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Dustin Schillinger: Mining to the core

Reporter: Elkodaily

 Dustin Schillinger: Mining to the core

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BUTTE, MT – Meet Dustin Schillinger, a figurative “rare earth” individual when it comes to mining. Miners like him –people, actually – are truly few and far between on this planet. Get this straight: He’s undoubtedly, unequivocally, mining to the core. A third-generation American miner, born in Deadwood, South Dakota, he grew up in Lead, the son of a “shaft man,” Keith Schillinger, and grandson of a “drill doctor,” Don Schillinger.

Both elder Schillingers made their bones beneath the ground in the famous workings of the Homestake gold mine near Deadwood. Being around the trade from the time he could remember, it didn’t take Dustin long to follow in his namesakes’ footsteps. After his dad took a job as a superintendent with the Stillwater Mine in Nye, Montana and moved the family, Dustin got a job working underground fresh out of high school after graduating from Absarokee in 2000.

He worked there until 2008, before a multi-year stint as a federal mine inspector with the Mine Safety and Health Administration in Topeka, Kansas. He returned to mining proper at Stillwater in 2012. In 2017, he moved to Butte and married a Butte girl, Jenny, and making the move from underground to surface mining, finally convincing Montana Resources (MR) to give him a job in in 2018, where he still works as a haul truck driver. “Typically, we don’t have a lot of luck with underground guys,” said Mike McGivern, VP of Human Resources at MR, referring to the general difference in the job and its pay.

“But he kept being persistent, calling me, asking me, ‘When are you going to hire me? When are you going to give me a job?’ So finally, we said what the heck, let’s get him on board. “And he’s been great – a real positive attitude, shows up, works hard. Obviously, he’s a heck of a fighter too.

We’re lucky to have him.” Dustin is a thriving cancer survivor – actually, he kicks its ass and spits in its face daily. “The first time I was told I had six months to live was over four years ago,” Schillinger says, sounding like a punchline, but a somber reality. Not long after beginning work at MR, what he thought was an abscessed tooth, then a sinus infection, turned out to be a rare form of squamous cell carcinoma.

The aggressive tumor threatened to take his right eye, part of his nose and palate, and eventually his life. He’s beat the odds at every turn of his marathon fight and continues chemotherapy treatments to keep the cancer cells at bay. This is necessary for him to pursue his great passions outside work.

One might be inclined to add his passions “other than mining.” That would not be accurate. What Dustin loves – albeit not more than his wife and daughter – is “Mining American History.” If you don’t believe it, check his business card, emblazoned with the statement in all caps and larger font above the name of his business, Montana Ore Purchasing, named so because of his favorite Copper King, Fritz Augustus Heinze.

His social media profile descriptions might better define his passions for the layperson: “Dad of the Hardrock Sweetheart. Married to the Copper Queen Adventurer … Junker. Mining History Enthusiast.” What does this all mean? The Schillinger home, a semi-stately century-old Victorian-Craftsman style house on Butte’s Flat with a white picket fence, is also known by some as The Schillinger Museum of Radness, arguably the motherlode private collection of mining memorabilia between Butte all the way to his father’s collection in northeast Idaho. Ever since he was a boy and before he followed their footsteps into mining, Dustin first followed his father and grandfather into the business of seeking and collecting mining artifacts. “My dad has a huge collection, and my Gramps and Grandma had a secondhand store,” he explained.

“Ever since I was a little kid I was going to auctions, estate sales, yard sales.” Just like he leapt into his first job as an underground miner, it didn’t take long for Schillinger to catch the collecting bug. “Check this out,” he says, pulling a worn and torn piece of paper with his father’s handwriting from inside the canister of a century-old miner’s carbide lamp.

Written on the scrap, folded and unfolded countless times over the years, is a note written by his dad detailing how Dustin, when he was 11-years old, purchased the 1908-era lamp from a collector for $8, as well as a short history of the lamp’s previous owners. “Pretty cool.” In addition, his parents and grandparents were instrumental volunteers in establishing the Black Hills Mining Museum in Lead.

He fondly recalls as a kid spending hours alongside them as they painstakingly cataloged for the collection what most people would classify as junk. His father even applied his timbering skills as a shaft man to rehabilitating the underground tour sections of the historic mine. Upon arriving at the Schillinger residence, it doesn’t take long for a visitor to realize they are stepping into a mining history mecca.

Old ore cars, a man cage from an underground mine, a jackleg drill and other industrial artifacts are artfully placed throughout the yard and exterior spaces around the home. Once inside, every room prominently displays some example of mining or American history, from the “Danger: Bad Air” underground sign above the toilet in the bathroom to the antique Hills Brothers coffee cans and old beer signs adorning the kitchen’s cabinets and walls. The rooms he has strictly dedicated to America’s mining roots are nothing less than inspiring.

Signs from inside former mines are neatly organized and hang from floor to ceiling. Collections of dozens of unique miner’s candle holders, carbide lamps, mining tools and trinkets, historic photographs, mine advertising and safety signs, ore and mineral specimens – you name it – are everywhere. And Schillinger can tell a story about every piece.

“It’s very important to preserve this history,” he says. “Really, I see myself as a caretaker so this stuff can be passed along,” mentioning the names of a some of Montana’s prominent mining historians from whose collections he’s garnered pieces for his own. Most of his trove focuses on “Butte stuff” and from other mining districts in Montana, such as Hecla, or the Smith coal mine on the state’s eastern side.

But he also has artifacts from across the country as well. When answering a question about his love for collecting, his explanation is simple: “Really, it’s just like mining. You have to find the ore body and dig through lots of stuff until you find what you’re looking for. You literally have to mine for this shit.” And while much of his collection he’s obtained trading and buying with collectors, some of it came from deep inside old, abandoned shafts, or from rifling through the dusty contents of vacant building attics and basements. It is an exceptional body of work, which leads to the body of Schillinger himself.

Tattoos – lots of them – cover his arms and most of his visible parts, all inspired by his love for mining, Montana and industrial Americana. From the Montana vigilante “3-7-77” on the left side of his partially shaven head to a pocket watch face bearing Smith Coal’s advertising mascot “Mister Lumpy” on his right arm, Schillinger’s skin is a work of art in homage to a time when our nation and one of its great industries reigned supreme. “Being a lifelong collector of history, I figured that my tattoos would be a collection I would never have to sell,” he explained.

“I’ve always enjoyed getting them done.” Collecting and preserving its physical artifacts; physically replicating its memorabilia on himself or performing the actual tasks of a hard rock miner, Schillinger is a living, working icon to the mining trade, which he can’t say enough good about. “Mining offers tremendous opportunities, and it might be the last thing you can do at an entry level and still make a good living,” he says.

“It can be something you do your whole career, or with the money you make, it can be a stepping stone for something bigger, if you want it. “Plus, you know you’re making a product that’s important, something that’s needed. Take Butte, for example: the workers here and the copper they mined electrified America.

That’s pretty cool if you ask me.” Throughout his own mining career, Schillinger has seen and done more than most miners ever will. Platinum and palladium mining underground at Stillwater, open pit mining in Butte, inspecting underground salt and limestone mines and rock quarries in the Midwest while working with MSHA.

Then there are the places he’s seen thanks to his father, from the Homestake Mine and workings of the Black Hills to the Sunshine Mine in Idaho’s mining-famous Silver Valley. Schillinger said his father believes underground mining is the best. “He said once he’s blasted and mucked out an area, he knows he can say he was the first person on earth to be standing in that spot.” For Dustin, he has a loyalty to the open pit operations of MR because of the loyalty they showed him throughout his ongoing battle with cancer, which started when he was still in his probationary period. “That company went above and beyond, and they do that for everyone.

They take care of their own,” he said. In the end though, Schillinger says it’s the people who make mining special. “It’s the camaraderie. Your workers are your friends, they’re the same guys I want to drink a beer with.” Dustin turned 42 this August, and while he doesn’t know what next year will bring, he knows he doesn’t plan on giving up mining anytime soon. “I wouldn’t have made it through everything I have if I couldn’t stay in this industry,” he said.

At some point though, he says he’d like to buy an Oldsmobile 442 and “cruise the country.” Whenever he’s lucky enough to make that happen, one can bet he’ll have his Copper Queen adventurer riding shotgun, his favorite heavy metal blaring on the stereo and not missing any points of mining interest or many antique shops along the way.

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