens, bars, restaurants, and taverns, he said. When the Best Western opened, there was a space for a restaurant.

McDuff’s  was successful, but year after year he found himself working longer and longer hours, while taking home less.

At that time franchises such as Wendy’s and McDonald’s were coming on strong, and he began to look at that concept. He noted that there were good franchises and poor franchises, and the longer he weighed the pros and cons of each, “Perkins kept coming to the top.”

In 1990 Ueland turned his McDuff’s into a Perkins, and that restaurant was successful, Ueland said.

After the Butte Perkins was established came an opportunity to open up in Kalispell. 

Perkins corporate approached Ueland about opening in Kalispell, and at first he was reluctant. But the company had purchased the location already, and Ueland wasn’t keen on having  corporate stores in his backyard. He decided to go forward with the project.

“From there, I got into the growth mode,” Ueland said.

After Kalispell, he opened in Missoula with funds he obtained by selling his interest in the Kalispell restaurant to his partner there. That was in 1992

 With success in Missoula under his belt, the Butte entrepreneur opened in Helena. After that he purchased an existing Perkins in Bozeman. After Bozeman came Hamilton. “And so I had six Perkins restaurants, and they were doing great.”

The employee/partner buyouts that became a hallmark of Ueland’s began with the Kalispell sale.

Ueland attributes the success of his Missoula operation to the management team that he developed in Butte.They lay the foundation for the Missoula Perkins.

Ueland’s son-in-law was part of that transplanted management group, and he became general manager of the Missoula Perkins. Eventually, Ueland sold him the Missoula restaurant 

With those funds, Ueland opened a Perkins in Helena. As Ueland expanded, he hired a Perkins corporate executive as his regional manager.”so that I didn’t have to constantly travel to check up on all of the restaurants,” he said.

The regional manager became the manager of Ueland’s Helena Perkins, and he wanted to become an owner as well. Ueland, of course, sold the Helena property to the Helena manager.

Next came Bozeman. There, Ueland brought a combination of his Missoula and Helena management teams to get his operation underway. “The moral of my  story is that I’m developing management people within my existing restaurant, within my existing employees to advance without always having a new set of employees from managers down to dishwashers,” he said. 

The same pattern held when Ueland opened his Hamilton Perkins. By then he had a pool of assistant managers that could be promoted to general manager.

When he interviewed applicants for entry-level positions, Ueland would ask himself, “Are these potential managers?” And he would think even beyond that. He would wonder if the person might also be a future owner. 

When the time comes to sell, Ueland said that he makes sure that the price of the real estate isn’t so high that the new owner can’t make a go of it. “I love these kids. They’ve done a good job for me. So I don’t want to ding them so badly that they can’t go forward and then go out of business”

Ueland and the potential new owner sit down and discuss what would be comfortable for buyer and seller alike. “It’s not about the almighty dollar,” Ueland said. 

He solved the restaurant turnover problem by promoting from within and by offering ownership opportunities.

He bought the padlocked M & M bar and grill, turned it around and sold it to an employee. Ueland also owned the Metal Sports Bar and Grill. He sold that operation to its management team.

By the time he looked at the Metals Bank Building, Ueland had eight restaurants and the office staff to go with the operation. But things were cramped.  They were trying to run his company out of the back room of his  Butte kitchen. He was looking for office space.

By then his brother Ron had moved from Greeley, Colo. to Bozeman, and he wanted to “come home” to Butte, Ray said. He was in the ag chemical business and was looking for office space as well. 

It was Ron who first spoke to Boyd Taylor  about renting space in the Metals Bank Building. Jokingly, Taylor suggested that the Uelands  just buy the building, Ray said.

The more they talked about it, the less of a joke it became, Ray said.  

The brothers  bought the building and developed it. It includes residential condos, office space, and two restaurants. Ray hopes that the Euland’s success inspires other developers who are looking at old buildings in Uptown Butte.

Ray recently became a great grandfather, in addition to having 14 grandchildren. One of the benefits of retirement, he noted, was being able to travel to Washington, DC to visit that great grandchild.